The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A different John Kennedy but the same old red scare

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) watches Comptroller of the Currency nominee Saule Omarova testify before a Senate panel on Thursday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

It is often the case that the political discussion in the United States lacks subtlety. Sometimes, that’s a function of complexity, that political subjects are intricate and at times difficult to convey in their entirety. Often, though, it’s because blunt misrepresentations have more rhetorical power and because there’s little consequence for taking the easy, useful approach over the complicated one.

So it was that on Thursday morning, John Kennedy was seeking out communists.

Not that John Kennedy, obviously, or the late president’s son (who is not going to suddenly appear in Dallas). This was Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), whose line of questioning targeting President Biden’s nominee to run the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) was very reminiscent of what a line of questioning might have looked like when John F. Kennedy was a senator in the 1950s.

During the confirmation hearing, Kennedy began with a simple question: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Well, not that exactly. This:

“You used to be a member of a group called the Young Communists, didn’t you?” he asked Saule Omarova, a professor at Cornell University who specializes in financial regulation. That’s pertinent to the OCC gig, which includes regulation of banks.

But this isn’t where Kennedy was headed. Instead, he spent his designated time suggesting that Omarova was a communist sympathizer, beginning with that loaded question. Omarova indicated that she wasn’t sure what group he was referring to, a bit of caution that Kennedy wasn’t interested in. Kennedy, reading from handwritten notes, identified the group by name: “the Leninist Communist Young Union of the Russian Federation,” also known as the Komsomol.

The answer was that, yes, Omarova had belonged to the group — because she grew up in the Soviet Union, where membership in the group was mandatory. Kennedy pressed her on it: Had she resigned from it? Well, no, she replied, you eventually just age out of it. But, Kennedy asked, did she send them a letter of resignation? Bemused, Omarova tried again to explain that this wasn’t how it worked.

There aren’t really corollaries in the United States, but we can try to construct one. Imagine if the Cub Scouts were mandatory when you were a kid. Then, as an adult, you move to Canada, where the word “scout” has for some reason become a target of political outrage. You’re asked: Did you formally resign from the Cub Scouts? The implication is easily understood — but so might be your bafflement.

Kennedy went on to string together various comments and insinuations in an effort to bolster the idea that Omarova was sympathetic to communist ideologies, which we’ll get to in a second. But he didn’t start there because his point was not fundamentally to question her approach to regulating banks. It was, instead, to impugn her as a communist, a pejorative term that has reemerged in the past year or so as an attack line targeting Democrats.

As always, a good indicator is measuring the use of the term on Fox News. In 2016, Fox News began talking about socialists a lot, a function of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) Democratic presidential primary bid. That cropped back up in 2019 with the election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to Congress and the elevation of the debate over the scale of government spending. But then last year “communist” started appearing a lot, too, in part because former president Donald Trump was conflating the two terms to attack Joe Biden and the left.

This is an important aspect of it. For decades, America was at war with communism and communists, often literally. Multiple generations grew up seeing “communists” and their socialist economic policies as a threat to the United States. So despite the modern left not embracing the tenets of communism to any significant degree, the increase in discussion of socialism has led the right to simply fold all of that into declarations about imminent communism. It’s just more potent as an attack line, and trying to explain to people like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) that the two are not equivalent is not time well spent.

It’s safe to assume that Kennedy, who attended Oxford University during the Cold War, is aware that Soviet youth were conscripted into party organizations and that socialist views are not communist ones. But he is a politician representing a deep-red state, and he clearly understands that it’s easier to submarine a presidential nominee using old-school Red scare tactics than it is to challenge her actual belief systems one by one.

After he presented an obviously loaded summary of her beliefs and history (including that she’d attended college in the Soviet Union before coming to the United States), he again made his intent obvious.

“But — I don’t mean any disrespect,” he said, meaning disrespect: “I don’t know whether to call you professor or comrade.”

“Senator,” Omarova replied, “I’m not a communist. I do not subscribe to that ideology. I could not choose where I was born.”

She rejected some of his assertions about her past, instead offering a personal example of why she rejected communism.

“My family suffered under the communist regime. I grew up without knowing half of my family. My grandmother herself escaped death twice under the Stalin regime,” she said. “This is what’s seared in my mind. That’s who I am. I remember that history. I came to this country. I’m proud to be an American, and this is why I’m here today, senator. I’m here today because I’m ready for public service.”

It brings to mind the attacks on Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the national security official who was attacked by the right after he spoke out against Trump’s interactions with Ukraine during the former president’s first impeachment. He, too, was an immigrant from the former Soviet Union and he, too, had that used against him.

His words during the impeachment investigation mirrored Omarova’s.

“I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals and the power of freedom,” he said. “I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics.”

Kennedy and allies like the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which similarly insinuated that Omarova was a sympathizer with communism, want to keep her from serving. The determination of whether she should is precisely the point of the hearing and deserves consideration and scrutiny. But that’s a question that should be resolved with nuance and precision, not sloppy, McCarthy-era insinuations about her participation in a youth group in the 1970s.

There’s a reason that the Red scare is not considered a high point in American history.