Individual 1 and his party appear to have settled on a new theme for the upcoming 2020 elections. In keeping with Trumpian tradition, they have to come up with another boogeyman out there in the ether with which to scare the American people. In the State of the Union Address, the one he had to deliver on Nancy Pelosi’s timetable after his 35-day shutdown tantrum, Trump made a concerted effort to frighten Americans about the looming threat posed by … socialism?
The Man Who Lost the Popular Vote began this effort by talking about the crisis in Venezuela, a country that is currently collapsing thanks to a corrupt, dictatorial regime led by socialist Nicholas Maduro. Venezuela is a disaster, its people are suffering terribly, and the U.S., along with numerous other democracies, has recognized as the rightful president the country’s opposition leader Juan Guaido, head of the National Assembly. In his speech, Trump used Venezuela to pivot toward domestic politics and trotted out some potential 2020 campaign rhetoric:
Here in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country … Tonight, we resolve that America will never be a socialist country.
Let’s get one thing straight: No politician of any kind of stature, not Bernie Sanders, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is calling for America to adopt any kind of actual socialism, let alone Venezuelan-style socialism. But we know that the truth, or the lack thereof, is no bar to a man who has lied upwards of 8,000 times in two years as president.
It is worth noting that the SOTU was far from the first time the Trump White House has brought up the nonexistent menace of American socialism. Last October, Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers produced a report called “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” which sought to draw ridiculous parallels between such progressive ideas as “single-payer systems” and “high tax rates” and socialist dictatorships like Venezuela and the Soviet Union. Right! Bernie as Joe Stalin, and AOC as Chairman Mao (look, the names are only one letter different!)
As Paul Krugman pointed out, such Republican rhetoric goes back decades and includes not only the ludicrous attempt to brand Barack Obama a socialist, but also Ronald Reagan’s famous recorded message trying to scare people about what would become Medicare—you know, one of the most popular and successful programs our government has ever enacted. Reagan claimed that Medicare represented “socialized medicine,” and warned that liberalism and socialism were basically the same thing. Krugman described how Trump, like Reagan, deliberately stretched, fudged, and played with the definition of socialism to pretend that it includes policies that have nothing to do with public ownership of the means of production—the real definition of socialism:
The trick — and “trick” is the right word — involves shuttling between these utterly different meanings, and hoping that people don’t notice. You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine!
Krugman then explained the reality of the situation:
What Americans who support “socialism” actually want is what the rest of the world calls social democracy: A market economy, but with extreme hardship limited by a strong social safety net and extreme inequality limited by progressive taxation. They want us to look like Denmark or Norway, not Venezuela.
Trump probably couldn’t find any of those countries on a map, let alone actually explain the differences between the economic and political systems found in each of them. His message is simple: Democrats are socialists and socialists are bad.
That message has worked its way down the Republican food chain, as I learned firsthand during an appearance this week on Fox & Friends where I was brought in, ostensibly, to discuss Trump’s immigration policies. You might not think immigration is a topic that would lend itself to slamming Democrats as socialists, but if so, you’d as be wrong as Trump’s tangerine complexion.
My debate counterpart, Republican activist Peter Lumaj, said that Democratic policies on immigration show that they are, wait for it, “socialists” who are “no different from the socialists in Eastern Europe.” This makes so little sense I can’t even come up with something to compare it to. For those who remember the Cold War, it wasn’t exactly a piece of cake getting into an Eastern Bloc communist country. The point is that the word has gone out, and no matter what the actual topic at hand is, every Republican from Trump on down will be reading from the same script regarding Democrats and socialism.
Now, if you’re scared that this strategy is going help Trump, don’t be. AOC isn’t, for one:
"He feels like he feels himself losing on the issues. Every single policy proposal that we've adopted and presented to the American public has been overwhelmingly popular." @AOC pic.twitter.com/b8zdRuJZ6A
— Hardball (@hardball) February 6, 2019
That’s exactly right. Specifically, proposals that AOC, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders have recently put forth (AOC wants to tax dollars earned above $10 million per year at 70 percent, Warren proposed a 2 percent annual tax on assets above $50 million, rising to 3 percent on those lucky few with assets above $1 billion, and Sanders wants to reform the estate tax so that the wealthiest inheritors pay more than they do under current law, thanks to Trump) are proving to be quite popular with voters. Trump’s signature economic policy achievement, cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans, is far, far less popular—polling break even at best.
Beyond polling, if Trump’s rantings and ravings about socialism become the centerpiece of the 2020 campaign, think for a second what that would mean. It would mean talking about things like tax rates, health care, wealth inequality, and other pocketbook issues that strongly resemble the kinds of topics Democrats ran and won on across the country last November. If Donald Trump wants to have a debate over the appropriate role of government in our country’s economy and the economic lives of Americans, any Democratic nominee would be quite happy to oblige him.
For example, although he’s not running for president, Sen. Brian Schatz provided the perfect template for how Democrats can respond if Trump does indeed proceed down this path:
I’m not a socialist. But I believe that every American deserves health care. I also believe that college should be debt free, and that America must lead boldly on climate change. That doesn’t mean I want America to be Venezuela. It means I want America to be America.
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) February 8, 2019
The American people know that Republican economic policies favor the 1 percent, while Democratic policies aim to help the 99 percent. On health care, Republicans want to strip away the protections and security offered by Obamacare (and have enacted policies that have driven premiums up) while Democrats, whatever their disagreements, want to preserve and enhance those protections.
On taxes and so-called ‘fiscal responsibility,’ Republicans are, incredibly, blowing up the deficit during a long-running economic expansion—begun under President Obama and thanks to Democratic policies that stimulated our economy—by doing something as unproductive as handing billions of dollars to people at the tippy-top, and to corporations that are doing anything but providing the pay raises Trump said they would.
In summary, it looks like Mr. Popular Vote Loser is going to campaign like it’s the middle of the Cold War. This strategy is not likely to get much traction outside those who remember hiding under their desks to protect them from a nuclear attack. Let’s only hope he sticks with it right up to Election Day.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (forthcoming in May 2019).