GOP scaremongering over socialism – going back to an old playbook


In his State of The Union Address, President Trump rolled out a “new” 2020 campaign theme that in actuality is a very old campaign theme that the GOP has been using in campaigns since the 1936 election — that Democrats are “socialists” (this is in response to self-described Democratic Socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

Keep in mind this is coming from the political party which has abandoned traditional Republican values and transformed itself into an authoritarian personality cult of Donald Trump, and which has openly embraced all the early warning signs of fascism. Donald Trump is a Russian asset and puppet of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accurately diagnosed, Donald Trump engages in psychological projection. Trumpism, the new American fascism is the genuine threat to America.

Franklin D. Roosevelt ran on traditional economics in 1932, the New Deal only emerged during his first term. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Socialist or “Champion of Freedom”?:

The use of such tactics to discredit those who believe in government intervention in the economy is not new, of course. Franklin Roosevelt faced similar charges when he ran for re-election in 1936. Like President Obama and those in Congress who favor government programs to put people to work and ensure that all Americans can enjoy a healthy and productive life, FDR’s New Deal — including his passage of unemployment insurance and Social Security — was attacked as “undisguised state socialism” by one senator. Others went so far as to insist that FDR was a communist, including FDR’s erstwhile colleague Al Smith, who, as one of the founders of the right-wing American Liberty League, warned in the 1936 election that “the people could either breathe the clear fresh air of America, or the foul breath of Soviet Russia.”

FDR well understood, it was the failure of the free market to provide the average American with basic economic security — in other words, a decent job at a decent wage — that got us into the crisis in the first place. Prosperity, in short, was not dependent on the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, but rather on the economic strength of the millions of men and women who make up America’s vast working and middle class. For without their purchasing power — or what he called the “fair distribution of buying power” — a strong, vibrant economy was not possible.

* * *

For Roosevelt, government intervention in the economy was not about destroying individual liberty; it was about restoring individual liberty. It was about making capitalism work in such a way as to ensure equal economic opportunity for all Americans, not just the privileged few at the top. Above all else, it was about preserving our democratic way of life at a time when anti-democratic forces were on the rise the world over.


Even the conservative Hoover Institute says FDR Saved Capitalism.

Years later, Republicans went back to their old playbook and accused Presidents Kennedy and Johnson of being socialists over the Medicare and Medicaid legislation. Paul Krugman of the New York Times writes, Trump Versus the Socialist Menace:

In 1961, America faced what conservatives considered a mortal threat: calls for a national health insurance program covering senior citizens. In an attempt to avert this awful fate, the American Medical Association launched what it called Operation Coffee Cup, a pioneering attempt at viral marketing.

Here’s how it worked: Doctors’ wives (hey, it was 1961) were asked to invite their friends over and play them a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives, in turn, were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing the menace of Medicare.

Obviously the strategy didn’t work; Medicare not only came into existence [in 1965], but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning to cut the program’s funding. But the strategy — claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism — endures.

And so it was that Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, briefly turned from his usual warnings about scary brown people to warnings about the threat from socialism.

What do Trump’s people, or conservatives in general, mean by “socialism”? The answer is, it depends.

Sometimes it means any kind of economic liberalism. Thus after the SOTU, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, lauded the Trump economy and declared that “we’re not going back to socialism” — i.e., apparently America itself was a socialist hellhole as recently as 2016. Who knew?

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! And no, this isn’t a caricature: Read the strange, smarmy report on socialism that Trump’s economists released last fall; that’s pretty much how its argument goes.

So let’s talk about what’s really on the table.

Some progressive U.S. politicians now describe themselves as socialists, and a significant number of voters, including a majority of voters under 30, say they approve of socialism. But neither the politicians nor the voters are clamoring for government seizure of the means of production. Instead, they’ve taken on board conservative rhetoric that describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, “Well, in that case I’m a socialist.”

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.

And in case you haven’t been there, the Nordic countries are not, in fact, hellholes. They have somewhat lower G.D.P. per capita than we do, but that’s largely because they take more vacations. Compared with America, they have higher life expectancy, much less poverty and significantly higher overall life satisfaction. Oh, and they have high levels of entrepreneurship — because people are more willing to take the risk of starting a business when they know that they won’t lose their health care or plunge into abject poverty if they fail.

Trump’s economists clearly had a hard time fitting the reality of Nordic societies into their anti-socialist manifesto. In some places they say that the Nordics aren’t really socialist; in others they try desperately to show that despite appearances, Danes and Swedes are suffering — for example, it’s expensive for them to operate a pickup truck. I am not making this up.

What about the slippery slope from liberalism to totalitarianism? There’s absolutely no evidence that it exists. Medicare didn’t destroy freedom. Stalinist Russia and Maoist China didn’t evolve out of social democracies. Venezuela was a corrupt petrostate long before Hugo Chávez came along. If there’s a road to serfdom, I can’t think of any nation that took it.

So scaremongering over socialism is both silly and dishonest. But will it be politically effective?

Probably not. After all, voters overwhelmingly support most of the policies proposed by American “socialists,” including higher taxes on the wealthy and making Medicare available to everyone (although they don’t support plans that would force people to give up private insurance — a warning to Democrats not to make single-payer purity a litmus test).

On the other hand, we should never discount the power of dishonesty. Right-wing media will portray whomever the Democrats nominate for president as the second coming of Leon Trotsky, and millions of people will believe them. Let’s just hope that the rest of the media report the clean little secret of American socialism, which is that it isn’t radical at all.

Perhaps we should take away from Trump’s MAGA supporters their social security, Medicare and Medicaid, VA benefits, SNAP food stamps and supplemental income, unemployment insurance, etc. — all those Democratic “socialist” programs on which they depend to survive — and see how well they like it. I suspect they would rise up in loud protest.


  1. Economist Jared Bernstein writes that Republicans “grasp for scary rhetoric because they know they’re losing the policy debate.” The real reason conservatives are suddenly freaking out about ‘socialism’,

    “The real debate is about who gets to write the rules, and Trump and the conservatives are legitimately scared that a growing group of diverse, progressive politicians, backed by a diverse base that’s fed up with its lack of political representation, is threatening to take the pen.”

    “When someone screams “socialism!,” they’re signaling they don’t want to have that debate. And it isn’t just because they’re against the downward redistribution of income and wealth. It’s also because they’re protecting its upward redistribution.”

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