Why Trump Can’t Red-Bait His Way Out of 2020

by Benjamin Studebaker

Heading into the 2020 election cycle, the Trump administration is trying to portray the president as America’s shield against socialism. First President Trump proclaimed at the State of the Union that America “will never be a socialist country”:

More recently, he has levied sanctions on Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The administration alleges that Cuba and Nicaragua are propping up the Maduro regime in Venezuela. It hopes to use the sanctions to get them to stop, while sending a warning to external powers like Russia and China.

But where previous presidents might have referred to these Latin American countries as “rogue states”, the Trump administration prefers to draw attention to their socialist characteristics. National Security Adviser John Bolton has done this repeatedly. He says that:

the twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere

Recently, Bolton promised a group of Cuban expats in Florida that the administration would:

honor your courage .ā€‰.ā€‰. by boldly confronting the evils of socialism and communism in the hemisphere

This tough stance with left-wing Latin American countries is being marketed by the administration as evidence of its anti-socialist bona fides. Republicans have long sought to prevail at the ballot box by playing up the red menace. After losing both houses of congress and the presidency in the 1932 election, the Republicans went into a long political exile. That ended in the late 40s, when Republicans discovered they could win elections by blaming the Truman administration for “losing China” and accusing it of being riddled with Soviet agents and communist sympathizers.

Fear of electoral losses pushed Democrats to make foreign policy blunders in the Cold War to avoid looking soft on communism. By 1950, Truman had successfully pushed North Korea out of South Korea. He could have called it a day. Instead he pushed into North Korea, dragging China into the war and lengthening it by several years. Rather than be seen to have “lost South Vietnam” to the communists, Lyndon Johnson expanded the American presence in Vietnam, delaying Vietnamese unification by a number of years but failing ultimately to prevent it. Republicans were able to take advantage of these Democratic own-goals. If Democrats tried to get out of these wars, they were soft on communism. If Democrats got America embroiled in quagmires, they were incompetent leaders. It was a win-win for the GOP.

What’s more, Republicans quickly realized that associating the Democratic Party with socialism could gin up Republican support, and deployed this heavily during their fight against Medicare in the 60s, calling it “socialized medicine”:

They did this even though single payer healthcare existed in many Western European countries which were NATO allies. Indeed, the United States played a principal role in laying the foundation for universal healthcare in Europe–the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods system funnelled huge amounts of investment and fiscal aid into Western European states. The alleged “communist sympathizers” in the Truman administration calculated that the best way to prevent Western European states from becoming communist was to support them in constructing strong public services that would create and protect a wide set of economic rights. But when Democrats attempted to extend to Americans the same economic rights they had secured for Western Europeans, Republicans accused them of attempting to imitate the Soviet Union.

The GOP found this strategy so effective and so useful that it gradually expanded the list of things it would call “socialist” to include nearly anything any Democrat ever proposes. This became transparently absurd when it labelled Obamacare socialist–a policy that originated with the conservative Heritage Foundation and which Mitt Romney supported as Governor of Massachusetts. In the Obama era, conservative memes often depicted Obama as some kind of Leninist:

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This appears to have been an overreach. By applying the socialist label even to contemporary 3rd way Democrats, Republicans have diminished the label’s power. The Soviet Union has been gone for longer than I’ve been alive, and I’m 27. The word “socialism” no longer automatically connotes the Soviet bogeyman for people my age, or even for people ten years older than me. If Republicans keep telling Americans that socialism is Obamacare or Medicare-For-All, at some point Americans will start to believe them.

This is now evident in polling. In 1949, Gallup asked Americans what socialism meant to them. Last October, it asked the same question. In 1949, the most popular answer was “everything controlled by the government”. More recently, far more Americans are answering “equality” or even “medicine for all”. In August, Gallup discovered that for the first time, more Americans under age 30 have a “positive view” of socialism than capitalism. These figures are shifting over even relatively short time frames, with socialism gaining six points in net rating against capitalism over the last two years alone. Meanwhile Medicare-For-All polls extremely well, and Bernie Sanders is getting applause from the FOX audience when he promotes it.

Instead of creating opposition to Medicare-For-All, Republicans have simply detoxified the socialist label, making it possible for all sorts of left-wing policy items to enter the political mainstream. Sanders was too far left for the Democratic Party of the 1960s and 1970s, choosing to run as a third party candidate in the 70s and then as an independent in the 80s. But if the socialist label includes even third way centrists like Barack Obama, it’s impossible to use it to paint Sanders as an extremist.

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The only way to revive this line of attack is to reassociate it with some dystopian foreign red menace. But the Soviet Union is gone, and Red China makes iPhones. Today, the Trump administration is left with a handful of banana republics to sanction and demonize. Will anyone care?