Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Selma (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Revives Old Battle Cry Against 2020 Democrats: Socialism

(Bloomberg) -- Staying true to his brand of nostalgic nationalism, President Donald Trump is reviving a conservative line of attack on Democrats that dates back generations — socialism is on the march.

Trump’s dire warnings that the U.S. risks sinking into the chaos that’s engulfed Venezuela if Democrats have their way has been amplified by Republicans in Congress and their allies, as the GOP attempts to reverse its losses in the House and hold the Senate and White House in 2020.

The Republicans have ready foils in Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two stars on the left who have described themselves as democratic socialists in the mold of Scandinavia. While most Democratic presidential contenders reject the label, Republicans are plastering it on sweeping proposals embraced by many 2020 hopefuls, such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for all and debt-free college education.

“It’s one of the most effective messages we have,” said Matt Gorman, a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns who worked for the party’s House election arm in 2018. “I can see these debates fomenting on the left, and Republicans are sitting back, giddy.”

Familiar Ring

Trump’s rhetoric has a familiar ring for many older voters who lived through the alarms about rising socialism or communism in the second half of the 20th century. It adds new flavors to his cocktail of nostalgia for the 1950s and encompasses his calls for reviving coal mines, bringing back manufacturing jobs, and tariffs to protect Americans from trade.

The messaging fight goes to the heart of the 2020 election. Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, harkens back to that time. Yet polls show that voters generally support some of the liberal social programs promoted by Democrats even if they reject the label that conservatives attach to them.

Democrats dismiss Trump’s attacks as desperate, and point out that now-popular programs like Social Security and Medicare were also derided by Republicans as a slippery slope to socialism.

Trump Revives Old Battle Cry Against 2020 Democrats: Socialism

“It’s socialism! It’s Marxism! It’s the Bolsheviks!” said No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, mocking Trump’s rhetoric. “We’re not going to ban socialist policies like Social Security — or is that Socialist Security? What do the Republicans call it?”

He said the president is “in campaign mode” and “I just expect a lot of this to be thrown over the transom.”

Saikat Chakrabarti, the chief of staff for Ocasio-Cortez, said the labeling shows the GOP doesn’t have a good counter-argument.

“When Republicans have no attack to make, they just start calling everything socialist. They called Medicare socialist. They called Social Security socialist,” Chakrabarti said on Bloomberg Television. “It’s probably a good sign, I mean both those things worked out well so maybe they should keep calling everything socialist.”

Trump is ready to oblige.

“Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism. They want to replace individual rights with total government domination,” Trump said last Saturday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. “Socialism is about only one thing — it’s called power for the ruling class. That’s what it is. Look at what’s happening in Venezuela and so many other places.”

He called Medicare for all “a socialist takeover of American health care” that’ll force steep tax hikes and disrupt American society.

Dire Predictions

In the 1930s, numerous GOP congressmen predicted that Social Security would lead to ruin. Daniel Reed of New York warned that “the lash of the dictator will be felt.” And John Taber, also of New York, said the program was “so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers,” according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s book “The Coming of the New Deal.”

In 1961, Ronald Reagan taped an 11-minute radio message calling the emerging Medicare bill “socialized medicine,” which would amount to “a short step to all the rest of socialism” and “invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country.”

Public Support

Today, Americans say the two programs are worth the cost. A Pew Research Center poll in April 2017 found that just 3 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans want to reduce spending on Social Security. The survey found that 5 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans want to spend less on Medicare.

Among the dozen Democrats so far in the 2020 field, only Sanders calls himself a socialist. Others like California Senator Kamala Harris and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts reject the term, saying they believe in capitalism but with rules to protect the working class.

“Oftentimes it is the name socialism and that evocation of totalitarianism, 1984, Soviet Union that really puts Americans off,” said Daniel Pout, an instructor of politics and global studies at Arizona State University.

He said proposals by Democratic candidates to lift the minimum wage and guarantee health care and other benefits “are not quite socialist — they are are more welfare liberal type policies that are common in all western democracies.”

Trump himself has embraced state activism as a way to protect U.S. companies from foreign trade and a program to dole out subsidies to farmers hurt by his trade war with China.

“Trump supporters for example are also asking for some sort of social safety net,” Pout said. The line between that and what Democrats want “gets sort of thin when we compare those economic policies,” he added.

A Gallup poll in August 2018 found that 57 percent of Democrats have a positive view of socialism while 47 percent have a positive view of capitalism. Among Republicans, 71 percent view capitalism positively while just 16 percent view socialism favorably.

The shift is generational. Americans aged 18-29, who are struggling with student loans and wage stagnation, view socialism more favorably than capitalism by 6 percentage points. To them, the term evokes liberal democracies like Sweden and Denmark that guarantee health care and paid leave.

Yet to Americans over 65, favorable views of capitalism overwhelm that of socialism, 60 percent to 28 percent.

Democrats said that the party’s 2010 effort to pass the Affordable Care Act sparked similar cries of socialism and intrusive government. Eight years later, the GOP’s attempt to repeal its protections failed and contributed to their loss of the House in the November elections.

“It bounces off people’s heads,” Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster and strategist who has worked for President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, said of Trump painting Democrats as socialists. “He’s going to lob his hand grenades and his stereotypical nonsense.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.