How Democrats Should Respond to the GOP’s Red-Baiting
The “S word” is going to get a workout from now until November 2020.
“We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” President Donald Trump said in his State of the Union speech in January. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Trump’s red-baiting rant was the opening salvo in what will clearly be the Republicans’ top talking point for the upcoming election season. The man with the orange face is stoking up fears of a Red Menace. Some version of that refrain is now a standard part of his stump speeches, and is frequently invoked by his top enablers. “Over 120 congressional Democrats are supporting a socialist takeover of our health-care system,” he told a Las Vegas rally in April.
In May, Vice President Mike Pence claimed that even Joe Biden is “advocating a socialist agenda” along with other Democratic candidates vying to challenge Trump. The socialists “want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers,” warned former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka at the March CPAC conference. “This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”
House Republicans have even formed an “Anti-Socialism Caucus,” chaired by Representative Chris Steward of Utah, to “defend individual liberty & free markets and highlight the dark history of socialism.”
The right-wing-media echo chamber has adopted the same tactic, painting all Democrats with the same red brush. “It’s time to rise up and defeat the socialist left,” radio reactionary Rush Limbaugh told his listeners in February, warning that “liberalism is what led to Nazism, that liberalism is what led to the Soviet Union, that liberalism is what led to Cuba.” After Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced in February that she was redistributing her office budget in order to raise the salaries of her lowest-level staffers to $52,000, Fox News host Pete Hegseth described her action as “communism and socialism.”
The conservative National Review devoted its entire current issue to the theme, “Against Socialism,” including articles entitled “Socialism Is Not Democratic,” “Socialism as Epic Tragedy,” “Why Socialism Causes Shortages,” “Socialized Medicine Is Bad For Your Health,” “Socialism Is Bad for the Environment,” and “Socialism Destroys the Human Character.”
“We thought our Gained Cause was having vanquished domestic socialism forevermore after the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989,” warned National Review editor Rich Lowry, but now it appears that socialism in making a comeback, with Democrats calling for “sweeping aggrandizements of government power on a scale not seen in this country since the New Deal, if ever.”
For Trump and his allies, branding Democrats as socialists isn’t really about defending capitalism or rooting out subversives but simply about getting reelected. It’s a way to change the subject to deflect attention away from his own incompetence, corruption, and legal troubles—and perhaps a looming impeachment battle. For the president, the socialist label is also a form of nasty name-calling, a way to demean his opponents, like “Crooked Hillary,” “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Pocahontas” and, most recently, “Sleepy Creepy Joe.” And it is red-meat red-baiting for his hard-core base. Last year, a Gallup poll found that among Republicans, 71 percent had a positive view of capitalism and only 16 percent viewed socialism favorably.
Red-baiting has been a consistent presence in American politics since the 1917 Russian Revolution. During the first Red Scare, after World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, rounded up, jailed, or deported thousands of suspected radicals, stoking fear that they were trying to import Communism (or anarchism) to the United States. During the Depression, right-wing groups, business leaders, Republicans, and much of the press branded President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal as ultra-radical. “The New Deal is now undisguised state socialism,” pronounced Senator Simeon Fess of Ohio in 1934. A year later his GOP colleague, Representative Robert Rich of Pennsylvania, claimed that “Roosevelt is a socialist, not a Democrat.”
Beginning in the late 1940s, another wave of hysteria swept the country during the Cold War, when politicians like Martin Dies, Joseph McCarthy, and Richard Nixon engineered witch hunts to identify and blacklist progressives and radicals in government, schools and universities, Hollywood, labor unions, and the media, alleging that Communists were infiltrating key institutions in order to undermine the American way of life. (McCarthy’s top witch-hunting assistant was Roy Cohn, who would later become Trump’s attorney and political mentor.) Anyone who questioned the nuclear-arms race, supported racial integration, or called for higher taxes on the rich could be branded an anti-American Communist. Not even Martin Luther King Jr. was immune. In the 1960s, segregationists and right-wing groups erected billboards around the country vilifying him as a Communist. The Cold War red-baiters didn’t make distinctions between socialism and communism, even though American socialists opposed the totalitarian governments of the Soviet Union, China, and their satellites.
The red-baiting right never went on hiatus, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, however, the right’s war on socialism went on steroids. Obama’s opponents—the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the right-wing blogosphere, the Chamber of Commerce, and conservative media gurus like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Limbaugh—labeled anything the president proposed, including his modest health-care reforms and his efforts to restore regulations on Wall Street, as “socialism.”
In March 2009, two months after Obama took office, National Review put his picture on its cover over the headline, “Our Socialist Future.” In 2010, Stanley Kurtz, a regular contributor to conservative publications and frequent guest on Fox News, published Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism; Newt Gingrich authored To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine; and Aaron Klein hit the bookstores with The Manchurian President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists. During the 2012 election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney attacked Obama for trying to make America “far more like Europe, with a larger, more dominant, more intrusive government”—all code words for socialism. Romney pledged to “stuff it down [Obama’s] throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.”
The Republicans ratcheted up their crusade against socialism soon after the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement in September 2011 and its attack on corporate greed and the “1 percent.”
“I’m so scared of this anti–Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” Frank Luntz, an influential GOP pollster and strategist, warned the Republican Governors Association at its Florida meeting in December 2011. “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
He was right. In 2010, Gallup conducted a poll on the popularity of different economic systems, and found that 36 percent of all Americans—53 percent of Democrats—had a favorable view of socialism. The next year, the Pew Research Center poll found that 49 percent of Americans under 30 looked favorably on socialism, two percentage points higher than the share of Americans under 30 who felt that way about capitalism.
Luntz offered tips for fighting back and framing the issues that the Occupiers had raised. For example, he urged Republican politicians to avoid using the word “capitalism.”
“I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’” Luntz said. “The public still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of Wall Street, we’ve got a problem.”
Since Luntz gave that talk, however, polls have uncovered a steady increase in the willingness of Americans to give socialism a chance.
A Gallup poll conducted in August 2018 discovered that 37 percent of Americans—and 57 percent of Democrats—had a positive view of socialism. Over half (51 percent) of Americans between 18 and 29 years old shared that view.
Americans’ skepticism about capitalism has only increased since then. A Gallup poll conducted in April discovered that “Americans today are more closely divided than they were earlier in the last century when asked whether some form of socialism would be a good or bad thing for the country.” Forty-three percent of Americans believe that “some form of socialism would be a good thing for the country.”
These poll results both scared Trump and his inner circle and provided them with a tried-and-true way to lambaste his opponents.
Last fall, gearing up for his reelection battle, Trump—an exemplar of crony capitalism with a lousy credit rating (just ask Deutsche Bank)—asked his Council of Economic Advisers to write a report on the evils of socialism. They complied with a 72-page manifesto called “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” released in October. The report rambled from criticisms of tuition-free college to atrocities committed by the Soviet Union and Communist China, ideas that Trump has continued to promote as part of his war on socialism.
In reality, only a handful of elected officials describe themselves as socialists. Bernie Sanders helped give the term more credence with his impressive showing in 2016. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both members of Democratic Socialists of America, were elected to Congress last November. DSA—which surged from roughly 5,000 members three years ago to almost 60,000 now—reports that at least 60 members have been elected to office in state and local governments around the country.
But these self-identified leftists are more reformers than revolutionaries. Their proposals are akin to what most people around the world call “social democracy,” which seeks to make capitalism more humane and democratic. Their embrace of the phrase “Green New Deal” is telling.
FDR’s inner circle of advisers included a handful of socialists, and the New Deal was certainly a bold departure from the laissez-faire capitalism practiced by his predecessors, including public enterprises like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Works Progress Administration, and the Federal Theater Project. As FDR’s top economic adviser, Rexford Tugwell, wrote in his diary: “I do not think it is too much to say that…we were confronted with a choice between an orderly revolution—a peaceful and rapid departure from the past concepts—and a violent and disorderly overthrow of the whole capitalist structure.”
What Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and most DSA members want—indeed, what most Democratic candidates for president along with the Congressional Progressive Caucus are calling for—is an updated version of the New Deal. Their vision is more pragmatic than ideological. They don’t want the federal government to take over Walmart, Microsoft, or Wells Fargo. They do want to reduce the political influence of the super-rich and big corporations; increase taxes on the wealthy to help pay for expanded public services like childcare, public transit, and higher education; make it easier for workers to unionize (and, in Warren’s case, require corporations to allow workers to elect representatives to the boards of directors); reduce barriers to voting; enact background checks on gun purchases and limit the sale of military-style assault weapons; and strengthen regulations of business to require them to be more socially responsible in terms of their employees, consumers and the environment. That means a higher minimum wage, paid sick days and paid vacations, and safer workplaces. They believe that banks shouldn’t engage in reckless predatory lending. Energy corporations shouldn’t endanger the planet and public health by emitting too much pollution. Companies should be required to guarantee that consumer products (like cars and toys) are safe and that companies pay decent wages and provide safe workplaces.
Even the Democrats’ most left-wing idea—Medicare for All—doesn’t call for government ownership of hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and health-care clinics. It views the government as a provider of insurance, and setter of standards, while doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and other practitioners working for private and nonprofit organizations provide the services. (The one exception is the Veterans Administration, a government owned and run health-care system.)
The phrases “social democracy,” “democratic capitalism,” “shareholder capitalism,” or “progressive capitalism” (economist Joseph Stiglitz’s favorite) more accurately describe the evolving consensus among progressive Democrats.
Of course, this won’t stop Trump and other Republicans from pinning the socialist label on every Democratic candidate and every Democratic idea. In particular, since there’s no longer a Communist Soviet Union vying with the United States for global power, Trump wants Americans to identify socialism with President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom,” he said in his State of the Union address, “and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.”
But, according to Gallup, more Americans associate socialism with social equality than with government control over the means of production. Times have changed. Most Americans, even if they’re not socialists themselves, don’t have the same knee-jerk, vitriolic hostility to the idea that was widespread during the hysteria of the Cold War. If Americans under 50 have any image of socialism at all, it is not Russia, China, or Cuba—or Venezuela—but instead the social democracies of Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries and Holland. They know that these societies embrace universal health insurance, childcare, paid family leave and paid vacations, more equality for women, and more progressive taxes and promote less poverty, a higher standard of living for working families, better schools, free universities, a cleaner environment, higher voter turnout, stronger unions, and a much wider safety net. Sounds anti-business? Forbes ranks Sweden as the number-two country for business, with Holland ranking number four, Denmark number seven, Finland number 13, and Norway number 15. The United States ranked number 17.
Even Trump, in his own racist and xenophobic way, inadvertently complimented social democracy last year when he suggested that Norwegians would be more welcome to move to the United States than immigrants from “shithole countries” such as Haiti and African nations.
And while he doesn’t like to admit it, the real-estate empire that Trump inherited from his father, worth tens of millions of dollars, was built thanks to financing from the Federal Housing Administration. In the 1930s, Fred Trump built single-family homes for middle-class families in Queens and Brooklyn, using mortgage subsidies from the newly created FHA in order to obtain construction loans. After his real-estate business fell on hard times, he revived his firm during World War II by constructing FHA-backed housing for US naval personnel near major shipyards along the East Coast. After the war, he continued to rely on FHA financing to construct apartment buildings in New York’s outer boroughs—the US version of Europe’s “social housing.”
Perhaps Democrats should remind Trump that he is, essentially, a “son of socialism.”
In May, Gallup found that almost three-quarters (74 percent) of Democrats, almost half (49 percent) of independents, and only 19 percent of Republicans would vote for a “qualified presidential candidate who is a socialist.”
After more than half a century of Cold War hysteria and post–Cold War propaganda against socialism from the business and education establishments, the mainstream media and both political parties, the fact that almost half of Americans are willing to vote for a socialist for president is quite remarkable.
Trump is counting on the mainstream media to be a transmission belt for his red-baiting, just as the press initially gave Joe McCarthy carte blanche to rave about Communists infiltrating the State Department and the military without doing any fact-checking. If the headlines are “Trump Calls Biden a Socialist; Biden Says He’s Not,” then the media have played into the president’s hands, allowing him to frame the debate. We should hope that the media will use more accurate headlines, like “Trump Turns to Name-Calling Against Opponent.”
The day after Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory against a powerful Democratic incumbent, CBS News’s Nancy Cordes asked House minority leader Nancy Pelosi if democratic socialism is “ascendant” in the Democratic Party. Pelosi responded with a firm “no.”
It makes little sense for Pelosi and other party leaders to get defensive when Trump pins a socialist tail on the Democratic donkeys. It would be better to simply explain their vision and practical solutions for America, point out that popular ideas like land-grant colleges, Social Security, public libraries, child-labor laws, the Voting Rights Act, the minimum wage, the Clean Air Act, and Medicare were once called “socialist,” and remind voters that Trump inherited a real-estate empire built on government-backed middle-class housing, squandered his fortune through bankruptcies and mismanagement, used the White House to advance his family business, and cheated on his taxes and his wives.
Or they could take a page from FDR.
In a speech defending his New Deal goals, Roosevelt said: “A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it ‘Fascism’, sometimes ‘Communism’, sometimes ‘Regimentation’, sometimes ‘Socialism’. But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical.”
When big-business leaders and conservatives attacked him as a radical, FDR boasted: “They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred.”
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College. He is the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books) and co-editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style (forthcoming in 2020 from The New Press).
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