WASHINGTON ― As President Donald Trump ramps up his accusations that Democrats want to turn this country into Venezuela, he may soon find that his party’s attacks along those lines over the past nine decades have left him the boy who cried socialism.
From Social Security to labor laws to housing discrimination legislation to the Affordable Care Act, the GOP has been accusing Democrats from Franklin Roosevelt through Barack Obama of being socialists ― 87 years of “Red Scare.”
“This socialism fearmongering smells like desperation,” said Jared Bernstein, once the top economist for former Vice President Joe Biden. “Does it work anymore? I don’t think so.”
Trump, nevertheless, has made it a centerpiece of why he should be re-elected next year, bringing it up at seemingly every opportunity.
In his State of the Union speech on Feb. 5, Trump vowed from the dais of the House chambers: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” A month later, during a two-hour, Fidel Castro-style speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism.” Even in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, beside Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, Trump managed to squeeze in a warning: “The last thing we want in the United States is socialism.”
Bernstein said that Trump, with his admiration for dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, had little room to compare Democrats to Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro ― particularly after Trump’s repeated commands to private businesses to take a particular action.
In Lima, Ohio, on Wednesday, for example, Trump demanded that General Motors reopen a nearby car factory: “Get that plant open or sell it to somebody and they’ll open it! Everybody wants it. Sell it to somebody or open it yourselves!”
“Those words would have been very comfortable to Maduro and other authoritarians,” Bernstein said. “Maybe Reagan had some credibility in this space, but Trump has none.”
Nine Decades Of ‘Red Scare’
Republicans argue that Democrats have brought the attacks on themselves. “Free college, a universal wage, free health care and free everything else is defining the platform right now,” said Rory Cooper, once a top aide to former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “I know the difference between ‘democratic socialism’ and ‘socialism socialism,’ but it’s Democrats under the guise of capturing Bernie Sanders’ support without supporting Bernie Sanders that are playing footsie with the ideology.”
Sanders, a Vermont independent senator who caucuses with Democrats, in the 1970s actually espoused positions better described by “socialism socialism” ― such as government ownership of vast swaths of the economy, including utilities and banks. Four decades later, he advocates a much-expanded social safety net akin to what is found in northern Europe. “What democratic socialism means to me is having, in a civilized society, the understanding that we can make sure that all of our people live in security and in dignity,” he said at a CNN town hall last month.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose policies are also called “socialist” by Republicans, has specifically said she rejects that label, but does believe that capitalism and free markets need strong regulations to protect consumers and the public interest generally. “I believe in capitalism,” Warren said in a January interview with Bloomberg. “I see the wealth that can be produced. But let’s be really clear: Capitalism without rules is theft.”
Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.President Harry Truman, 1952
Democrats have been defending against charges of socialism since not long after the Russian Revolution installed actual socialists into power in 1917. Republicans began labeling Democratic programs and policies “socialist” in earnest with Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal in the 1932 election. Those attacks ramped up after the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union, with its goal of spreading communism, was seen as the nation’s greatest threat.
Even in those years, though, it is unclear how effective the attacks were. A Gallup poll conducted in February 1950, for example, asked about Republican accusations that Democrats were “going socialistic.” Thirty-six percent of respondents agreed with Democrats, that they were not socialists, while 24 percent agreed with Republicans.
Two years later, as President Harry Truman campaigned to help Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson, he reminded voters that Republicans had been accusing his party of socialism for more than two decades.
“Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years. Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance,” Truman said in Syracuse during a whistle-stop tour across New York state. “Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”
Republicans, nevertheless, continued the attacks through and even beyond the Cold War.
In 1961, then-actor Ronald Reagan cut an 11-minute record warning against legislation that would be eventually be known as Medicare, calling it a path to socialism. (But as president in the 1980s, he did not try to repeal it.) Congressional Republicans called Obama’s Affordable Care Act socialist ― even though the concept of subsidizing private insurance policies was first written by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
From Russia To Venezuela
Yet as the Republican “Red Scare” strategy approaches its first centennial, polling suggests that it may be losing its effectiveness with younger Americans.
In a Fox News survey last month, the word “socialism” was viewed unfavorably by 69 percent of respondents older than 45, but only 47 percent of those aged 45 and younger. (It was viewed favorably by 19 percent and 32 percent, respectively.)
Rick Tyler, a GOP consultant who worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, agrees that the distinctions between actual socialism, as was attempted in Venezuela, and a more expansive welfare state, as seen in much of Europe, are lost in the current debate.
Despite this, he said, and so long as the economy remains strong, the attack line could remain effective. “I think it’s a pretty good boogeyman for Donald Trump,” Tyler said. “If Democrats are going to embrace a candidate who’s going to talk about the virtues of what’s perceived as socialism, that’s a dead loser.”
Of course, trotting out threats of Venezuelan-style socialism in his own re-election campaign will not be much of a stretch for Trump. He was doing it all autumn heading into the midterm elections.
“The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela,” Trump wrote in an Oct. 10 USA Today op-ed. Nine days later, he told a Missoula, Montana, rally audience: “Nancy Pelosi, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, and the radical Democrats want to raise your taxes and impose socialism on our incredible nation ― make it into Venezuela ― because that is what will happen.”
Two weeks later, California Democrat Pelosi retook control of the House after picking up 40 seats, and New York Democrat Schumer held Senate losses to two, even though Republicans enjoyed the most favorable map in decades.
Among the Republican Senate candidates who lost: Matt Rosendale, the state auditor for whom Trump made repeated trips to Montana, including that Oct. 19 rally in Missoula.