President Trump and his aides plan to spend the coming months drawing a sharp contrast between his economic platform and “socialism,” hoping to preemptively taint the health care, environmental, and education agenda pushed by Democrats in Congress and Capitol Hill before the 2020 election.
One of his goals is to pull independent voters away from Democrats, attempting to paint his opponents as too extreme, according to advisers.
But some Democrats say they will argue that the “socialist” moniker is a tired campaign cliche, and they are advancing a more popular vision of inclusive capitalism that will attract more voters.
And some conservative critics of Trump say his attacks could ring hollow after he has spent two years injecting the government — and even the White House itself — into the business decisions of top U.S. companies and walling off large-scale government benefit programs from major changes.
Last Wednesday, Trump took direct credit for ensuring that an Ohio tank manufacturer was still in business, telling workers there that, “If it weren’t for me, this place would have been closed.”
On Tuesday, he attacked Facebook and Twitter, threatening them with unspecified action and accusing the firms of colluding with Democrats.
Last weekend, he berated General Motors chief executive Mary Barra during a telephone call, urging her to restart production at an Ohio factory or sell it immediately.
He has made similar threats against Harley-Davidson, while backing taxpayer-financed government-support for Foxconn and Carrier.
And when aides were preparing their recent budget plan, Trump instructed them to shield Social Security and Medicare, which provide benefits to tens of millions of Americans, from structural changes.
“President Trump is practicing more of a populist, big government version of capitalism, with heavy middle-class entitlements, opposition to free trade, and a strong push to corporate America to help him meet his job expectations,” said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who served for six years as chief economist to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
“I wouldn’t call it socialist, but it’s a populist version of capitalism that doesn’t really match pure free-market theory.”
As Republicans and Democrats prepare for the 2020 elections, with populist messages driving the campaigns, both parties have shown an openness for the government to have a freer hand in the economy and corporate decisions than was imagined several years ago.
The White House is under considerable pressure, in part because it has promised voters robust economic growth in the coming year despite numerous forecasts, even from the Federal Reserve, that the current expansion will slow considerably in the coming months.
“There’s been a role for the government in the economy for a long time,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and former director of the Congressional Budget Office. “The parties have gone back and forth over what that role should be, but this is not a president who likes a nuanced policy debate.”
Trump and aides are trying to label numerous proposals from Democrats as socialism, seizing on a controversial plan known as the Green New Deal, touted by a number of Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. This would seek to slash greenhouse-gas emissions, guarantee a job with a family-sustaining wage, provide Americans with health care and housing, and upgrade the country’s infrastructure, among other things.
Trump’s aides have referred to this plan as socialism and said they plan to continue attacking it.
“The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere,” Trump said during a Rose Garden event with Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro. “And hopefully, by the way, it’s also arrived — that twilight hour — in our great country, which is doing better than it’s ever done economically. The last thing we want in the United States is socialism.”
His comments came just hours after his top economic advisers issued their annual Economic Report of the President. Chapter 8 of this book was entitled “Markets versus Socialism” and included 40 pages listing what it describes as failed experiments in socialism, including China, Cuba and Venezuela.
White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow suggested these contrasts would be a common occurrence.
“I am putting socialism on trial,” Kudlow said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program this month. “I will convict socialism.”
He said, among other things, that the Green New Deal would cost $100 trillion and severely damage the U.S. economy, a charge many Democrats have said is preposterous and false.
There are several different government models that are often conflated with socialism. One is a style of “central planning” where government leaders play a major role in shaping how businesses are run and often offer direct support to companies. Another model is the universal access to health care provided by numerous countries in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia.
Trump’s approach to governing has proven to be a departure from the Reagan-style free-market agenda that many conservatives embraced for years. He has pushed for cuts and deregulation, but he has also repeatedly sought to use the White House bully pulpit to push companies into changing their behavior.
Leading Democrats, meanwhile, have sought to deflect Trump’s accusations of socialism while distancing themselves from the centrist embrace of capitalism that used to have broader support in the party.
Many have called for much higher taxes on the wealthy, free access to college and a broad expansion of Medicare. The party has split over whether to support the sweeping changes called for in the Green New Deal.
Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, told a questioner in Iowa that “I’m a capitalist, but I think there’s a lot we’ve got to do to make sure that capitalism is just.” He described the current U.S. economy as “an imperfect, unfair, unjust and racist capitalist economy.”
But Riedl and Holtz-Eakin said Democrats will face a difficult balancing act as the campaigns intensify. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, calls himself a socialist, and Ocasio-Cortez identifies as a “democratic socialist.”
A number of Democrats, though, are preparing to brush these criticisms aside, saying it’s just the latest in a multi-decade strategy from Republicans to paint Democrats as too far left.
“The Republicans called [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] a socialist,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “They called Harry Truman a socialist. They called Hillary Clinton a socialist. They called Barack Obama a socialist. This is their campaign tactic.”
David Weigel and Matt Viser contributed to this report.