The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump wants to run against socialism. That’s great for socialism.

(Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg News)

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Trump identified the chief domestic danger we face, alongside immigrants who come here to murder us all: socialism.

Here’s the key passage from his speech, for which I’ll use the White House’s transcript, though to clarify, when it says “audience” what it actually means is “Republicans in the audience”:

THE PRESIDENT:  Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country.
THE PRESIDENT:  America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control.  (Applause.) We are born free and we will stay free. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT:  Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.  (Applause.)

On the off chance that a dangerous ideology cannot be banished with sufficiently vigorous chants of “USA! USA!,” Republicans are amping up their warnings that socialism is here and ready to put its heavy boot on our necks. The fact that they’re pushing this line is not surprising, given that the Democratic Party is indeed moving left and embracing policy solutions with stronger government components than what is currently in place on issues such as health care.

The trouble is that as an insult, “Socialism!” doesn’t have the zing it once did. And that’s Republicans' own fault.

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Perhaps not entirely, I'll grant you. One reason "Socialist!" isn't the powerful insult it once was is just time: Since the Soviet Union collapsed almost three decades ago, there are a couple of generations of Americans who have no memory of the Cold War. For them, socialism is not synonymous with communism, which anyway is just something they learned about in history class. They don't view it as the ideology of our enemies.

But more importantly, in the time since, Republicans have attacked almost anything Democrats wanted to do as socialism. Modest tax increases on the wealthy? Socialism! Regulations to lower carbon emissions and reduce the risk of climate catastrophe? Socialism! Health-care reform built on maintaining private insurance but with stronger protections for consumers? Socialism!

After hearing that for so long, a lot of young people in particular seem to have concluded that “socialism” means little more than “policies that are more liberal than the Republican Party would prefer.” In other words, they’ve accepted the Republican view of what socialism is.

You can see it in polls like this one from Gallup, showing that among people younger than 30, 51 percent have a positive view of socialism while only 45 percent have a positive view of capitalism. They have little actual experience with socialism, but if you’re saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, you’re working at a job with mediocre wages and few benefits, and you can’t see how you could ever afford to buy a home, capitalism may not be looking so hot.

Lately Republicans have been working hard to convince people of this syllogism: Democrats are a bunch of socialists; Venezuela is socialist; therefore anything Democrats suggest will inevitably turn us into an economic disaster like Venezuela. Besides being completely asinine (ask economists whether we're in danger of seeing U.S. inflation reach 1 million percent any time soon), the argument relies on the broad public reacting with the same horror Republicans do when they hear suggestions like a wealth tax or universal health care.

But they don't, in part because when they hear the word "socialist," Americans are more likely to think of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Joseph Stalin or Fidel Castro. In other words, someone who admires the social democratic systems they have in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, and would like to see something similar here: a capitalist economy, but one that isn't structured so much to benefit the wealthiest elite and includes a stronger system of social supports. Which isn't nearly as terrifying.

If Trump decides to run against socialism in 2020, he’ll be repeating what Republicans did over the past few decades, except condensed into the space of a year or so. The policies he’ll be describing as socialist, such as higher taxes for the wealthy and giving more people health coverage, already have wide support, and with his own low approval ratings he’s unlikely to persuade people to change their views on those policies. Instead of destroying the Democratic nominee by pinning on her a label that everyone agrees is horrific, he’s much more likely to make socialism more popular than ever.

Which is why actual socialists — or democratic socialists, who are almost certainly far greater in number in the United States right now than the pure variety — should be more than happy to see Trump wage a war on socialism. It’s the best advertisement they can get.

Read more:

Elizabeth Bruenig: It’s time to give socialism a try

Elizabeth Bruenig: Let’s have a good-faith argument about socialism

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Congrats, comrades, on shaking Democrats up the right way

Ed Rogers: Democrats’ frightening embrace of socialism

Ed Rogers: Democratic socialists can’t hide their shallowness

Charles Lane: Bernie Sanders’s first step to democratic socialism? Privatizing it.