Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a prime propagator of Russia’s anti-Ukraine propaganda, has hysterically warned about a Democratic victory. “America would change forever,” he said in October. “This election is for all the marbles. The Senate Democrats would pack the court. They would get rid of the filibuster so they could enact all these crazy socialist … policies.” Since the election, he has cynically supported election conspiracies he knows to be false, but what’s the harm in playacting for the masses when you think Biden is one step from a socialist takeover? As Johnson put it in a recent interview: ”Bernie Sanders and AOC want to fundamentally change our country. And you can’t love something you want to fundamentally change.” He’s starting to sound like Joseph McCarthy, another Wisconsin Republican demagogue who railed against the Red Menace.
Likewise, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the Harvard-educated Trump sycophant, has been screeching about “socialism” for months. “Socialism has taken over the Democratic Party," his ads declared. “Socialism has devastated countries like Cuba and Venezuela.” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) incoherently shrieks that Biden and his colleagues are both “Marxists” and “corporatists.” These are people who think they should be entrusted with the presidency, mind you.
Why has “socialist” become Republicans’ go-to insult for middle-of-the-road Democrats? On one level, their antics are simply a carryover from President Trump’s election strategy that desperately wanted to paint Biden as Bernie Sanders’s puppet. (In the final debate, Trump seemed nonplussed when Biden disavowed Medicare-for-all and the rest of the far-left agenda. “He’s a very confused guy. He thinks he’s running against somebody else,” Biden said. "He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all of those other people because I disagreed with them.”)
Beyond imitating Trump’s ham-handed political sloganeering, Republicans’ fiery accusations of “socialism” can be seen as an effort to justify their support for a president and movement that seem increasingly divorced from reality. The Associated Press reported on Trump’s 46-minute harangue Wednesday: “Increasingly detached from reality, President Donald Trump stood before a White House lectern and delivered a 46-minute diatribe against the election results that produced a win for Democrat Joe Biden, unspooling one misstatement after another to back his baseless claim that he really won.”
Stoking fear of “socialism” is a familiar refrain from right-wing populists and wannabe authoritarians. It goes hand in hand with efforts to define who counts as a “real” American, painting the country as under siege from foreign influences — immigrants, socialists and secularists. When Republicans in high dudgeon carry on about the demise of “Western civilization” and the threat of socialism, they are tapping into a mind-set that casts anti-Trump forces as an existential threat to the United States.
As Robert P. Jones, chief executive of Public Religion Research Institute and the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” told me back in August, “references to saving or protecting ‘Western civilization’ are commonly used as a euphemism for White culture or identity by white supremacist groups. ... This language — captured also in the ‘Make America Great Again’ rhetoric — is about preserving an ideal of a White Christian America, protecting it from the changing culture and demographics in the U.S.”
The anti-socialism hysteria is the latest incarnation of a stream of propaganda that predates Trump’s election. Recall the right-wing invocation of “Flight 93” in the lead-up to the 2016 election. This was a pseudo-intellectual justification for voting for an unqualified, ignorant racist. Trump was bad, the argument went, but Hillary Clinton’s election would be far worse, so like the passengers of Flight 93, conservatives had two options: “Charge the cockpit, or die.” As the pseudonymous author of the Flight 93 essay put it: “A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
If the alternative is national destruction, then what’s the problem with a little narcissistic excess, you see? Likewise, if Biden and company are “socialists,” then any lie and any act of obstruction in defense of “real America” are justified.
All of these rhetorical strategies — hollering about national suicide or hyperventilating about “socialism” or inveighing about the downfall of Western civilization — simply amount to the right frantically searching for ways to infuriate and frighten its base. It seeks to instill an ends-justify-the-means mentality (you might have to overturn an election or two) and steer politics out of the realm of facts. The question in the years ahead will be whether some segment of the Republican Party calls out this nuttery and demands a return to rational political discourse. Right now, the hysterics have the party by the throat.