How Trump Runs Against Socialism Without a Socialist Opponent

How Trump Runs Against Socialism Without a Socialist Opponent

The defeat of America’s best-known and highest-ranking defender of socialist principles, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, didn’t bury socialism as an issue in the November presidential election. To the contrary: President Donald Trump and other Republicans are trying to hang the socialism label on former Vice President Joe Biden, who beat Sanders for the Democratic nomination. The U.S. isn’t the only place where socialism is being newly debated amid larger conversations about rising inequality, the proper role of government and how to make sure capitalism works for average citizens.

1. Who is keeping socialism alive as an issue?

Mostly, Trump and his fellow Republicans. “This election will decide whether we save the American dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny,” Trump said in his speech accepting his party’s nomination for a second term. He’s also called Biden “a Trojan horse for socialism.” His campaign website summarizes the choice between Trump and Biden as “American vs. Socialist.” Vice President Mike Pence said electing Biden “would set America on a path of socialism and decline.” A spokesman for Trump’s campaign, Ken Farnaso, called the election “a binary decision between freedom and socialism.”

2. Is Biden a socialist?

Biden is a lifelong Democrat, unlike Sanders, who serves in the Senate as a political independent. And Biden is not affiliated with Democratic Socialists of America, a group that counts House Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan as members. One of Biden’s few recorded comments about socialism came in 2016, when he was vice president. Addressing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, he said, “We need -- not just in my country, but in other countries -- a more progressive tax code. Not confiscatory policy, not socialism, a tax code.”

3. So why is socialism still a campaign issue?

Trump warmed to the task of mocking socialism when Sanders was flying high in the Democratic primaries, and even Biden’s eventual triumph didn’t quiet that line of attack. Biden also opened the door with his efforts to work with Sanders in the name of unifying the party. The joint policy proposals that emerged sidestepped Sanders’ most sweeping ideas but did include some progressive proposals such as eliminating carbon emissions for power plants by 2035, banning for-profit charter schools and prohibiting government contracts to companies that pay less than a $15 minimum wage. In a column in the Wall Street Journal, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, a Republican, argued that Biden had “adopted the Sanders platform” and was advocating “the socialism of an all-encompassing welfare state, with virtually every need a right, and every right guaranteed by taxpayer funding.”

4. What is socialism, exactly?

In a dictionary sense, it’s an economic and political system under which the government controls major industries and decides how products and proceeds are distributed. A broader interpretation, perhaps more applicable to modern-day politics, holds that overly aggressive government intervention in the economy can amount to socialism even if companies remain nominally under private control. (Almost all countries these days have what’s called a mixed economy, with governments taking greater or lesser roles.) To critics, socialism is best defined by the history of repressive and ultimately failed regimes that claimed the term, including the USSR -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

5. What does Sanders mean by it?

How Trump Runs Against Socialism Without a Socialist Opponent

Like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, Sanders distinguishes between socialism and so-called democratic socialism as practiced in Denmark and Sweden, whose highly regulated capitalist economies provide health care, education and generous welfare systems paid for by high taxes that redistribute wealth. In a 2019 speech, Sanders said that he believes “in a democratic socialism that works for the working families of this country.” In his 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination, Sanders pitched universal health care and tuition-free college education financed by raising taxes on the rich. Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib are among the backers of a “Green New Deal” to zero out fossil fuels by 2030 and a “Medicare for All” nationalized health insurance system.

6. How does Trump use the term?

How Trump Runs Against Socialism Without a Socialist Opponent

He’s revived a conservative line of attack on Democrats that dates back generations: that the American way of life is threatened by rising socialism or by its most extreme form, communism. Trump has warned that Sanders and other like-minded Democrats would turn the U.S. into a failed state resembling Venezuela. Trump found support in Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., who warned in an op-ed column that socialism “inevitably produces stagnation, corruption and the specter of authoritarian bureaucrats maintaining power by interfering with the economy and individual lives.”

7. What do Americans think of socialism?

Among Americans older than 55, favorable views of capitalism overwhelmed favorable views of socialism, 68% to 32%, in an October 2019 Gallup poll. But in that same poll, Americans 18 to 34 in age viewed socialism more favorably than capitalism by 5 percentage points, 52% to 47%. There’s widespread support for big government programs -- Social Security payments to seniors, health coverage for the elderly and poor through Medicare and Medicaid, benefits for the unemployed and disabled -- that once were derided as socialist in nature.

8. Where else is socialism being debated?

How Trump Runs Against Socialism Without a Socialist Opponent

In France, Yellow Vest protesters agitated for more benefits paid for by the wealthy, and the government of President Emmanuel Macron blamed capitalism for fueling inequality. Atop Spain’s coalition government, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party want to fund more social spending with higher taxes on wealthy individuals. Elsewhere, some socialist movements are in decline. Germany’s Social Democrats ended 2019 more unpopular than at any time in living memory. In the U.K., the opposition Labour Party was trounced at the polls in December under an avowed socialist who proposed re-nationalizing rail, energy and water companies. And Ecuador, once associated with authoritarian socialist regimes such as those in Venezuela and Nicaragua, is moving in a new direction under President Lenin Moreno, who unexpectedly steered the country to the right after taking office, spurring violent protests that forced him to move the government out of the capital temporarily.

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