The Republican National Convention finished as it began, spewing lies, loathing, and fear itself as part of a determined strategy to jump-start Donald Trump’s fall campaign. Convention planners failed on many fronts, but they succeeded in keeping dozens of Trump children and in-laws, retainers and employees, congressional co-conspirators and prospective 2024 presidential candidates on message.
Trump returned to that changeless message at the opening of his Thursday night acceptance speech in which he imagined Democrat Joe Biden as a socialist “Trojan horse” rolling toward the White House.
“Despite all of our greatness as a nation, everything we have achieved is now endangered. This is the most important election in the history of our country. At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies, or two agendas,” Trump declared. “This election will decide whether we save the American Dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.”
That’s an absurd calculation. But no more absurd than Vice President Mike Pence’s conclusion that “Joe Biden would set America on a path of socialism and decline.” Or RNC chair Ronna McDaniel’s announcement that “Democrats have chosen to go down the road to socialism.” Or Lara Trump’s claim that “this is not just a choice between Republican and Democrat or left and right—this is an election that will decide if we keep America America, or if we head down an uncharted, frightening path towards socialism.” Or Kimberly Guilfoyle’s confident assertion that “Biden, Harris and their socialist comrades will fundamentally change this nation.”
Trump’s Republican Party has broken with its own traditions and violated most of the norms of American politics. But when it comes to conventions, Trump’s a traditionalist. Historically, conventions have framed fall campaigns, and this year’s Republican convention has done just that. It has amplified big lies about the “historic” Trump economy and managing Covid-19 and mass unemployment. It has employed “law-and-order” rhetoric with all the “we can never allow mob rule” subtlety of Spiro Agnew, while denying the reality of systemic racism. And it has talked about a presumed socialist “threat” with such certainty that you would think it was 1945 in the United Kingdom when Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party was about to be bumped out of office by the “Red Flag”–singing comrades of the old British Labour Party.
But this isn’t 1945 in the UK. The Democrats are not mounting a socialist campaign. Far from it. Joe Biden is a dyed-in-the-wool centrist with deep corporate ties. He will not govern as did Clement Attlee—the British socialist prime minister whose record of post–World War II accomplishments belies the Republican convention claim of former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley that “we know that socialism has failed everywhere.” Variations of the socialist theme—democratic socialism, social democracy, the “cooperative commonwealth” socialism of the Canadian prairie provinces, the “sewer socialism” of American cities such as Milwaukee—have often succeeded.
That was the point made by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who campaigned in 2020 as a democratic socialist. Sanders was beaten by an unapologetic centrist, and the Democratic Party will campaign this fall on a platform that eschews Sanders staples such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
During the 2020 primary campaign, it was frequently suggested that nominating Sanders would force Democrats to spend the fall countering Republican charges that socialism would ruin America. But those claims presumed that Republicans would run a reality-based campaign, which was of course naïve. “Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism,” Trump announced on the last night of the 2020 convention. “If Joe Biden doesn’t have the strength to stand up to wild-eyed Marxists like Bernie Sanders and his fellow radicals, then how is he ever going to stand up for you?”
That’s a fantasy that Trump and the Republicans will maintain through the fall.
Which brings us to the question of how Democrats should respond.
Had the party nominated Sanders, he would have been prepared, with tutorials on Denmark and FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights—“you are entitled, as an American, to decent housing, to decent health care, to a decent job, to a decent retirement”—and the confidence of someone who has been talking about democratic socialism for 60 years.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected in 2018 as a democratic socialist, is equally at ease with the term. “So when millennials talk about concepts like democratic socialism, we’re not talking about these kinds of ‘Red Scare’ boogeyman. We’re talking about countries and systems that already exist that have already been proven to be successful in the modern world,” the New York Democrat says. “We’re talking about single-payer health care that has already been successful in many different models, from Finland to Canada to the UK.”
But Sanders and AOC are not leading the party, so what of Democrats like Biden and Harris, who have never campaigned as socialists?
If they want to win, they can’t get defensive when confronted with the “S” word. If Democrats seem embarrassed or furtive, the Republicans will double down. That’s what happened in 1988 when Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis struggled with the word “liberal.”
Better to recognize that socialism is not the political “turnoff” that pundits imagine. When Gallup polled voters about it earlier this year, 76 percent of Democrats said they would back a socialist candidate, as did 45 percent of independents and 17 percent of Republicans.
Biden has options if wants to push back against the GOP’s socialist fearmongering. He could borrow a page from President Harry Truman, who during Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare disarmed critics with a history lesson. “Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years,” said Truman. “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. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”
Former US labor secretary Robert Reich proposes a commonsense argument:
If we don’t want to live in a survival-of-the-fittest society in which only the richest and most powerful can endure, government has to do three basic things: regulate corporations, provide social insurance against unforeseen hardships, and support public investments such as schools and public transportation. All of these require that we pool our resources for the common good. Regardless of whether this is called democratic socialism or enlightened capitalism, all are necessary for a decent society.
But the most compelling approach I’ve seen of late is that of Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who faces a primary challenge next week from Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III.
Markey has been in politics for the better part of 50 years, and he’s never identified as a socialist. But—and here’s where Biden and his crew can learn—he’s not afraid of the word. Recalling when he and Ocasio-Cortez introduced their Green New Deal resolution in 2019, Markey says:
The Republicans, Fox News, they called the Green New Deal when Alexandria and I introduced it “socialism.” Well, what do you call tax breaks for 100 years for the oil, for the gas, for the coal industries—the wealthiest industries in America shaking our money out of our pockets for tax breaks for them?
What I say is: Give us some of that socialism for wind, and solar, and all-electric vehicles, and plug-in hybrids and storage battery technology. And we will be looking at the fossil-fuel industry in the rear-view mirror of history.
No apologies. No defensiveness.
If Democrats start talking like Ed Markey, Donald Trump and Mike Pence won’t know what hit them.