If you’d tuned in to the first night of the 2020 Republican National Convention (RNC) without any broader political context, no one could blame you for believing that the United States is facing the scourge of a terrorizing foreign threat, and that this threat is called “socialism.” Of course, you’d be mistaken, alongside a host of RNC speakers.
But that false narrative undergirds the GOP’s playbook this election, as the party has chosen to forgo writing an actual platform and instead simply run Donald Trump — a historically unpopular president — against a made-up menace, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden serving, simply, as its figurehead.
Yet, by using “socialism” as a stand-in for anything they deem anti-American, Republicans are obscuring the fact that many of the policies associated with contemporary socialism are actually very popular among the voting public. And Biden, a lifelong moderate, has consistently made clear that he — unlike his former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — is about as far as you can get from an avowed socialist within the Democratic coalition.
Still, even with Sanders out of the race, the GOP has apparently decided to go full steam ahead with its red-baiting line of attack.
Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the UN and two-term governor of South Carolina, said during the convention of Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.): “Their vision for America is socialism. And we know that socialism has failed everywhere,” adding that, “Joe Biden and the socialist Left would be a disaster for our economy.”
Kimberly Guilfoyle, national chair of the Trump Victory Finance Committee, said that “Biden, Harris and their socialist comrades will fundamentally change this nation. … This election is a battle for the soul of America. Your choice is clear.”
The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile alleged that, “Joe Biden and the radical Left are also now coming for our freedom of speech and want to bully us into submission.”
And Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), perhaps in a slight linguistic slip, claimed of the Democrats: “If we let them, they will turn our country into a socialist utopia.”
Utopianism aside, these warnings had the clear intention of scaring voters into supporting the GOP ticket as a means of protecting the moral fabric of America, using “socialism” as a signifier of the putative peril facing the nation if Republicans lose in November.
In the vision put forward by the U.S. Right, this peril wouldn’t just be economic, or political — but existential. In late June, the wealthy couple Patricia and Mark McCloskey brandished guns outside their St. Louis home at demonstrators who were protesting police killings of Black Americans, claiming that the peaceful protesters put them “in fear for our lives.” Chosen by the ringleaders of the RNC to speak to the nation, Patricia asserted on Monday that Democrats “want to abolish the suburbs altogether” — echoing a similar charge made in July by President Trump.
Never mind the fact that the McCloskeys don’t actually live in the suburbs, but rather in a “Renaissance palazzo” — a massive mansion set on a private street within the city of St. Louis. Their message was clear: Democrats are coming to upend the American Way of Life.
The problem is that the American Way of Life has already been upended, beginning in earnest this March when the Trump administration allowed a deadly pandemic to sprawl across the country at full clip, causing businesses to close, communities to shelter-in-place, and inaugurating the “new normal” that we’re currently living in, which shows no end in sight.
The results have been catastrophic. There are currently nearly 6 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States and more than 170,000 Americans have died — by far the highest numbers in the world. The economy has entered a recession. Nearly 30 million people are out of work, lifting unemployment into the double digits. More than one million small businesses have already closed due to the pandemic, and many more could soon follow. Hunger and suicides, especially among young people, are both on the rise. And as the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin shows, racist police brutality continues to torment communities of color.
Even for those not living on the brink, life has been unquestionably changed. School districts across the country are not reopening in person this fall due to the threat of the virus, causing parents to continue overseeing their children at home while they attempt to learn remotely. Working from home is leading to longer workdays and more stress. Previous sites of refuge from the pressures of daily life — concert halls, theaters, bars and many restaurants — remain shuttered. Plus, any type of social behavior with people living outside of your household has been discouraged, leading to more isolation and atomization.
In short, life for most Americans has gotten worse over the past 6 months, and it’s in large part due to the inept response of the Trump administration which never took the virus seriously, and instead has attempted to force an ill-fated “reopening” of the economy, which, in turn, has caused more needless death and economic devastation. Just look around to the many other countries that dealt with an outbreak of the virus but are now — unlike the United States — returning to normal life.
Yet there were hardly any mentions of this stark reality during the first night of the RNC. Instead, fears of a socialist takeover abounded.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Trump has made socialism his electoral bête noire for years, previewing this line of attack against Democrats in his 2019 State of the Union speech, and in a bizarre 2018 report from his White House Council of Economic Advisers that used high profits for the super-rich as benchmarks of “economic freedom.”
As HuffPost reporter Zach Carter points out, this type of anti-socialist blitz has been employed by the Right throughout U.S. history, from the late 19th century through the Red Scare following WWI, the Cold War and up to present day.
Yet throughout these incarnations of red-baiting, the meaning of “socialism” has blurred. Many of today’s socialists believe in placing the economy under democratic control, expanding personal freedom and enshrining economic rights as human rights. And many of the policies they’re pushing to achieve these goals are broadly popular, from Medicare for All to bold climate action and hiking taxes on the rich.
While the Right has attempted to tie such policies to Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, or Maduro’s Venezuela, that hasn’t changed the fact that, by and large, Americans like them. And besides, homegrown American socialism has a storied history.
The champions of these types of policies include left-wing leaders such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — both members of the 70,000-member Democratic Socialists of America — who also recently won landslide primary victories. Biden, meanwhile, has worked to distance himself from this resurgent socialist movement, opposing policies such as a free, universal healthcare plan and telling his supporters in February, plainly, “I ain’t a socialist. I ain’t a plutocrat. I’m a Democrat.”
The fact is that Republicans know Biden isn’t a socialist. And while socialism is gaining in popularity in America (with only a quarter of the population now saying capitalism is good for society), a Biden victory in November will itself not usher in a full-fledged social democratic revival — that will require mass mobilizations behind a redistributive agenda.
The GOP is right to be worried about a growing socialist current in U.S. political life, but its adherents are more likely to be found protecting families from eviction, rallying for racial justice or organizing their workplaces than among the Democratic establishment.
What Trump’s patrons do understand is that the Republican Party can’t run on the administration’s record, which has led to our dismal reality. And they literally have no platform to tout. So fears of a socialist coup serve as a convenient canard for those dead-set on protecting their wealth and power.
But there’s one more thing the death merchants of the GOP understand: Democracy is not their friend this election. So now they’re attempting to subvert the ability of Americans to vote, sabotaging the Post Office to limit vote-by-mail and otherwise gutting voting rights.
It’s an alarming strategy. But it shouldn’t be surprising. At this point, shrieking about a supposed socialist threat and having gun-toting attorneys warn of the end of the suburbs is all the Trump-era Republicans have to offer. And so far, pandemic-weary Americans don’t appear to be buying it.
As a 501©3 nonprofit publication, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office. The author is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin