The Republican Party's Puzzling Obsession with Socialism

With a pandemic ravaging the country, a historically unpopular president and no platform to run on, the GOP has set its sights on attacking socialism. It doesn’t seem to be working.

Miles Kampf-Lassin August 25, 2020

Kimberly Guilfoyle gestures at the 2020 RNC. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

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

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