When Donald Trump accused Democrats of “becoming the party of socialism” at his El Paso rally this month, he left no doubt as to what his campaign message will be in 2020. Trump is anything but coy, and he once again telegraphed his punches.
Earlier, in his 2019 State of the Union address, Trump sounded a lot like the cold-warriors of the mid-20th century, back when the Soviet Union was the Red Menace and name-calling was a common political weapon.
“Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said. “America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
And Trump rarely misses a chance to attack the ills of socialism these days, either hitting those left-leaning contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination or setting the stage for future attacks. In a recent Florida speech mostly about Venezuela, he used “socialist” or “socialism” nearly 30 times.
Any kid who grew up in the factory and mill towns of the Turtle Creek Valley during the 1950s recognizes that kind of talk. Those who wanted to keep wages down, benefits few and workdays long often depicted strong labor unions as “socialist” organizations. And quickly, the terms “socialist” and “communist” were casually interchanged, further provoking political passions.
When a fistfight broke out between two dads at a local bowling alley, no one was surprised that they exchanged shouts of “pinko” and “fascist” as they rolled down one of the lanes, slugging it out. Some labor unions split internally over political ideology, with workers battling for control outside the factory gates. We grew up around that.
We knew that it was not good to be a “socialist,” but everybody loved Social Security and Workers Compensation and Medicare. Everyone in our crowd had seen life get better as a result of fair contracts, sensible labor laws, compassionate veterans’ benefits and progressive social programs. And most families believed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had saved them with his New Deal.
At Trump’s rally in El Paso and in the spin by his supporters after his State of the Union address, he was cheered and praised for denouncing socialists. But you can bet that many in that cheering crowd will tightly cling to all of the progressive benefits that have made their lives better.
Brian Schatz, the Democratic senator from Hawaii, got it right when he tweeted this after Trump’s State of the Union speech: “I’m not a socialist. But I believe that every American deserves health care. I also believe that college should be debt free, and that America must lead boldly on climate change. That doesn’t mean I want America to be Venezuela. It means I want America to be America.”
So let’s drop the name-calling and labels. And instead of falling for the old tactics that are sure to divide us, it would be good this time to focus on the programs and policies that have always made America great.