OPINION — Meet “socialist,” the hardest-working word in politics in 2019. The single word has helped upstart Democrats attract young and social-curious potential voters, given the paddles of life to desperate-for-a-cause conservatives, and led President Donald Trump to an early and effective way to frame the re-election battle he wants to have with Democrats.
“Socialist” even made a usually ho-hum op-ed from a member of Congress, in this case Rep. Tom Emmer, one of Roll Call’s most read articles this week. “In their first 100 days, socialist Democrats have shown they are unable to lead.” You would read that, wouldn’t you?
In reality, the idea of genuine socialist rule in America has made Democrats do something between an eye roll and a shoulder shrug. Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer seem to find the idea so preposterous that they spend little time dwelling on it. Newer members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insist they’re not for capital “S” socialism, but if socialism means a living wage, health care for all, and affordable or free education, then what’s so wrong with that?
But for Republicans, conservatives, former tea partiers, and anyone looking to regain GOP majorities in Washington, that small-but-loud contingent of democratic socialists in Congress (two at the latest count) has given them something they failed to muster up themselves — a way to change the subject from everything that Trump has failed to do or made worse (read on for the section on debts and deficits) and dig into an issue that not only animates the GOP base, but enrages them.
Watch: Socialism through the Republican lens
The man leading the “socialists are coming” charge is Trump himself.
“We are born free, and we will stay free,” Trump said in his State of the Union address in February. To chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!,” he added, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Always a student of ratings, Trump heard the roar of approval he got in the room that night, and he’s included the refrain prominently in every public rally since then.
“There are those trying to implement socialism right here in the United States,” he told a MAGA rally in El Paso just after the State of the Union. “So I say it for the world to hear, America will never be a socialist country, never, never!” Again, chants of “U-S-A!”
The president took it to CPAC in March. “Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism,” he warned. “We believe in the American dream, not in the socialist nightmare!” More chants of “USA! USA!”
At a March rally in Michigan: “By the way, if you want to see those 401(k)s and all of your stocks and all of the things that you own, you want to see them deflate, put a good socialist in this position!”
At an NRCC fundraiser in April: “I love the idea of ‘Keep America Great,’ because you know what it says is we’ve made it great. Now we’re going to keep it great, because the socialists will destroy it.”
At a rally in Las Vegas: “120 Democrats are supporting a socialist takeover of our health care system.”
At a press gaggle in April: “Venezuela is a mess. This is what socialism brings.”
On Tax Day in Minnesota: “They can talk all they want about socialism. All socialism is is a method into the poorhouse.”
While Democrats have been focused on investigating the president in Washington and rolling out big-ticket items like “Medicare for All” on the campaign trail, Trump has systematically and relentlessly been branding his 2020 campaign and the Republican Party itself as soldiers in a fight against the global forces of socialism.
Look no further than the “Tax Day Tea Party” events that organizers staged around the country earlier this week. Gone were the thousands-strong rallies of feisty rabble rousers demanding government thrift beneath tricorn hats. In their place, decked out in MAGA caps, were Trump faithful warning of socialism coming to our shores.
“We’re here to rally for freedom and to let our fellow citizens know that history says that socialism is a dangerous idea,” said an organizer for the “Villagers for Trump” event in central Florida. “Every place that it’s been implemented, it has failed.”
In LaSalle, Illinois, a tea party goer told his local paper, “We want to promote American exceptionalism and protest the socialist agenda. The Democrats aren’t hiding the fact that they’re socialists anymore.”
And in Atlanta, GOP Sen. David Perdue, who is up for re-election in 2020, told tea partiers what the election will really be about. “We know socialism failed. Just listen to what’s happening right now in Venezuela. Why would we want to go down that road?”
Are you seeing the theme? It’s not debts and deficits. That’s so 10 years ago. Also, under Trump, the deficit that conservatives campaigned so hard against has exploded to $897 billion, while the national debt is up to $16.6 trillion and “well above average for the last 50 years,” according to the CBO.
The numbers are so large they’re hard to comprehend and even harder to talk about. So it’s best not to mention that, right?
While the country has “some work to do” on spending, Atlanta organizer Jenny Beth Martin said activists had something more important to worry about: “Call your representatives and both of your senators and make sure they know you oppose socialism and want them to embrace freedom.”
Socialism vs. freedom. Us vs. them. That’s the fight Trump wants to have, and the fight his supporters — from reformed tea party upstarts to sitting U.S. senators —are following him into.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.