Vanity Fair - September 2019
In public, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have been throwing around the term “socialism” as if it were electoral kryptonite. There was Trump’s op-ed of “open-borders socialism,” the State of the Union address in which he trashed socialism for an applause line, and seized on the economic collapse of Venezuela as evidence that the politics of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would turn America into a car-less, childless,hamburger-bereft future.
In private, however, Trump apparently fears that this socialism thing could have legs. The Daily Beast reports that the president has been privately telling confidants for months that progressive, populist-tinged proposals like student-loan forgiveness and Medicare for All—or, as he allegedly calls it, “free stuff”—could threaten his prospects in 2020, and that running against “socialism” might get tricky:
According to a person who was in the room, Trump told donors at a recent private event that though “a lot of people think it’ll be easy to beat [in 2020],” the “truth is, it might not be so easy.” The president, according to the source, said that “you can have someone who loves Trump, but many people love free stuff, too.” He added that if candidates tell Americans, especially young voters—that they’re going to cancel their debt, “that’s a tough one” to run against.
It might be an uphill battle—especially with younger voters who don’t remember the Cold War. According to a poll from PRRI, 54% of Americans view socialism as a benevolent government that “provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support, and access to free higher education,” while only 43% said that a socialist government “controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation, and communications industries.” Millennials, after all, are more likely to associate socialism with Nordic paradises like Sweden than secret police and gulags. In a Gallup survey earlier this year, 58% of younger voters, ages 18 to 34, said that socialism was “good [for] the country.” They were also generally in favor of what Trump might define as “free stuff”: 60% wanted government-run health care, and 57% wanted the government to take responsibility for higher education.
If there is a silver lining for the Trump campaign, it’s that poll respondents tend to have no shared definition for the term “socialism” itself, meaning that Republicans still have room to help define a concept for which most Democrats—especially those in the top tier who aren’t Joe Biden—aren’t willing to provide an affirmative defense. While Bernie Sanders has no immediate problem with being called a socialist, Elizabeth Warrenstates that she is a capitalist at heart; Kamala Harris has bluntly said she is not a democratic socialist; and Pete Buttigieg often suggests there isn’t even a point in discussing semantics. (“It’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” he said during one debate. “If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re gonna do? Say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists.”) ...
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