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Trump likely to vilify socialists in 2020 election

This article was originally printed in the Feb. 11, 2019 issue of The Round Table. 

Trump needs a villain. During his last campaign, he vilified Mexican immigrants and the Democratic establishment, hyper-sensationalizing the national dialogue in order to distract and manipulate it. In this past week’s State of the Union address, Trump signaled the next enemy strawman of his 2020 campaign: socialists.

“Here in the United States we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” the president said during the address. “Tonight we resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

Moments before, Trump called for the removal of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. He condemned the country’s “socialist policies” and claimed that they had plunged the country “into a state of abject poverty and despair.”

Linking political upheaval in Venezuela to partisan conflict at home is a significant rhetorical move. Trump is pivoting, re-strategizing to attack a more powerful and progressive Democratic party. The consequences of such direct partisan vilification are significant.

The State of the Union address included a great deal of Trump’s usual. He rallied for the construction of the border wall, cited the unemployment rate, economic growth, and the tax cut passed by the last Republican congress. Trump also talked about wanting to reduce drug prices and combat H.I.V.

Trump’s mention of socialism was something new, but likely calculated. Last fall, the president’s economic advisors drafted a 72-page report that framed the Democratic leadership as socialist in ideology, and linking them with failed economic policies in China and the Soviet Union.

The report did not offer any answers to the supposed threat, and functions to signal what Trump believes Democrats are planning. As usual, the argument is a stretch. The report tonally equated a support of tuition free college with the atrocities of Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. It suggested that Democrats planned to implement policies emulating those of Venezuela, and that doing so would shrink the American economy by 40 percent.

Socialism is not a new political ideology in America. It has existed in this country since the late 19th century. Of course, socialist thought is on the rise in the United States. 57 percent of Democrats surveyed indicated a preference for socialism, higher than the 47 percent who support capitalism. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a popular and vocal advocate for more progressive policies, and most of the Democratic party is pushing for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy and “Medicare for all.” These are not radical propositions. A 70 percent tax rate has actually been implemented in the United States before.

The word “socialism” itself has been tainted in America. Most Americans do not understand the difference between modern socialist policy, as successfully implemented in multiple Western European countries, and the kind frequently vilified and linked to communism during the Cold War. Right-wing leaders and media outlets have banked on and supported this misunderstanding for a long time.

Trump is intending to weaponize the confusion between the two and stir up panic, create a threatening entity, then promise to save America from it. It is his classic playbook with a new cover, but it is now a very different game. The imagined enemy is the only other powerful political party in the United States.

Trump is attempting to portray Democrats as being too radical for the United States government. He is trying to connect Democratic values with those of the Maduro government in Venezuela, an ostensibly socialist administration that appears to be collapsing.

The collapse of Maduro’s regime is not happening in a vacuum. The Trump administration has joined a large group of countries in South America and Europe in opposing Maduro’s regime, and has taken significant steps to strip it of the resources it needs to survive. In linking the Democratic party to a regime put under pressure from the current White House, Trump is making a more direct and serious threat against his political opposition.

Trump is framing socialism as the cause of the chaotic situation in Venezuela, thus characterizing socialism itself as a debilitating disease that has infected America through the Democratic party.

This will severely polarize political discourse. By flooding the media with comparisons between the Democrats and Venezuela, infused with a constant indictment of socialism, the Democratic Party runs the risk of being characterized as an aggressive foreign entity.

Trump, like other nationalist leaders, uses the threat of invasion to rally support for his action all the time. He did so successfully in 2016 by twisting the coverage of his campaign into a debate over whether or not immigrants were criminals, allowing for his words and narrative to be repeated over and over again.

If his narrative catches on, and people begin to view Democrats as a foreign socialist entity, there will be greater support for Trump to take action to limit Democratic power and assert his own. Democratic leadership will be framed as illegitimate and alien.

Down this road there is great danger. As Trump spins this narrative, the Democrats must spin a different one using decisive language. It will not be enough to simply deny Trump’s accusations. A counter-narrative must be constructed, one that frames progressive policy as beneficial to the American people in its own right, necessary to infrastructurally combat climate change and adapt to the undeniable economic shifts taking place in this country.

What anyone thinks of socialism and its application matters little. Trump’s “socialism” will not correlate to factual data. It is a dog whistle meant to characterize opponents of the Republican party as dangerous radicals. If Trump plays such a messaging game and wins, there will be serious consequences for the continued survival of the American democratic system.

SOURCES: The New York Times, Politifact, The Washington Post

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