The New Republic, February 7, 2019
Donald Trump is perhaps the most unpopular president in recorded history, and he will soon face the most daunting re-election campaign in recent memory. Dogged by investigations and hamstrung by a lack of achievements, he has thus far failed to settle on a sharp message for 2020. “Promises Kept,” though less authoritarian, doesn’t have quite the ring of “Build the Wall” or “Lock Her Up.” But at Tuesday’s State of the Union, Trump unveiled what some advisers believe will be the winning message in November of next year. “Tonight,” he said, “we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” The Republicans in the chamber—nearly all rich white men—stood and applauded, while many Democrats scowled.
Trump’s allies see this as a crucial argument heading in to 2020. After the State of the Union, Trump’s 2016 communications director, Jason Miller, told Axios’ Mike Allen that the president “elevated the wedge issue of ‘socialism’ in a way nobody else could.” Allen wrote that Republicans “loved ... the endorsement-by-sitting-in-silence when he hammered socialism.” With the border wall in limbo, little progress on a nuclear treaty with North Korea, and the 2017 tax cuts looking worse by the day, Trump doesn’t have any major accomplishments to campaign on beyond his Supreme Court appointments. But he does still have a strong economy. Trump is “trying to frame 2020 as another big, directional election ... betting that [his] people are going to actually like the direction the country is going,” another Trump campaign veteran told Allen.
Trump’s State of the Union paean to capitalism undoubtedly pleased his base, who have been the focal point of his entire presidency. But there are reasons to believe that making 2020 about “America First v. Socialism,” in Axios’ phrasing, might backfire for Trump. While the economy has continued to grow under Trump, there is rising dissatisfaction with income inequality and capitalism itself. Trump may think that red-baiting can make his toxic presidency appear to be the lesser of two evils. But this strategy requires taking greater ownership of a system that an increasing number of Americans think is unfair—and that didn’t work out so well for his Democratic opponent in the 2016 election.
Socialism’s long comeback in America began after the 2008 financial collapse, which made Americans keenly aware of the banking industry’s power and the country’s massive wealth inequality. “The richest Americans,” wrote Brown University economist Mark Blyth in his 2013 book Austerity, “own more assets than the bottom 150 million, while 46 million Americans, some 15 percent of the population, live in a family of four earning less than $22,314 per annum.” Outrage over inequality drove the creation of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City in 2011, and in 2016 it was the foundation of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders’s campaign ultimately failed, but it could be argued that he won in the long term. Today, nearly every major Democratic candidate for president endorses some version of universal health care, which would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. The Democratic primary will be fought over issues like how to reduce inequality and tax the rich, as well as on costly spending programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The party’s most popular young star, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is an avowed socialist. Democrats, by a 10-point margin, now think that socialism is more appealing than capitalism, and that’s significantly more true of people under 30. Polling has even suggested that 70 percent of the country supports Medicare for All, including a majority of Republicans. ...
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