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It’s 20 months until the next presidential election, but U.S. President Trump has found his battle cry. He is condemning socialism and painting it as the flawed ideology of his Democratic opponents.
During his appearance at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier this month, Trump accused Democrats of wanting “to replace individual rights with total government domination.”
“Socialism is not about the environment, it’s not about justice, it’s not about virtue,” Trump said. “Socialism is about only one thing, it’s called power for the ruling class.”
The message was repeated by Vice President Mike Pence who also spoke at CPAC.
“Under the guise of Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, Democrats are embracing the same, tired economic theories that have impoverished nations and have stifled the liberties of millions over the past century,” Pence said. “That system is socialism.”
Shifting opinion on socialism
In recent decades socialist policies have been almost taboo in American politics, but 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shifted opinion by embracing the label and championing proposals like universal health care and free higher education.
His candidacy helped redefine what socialism means for many Americans, bringing it into the political mainstream, even though it remains vilified by Republicans.
Socialism can encompass a wide range of policies, but in the United States, some prominent politicians are championing the term to refer to efforts that propose raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to address the country’s widening income gap, funding universal health care and providing more jobs that pay enough for people to support a family.
Public opinion polls indicate a majority of Americans support each of those policies, even though “socialism” as a political concept continues to be favored by a minority of voters.
With his national emergency declaration to build the border wall — a signature campaign promise — facing steep opposition and multiple ongoing investigations of his administration, family and business empire, Trump and his Republican allies are blasting socialism as a political boogeyman and painting Democratic presidential hopefuls as far-left extremists, with Bernie Sanders as a main target.
Sanders, a political independent, calls himself a “democratic socialist” and is already considered a front-runner in the crowded Democratic primary field. He supports universal health care, free college education and raising the national minimum wage to at least $15 per hour, more than twice what it is now.
Republican strategist and president of North Star Opinion Research Whit Ayres believe the best strategy for Democrats is to nominate someone who can unite non-Trump voters. If Democrats nominate a candidate who can be characterized as espousing socialist ideas like Bernie Sanders, “that is the best outcome for President Trump to be re-elected,” Ayres said.
Ayres and other analysts point out that painting Democrats as socialists is a good strategy to appeal to Hispanic voters.
“It is precisely a way to expand the Republican coalition,” Ayres said. “It is explicitly an effort, not just to reinforce the base, but to expand the Republican appeal.”
During a speech in front of a largely Venezuelan and Cuban immigrant crowd in Miami last month, Trump voiced his support for Venezuela’s National Assembly President Juan Guaido, whom the United States recognizes as the country’s interim president, while warning of “the dangers of socialism,” saying it delivers poverty, hatred and division.
Daniel Runde, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center of Strategic and International Studies said the president’s strategy makes political sense to appeal to voters in key states he needs to win re-election.
“Especially in a place like Florida where there’s a large number of Venezuelans and Cuban emigres,” Runde said. “They understand exactly what socialism is, and they hate it.”
The Green New Deal
Republicans have denounced the Green New Deal (GND), a non-binding resolution introduced last month by first-term congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
The term was coined to be reminiscent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” a series of programs and projects to restore prosperity during the 1930s Great Depression.
Proponents of the framework hope it will revitalize the economy and eliminate carbon emissions within a decade. It also includes proposals such as universal health care, higher education, a living wage and paid family vacations.
Critics say it would bankrupt the economy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the deal:
During his CPAC remarks, Trump condemned the GND as a “socialist nightmare” and mocked proposals to use wind power as a source of clean energy.
“Darling, is the wind blowing today?” Trump said. “I’d like to watch television, darling.”
Changing view of socialism?
According to a 2018 Gallup poll, even though the majority of Republicans remain much more positive about capitalism than socialism, 57 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of socialism.
Experts say American views on socialism have evolved, particularly those of millennials who came of age during the 2008 recession. Many became disillusioned by an economy that is delivering fewer opportunities than their parents enjoyed at the same time that the wealthiest Americans got far richer.
“We’ve had increased interest and membership since the Trump election,” said Gregory Pason, national secretary of the Socialist Party, U.S.A. “Our feeling is that people are looking for an alternative to Trump policies and understand the Democratic Party is not providing a real alternative.”
Some democratic-socialist politicians, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, want to nearly double taxes on the wealthiest Americans to help pay for universal health care, free higher education and a jobs program focused on moving the economy away from fossil fuels.
Pason stressed that socialism is not about tax policy but about “giving working people ownership and workers and their communities control of their lives.”
Daniel Runde said that while the term socialism for previous generations was understood to be “a really awful and terrible thing,” for many supporters of socialism today, the term represents progressive ideas and an expansive welfare state.
“You can have debates about the size of government, the size of a social safety net and the size of regulation,” Runde said, “But when there are people who come out and say they’re straight out socialists, there is a danger of forgetting the legacy of socialism and communism.”
For President Trump, reminding voters about that legacy is likely to be a prominent part of his re-election campaign.
Patsy Widakuswara is VOA's Senior White House Correspondent. She joined Voice of America in March 2003. With over 20 years experience in international broadcast journalism, she currently reports via multi-media platforms from the White House where she focuses on delivering informative, engaging U.S. content to an international audience.