President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
With plenty of help, Donald Trump is hoping to frame the 2020 election as a choice between “socialism” and four more years of whatever the heck “Trumpism” is.
“Socialist” is a word that has different meanings in different times and places. As he gears up for the next election, Donald Trump has decided to use “socialism/socialist” as a catchall scare term for anything he opposes/anyone who doesn’t support him.
In his State of the Union address, the president spake thus: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” He gave no details on what that meant.
In gushing the day after the speech, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin upped the ante by suggesting that America, at some unspecified time and manner, had been a socialist country but, as he pledged on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” show: “We’re not going back to socialism. We’re going on an economic plan for America that works.“
It would be fun and interesting if someone could ask Mnuchin when America was socialist, and when it stopped being socialist. I have no idea what he would say, but it would be fun.
One of Trump’s leading media admirers, “Judge” Jeanine Piro of Fox News, attacks anti-Trumpers generally as socialists and defends capitalism constantly, without defining her terms very clearly. While she regularly calls Trump’s foes socialists, she’s such a good capitalist that she has been stiffing her lenders and creditors from a 13-years-ago failed Senate campaign, and now seeks to dissolve the last vestiges of her campaign without arranging payment of $600,000 she/her campaign borrowed. In a real capitalist country, maybe she’d go to debtor’s prison.
I suspect that Trump and his minions are going to beat the S-word to a pulp between now and November of 2020. And the fact that there are Democrats, like Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who actually call themselves “socialists” might help the right whip up the red menace (although Sanders and AOC are generally careful to use the phrase “democratic socialists,” which means they are not planning a violent Bolshevik revolution and do, in fact, hold congressional office via multiparty elections).
Will they define ‘socialist’?
But it will be interesting to see how close Trump and his fellow red-baiters come to defining their terms. (I predict they will come nowhere close.) They are just throwing the S-word out there and hoping it scares people.
That’s an old tactic. The income tax was denounced as socialism when first introduced, and maybe it was if you take a very broad view of the term. Same for every increase in it and most every other form of taxation and every government program that takes from those who can most afford it to provide any kind of benefit to those who cannot. Same for Social Security (it even has “social” in its name), and Medicare and Medicaid and Obamacare (especially the “mandate.”)
Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, all quite wealthy and democratic, called themselves “socialist” for years. I don’t know how much they still do. But they still have high taxes and the state pays for benefits that would be decried as socialist if anyone proposed them here. (I shouldn’t say “would” decry them as socialist. Raising taxes and increasing government benefits are routinely decried in America as “socialist.”)
The Scandinavian countries are also, of course, among the wealthiest nations in the world. And they have things (and have had them for years) like universal health care (as do Britain and most of Western Europe and Canada) that are immediately opposed as “socialism” when proposed here. And they are, if anyone is, free and democratic nations.
The United States is virtually alone atop the list of wealthy nations of the world in the portion of its population that lacks health care coverage, which I gather in some circles is a bragging point on behalf of how “free” we are.
A very stretchy term
My main point, which I’ve probably overdone by now but I swear I’ll stop soon, is that the S-word can actually be stretched, with some actual meaning, to cover everything from Social Security to Bolshevism and to whatever you want to call the hideous totalitarian system in effect in North Korea.
I dare to dream of some future dream world, in which we could have a national discussion via election campaign, in which we could discuss how we collectively propose to balance the costs and benefits of taxing and spending, including taxing those who can afford it to pay some evolving package of basic benefits for those who can’t afford it, without passing through red-baiting.
When nonsensical red-baiting occurs and gets in the way of our ability to have a calm, rational discussion of what kind of benefits we want our government to provide, I recall a famously cynical wisecrack from the famously cynical early 20th century American wisecracker, H.L. Mencken, who wrote:
“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
Over time, this longer quote came to be paraphrased and misquoted, most commonly in this form: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”