A historian explains why Trump's red-baiting attack on socialism shows how weak he really is
On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump gave a meandering and overwrought State of the Union address, swinging wildly from discussions of abortion politics to national security with little grace or sense.
One of the bizarre standout moments in the speech was his comment about socialism:
Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — and not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.
It made little sense, given that the discussions around "socialism" in the United States primarily focus on expanding government benefits — such as Medicare for All and free college — rather than a change in the structure of government power. Trump himself has previously proposed large expansions of government programs, though he's moved away from these ideas as president. But this type of empty rhetoric against socialism tends to impress the right wing, regardless of its lack of content.
"His vow on socialism will be remembered," said Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist.
Eric Rauchway, a historian who recently wrote a book about fights over the New Deal called "Winter War," pointed out on Twitter that this kind of red-baiting tactic is to be expected.
"I think the most interesting passage in the president's speech was the paragraph expressing resolve to oppose socialism in the United States," he said. "Red-baiting is how you avoid a serious discussion over the effects of domestic policy. You only need it if you're worried about being drawn into such a discussion."
He added: "That passage seems to me an index of concern about the strength of the Democratic policy proposals."
Raucher also pointed to a quote from Richard Hofstadter, a prominent 20th-century public intellectual who wrote:
We have noticed that whereas in depressions or during great bursts of economic reform people vote for what they think are their economic interests, in times of prosperity they feel free to vote their prejudices.
In other words, when the country's economic situation is relatively strong, it is easier to whip up irrational opposition to beneficial social programs, even from many who benefit.
Despite Trump's vague gestures at policy proposals Tuesday night, it's clear that the Republican Party has almost no governing agenda. Its plan in 2017 was tax reform and a health care overhaul. The tax plan, though a complete betrayal of the party's base, passed; the party's health care ideas then withered and died when exposed to sunlight, while the administration's undercover war on Obamacare has left millions more people uninsured. Meanwhile, Trump's supposed plans for a big infrastructure push have repeatedly fallen flat, as there's little real appetite in his party for serious spending on this front. And his promises to fight HIV and childhood cancer likewise inspire no confidence, given his administration's proven aversion to investments in public health.
Democrats, on the other hand, are pushing a deluge of new proposals, on voting rights, health care, taxing the rich, housing policy, and more as the 2020 primary ramps up. The GOP has no serious response or alternative to these ideas — so it might as well attack socialism.