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Why Trump's war on socialism will fail

E.J. Dionne Jr. on

NEW YORK -- "We socialists are trying to save capitalism, and the damned capitalists won't let us."

Political scientist Mason Williams cited this cheeky but accurate comment by New Deal lawyer Jerome Frank to make a point easily lost in the new war on socialism President Trump has launched: Socialism goes back a long way in the United States, and it has taken doses of it to keep the market system alive.

Going back to the late 19th century, Americans and Europeans, socialists and liberal reformers, worked together to find creative ways to solve problems capitalism alone couldn't, and to humanize the system's workings. This has been well documented in separate books written by historians Daniel Rodgers and James Kloppenberg. "The New Deal," Rodgers wrote, "was a great, explosive release of the pent-up agenda of the progressive past."

Think about this when pondering the Green New Deal put forward last week by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. It's sweeping and adventurous. There is virtually no way it will become law as long as Republicans control the Senate and Trump is president. And if something like it eventually does get enacted, there will be many compromises and rewrites.

But there would be no social reform, ever, if those seeking change were too timid to go big and allowed cries of "socialism" to intimidate them.

In his State of the Union address last week, Trump cast himself as Horatius at the bridge standing against the Red Menace: "We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country."

 

Yet in referring to "new calls to adopt socialism in our country," he had a point. Open advocacy of socialism is now a normal part of our political discourse. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., won over 12 million votes in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries running explicitly as a democratic socialist. Some recent polls even have Sanders running ahead of Trump in hypothetical 2020 matchups.

We should be clear that Trump's words are entirely about re-election politics. He wants to tar all Democrats as "socialists" and then define socialism as antithetical to American values. "America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination and control," he declared. "We are born free, and we will stay free." Cue Lee Greenwood.

But attacking socialism isn't the cakewalk it used to be. During the Cold War, it was easy to frighten Americans with the S-word because the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics offered a powerful example of the oppression that state control of all of the means of production could unleash.

The Soviet Union, however, has been dead for nearly three decades. China is communist on paper but a wildly unequal crony capitalist dictatorship in practice. Young Americans especially are far more likely to associate "socialism" with generous social insurance states than with jackboots and gulags. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are anything but frightening places.

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