Republicans reignite the red scare in service of Trump

Republicans reignite the red scare in service of Trump

Conservatives have been screaming about socialists scheming to destroy everything Real Americans hold dear for as long as anyone alive can remember. Going back more than a hundred years to the first Red Scare in 1919, when the government rounded up thousands of socialists, anarchists and communists during the Palmer raids, there have been periodic paroxysms of outrage aimed at this perennial boogeyman.

In the 1920s and 30s, it was evoked to oppose the labor movement and the policies of President Franklin Roosevelt as he tried to bring the country back from the Great Depression. After World War II, anti-Communism became the official foreign policy of both parties and the Republicans began to use it as a cudgel to beat the Democratic Party politically. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, the GOP focused as much on “the enemy within” as America’s cold war adversaries. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee “investigated” anyone who had once been associated with the American Communist Party, gradually expanding their probe into anyone they suspected of being insufficiently patriotic or whose political influence they believed was harmful to American culture. Then along came Joseph McCarthy, who waved around supposed lists of names of Soviet spies or “fellow travelers” he said had infiltrated the U.S. government and military. This went on for years and years, ruining the lives of untold numbers of people.

The fever finally broke after more than a decade of non-stop witchhunts and the “communist” accusation fell out of favor even as anti-communism remained very potent politically among hawks of both parties. But the bipartisan consensus broke around the Vietnam War, which finally shook the nation’s belief in any existential struggle. Nixon went to China and it was only a few years later that the Berlin Wall came down.

But none of that stopped the Republicans from hurling the “S” word at every program the Democrats supported, from voting rights to Medicare to affirmative action to tax policy, it was all socialism, socialism, socialism. As historian Kevin Kruse pointed out, they even deployed it against the distribution of the polio vaccine (sound familiar?) and the interstate highway system. Even up through the 1990s you had presidential candidates like Bob Dole of Kansas proclaiming that “public housing is one of the last bastions of socialism in the world.”

This was all nonsense.

The Democratic Party was not socialist and neither were its members. There are a few who call themselves Democratic socialists, which in America is really social liberalism or what we think of as progressivism. (Political labels get weedy very quickly.) But that has never stopped Republicans from complaining that Democratic policies are socialistic.

For instance, just last year, when the Democrats were hammering out the details of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, the GOP caterwauled constantly about it. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham wailed that it was “paving a path to socialism” while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whined: “The American people didn’t vote for a massive socialist transformation.” And this guy couldn’t shut up about it:

Suffice it to say that the old cudgel is still in use.

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A recent Pew Poll surveyed Americans’ views on the subject:

Today, 36% of U.S. adults say they view socialism somewhat (30%) or very (6%) positively, down from 42% who viewed the term positively in May 2019. Six-in-ten today say they view socialism negatively, including one-third who view it very negatively.

And while a majority of the public (57%) continues to view capitalism favorably, that is 8 percentage points lower than in 2019 (65%), according to a national survey from Pew Research Center conducted Aug. 1-14 among 7,647 adults.

Much of the decline in positive views of both socialism and capitalism has been driven by shifts in views among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Republicans’ views haven’t changed. They are against socialism and they love capitalism. In theory anyway:

But with all of this ongoing talk about socialism over the years, Republicans had more or less stopped hurling the “commie” tag at their political adversaries. After all, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and China’s entry into the capitalist marketplace, it makes even less sense than it used to. 

Yet it’s now suddenly become commonplace.

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene appeared at White Nationalist conventions referring to the “Democrats, who are the Communist Party of the United States of America.” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem wrote an op-ed in which she said, “the idea that Georgia, of all places, could elect two communists to the United States Senate was ridiculous.” And then there’s Trump, of course, who told his ecstatic followers at a rally in Ohio in 2020:

“The choice in November is going to be very simple. There’s never been a time when there’s been such a difference. One is probably communism. I don’t know. They keep saying socialism. I think they’ve gone over that one. That one’s passed already.”

The Guardian’s Richard Seymour called this “anti-communism-without-communism” writing:

[E]verything that is perceived as threatening can be compressed into a single, treasonous, diabolical enemy: just different tentacles of the same communist kraken. Rather like a racial stereotype, “communism” figuratively represents systemic crises as something external, a demonic plot.

Trump is a baby boomer who grew up during a time when calling anyone you disagree with a “commie” was common on the right so it’s not surprising he would see the utility of using it as a convenient “demonic plot.” So naturally he’s taking it to new levels during this campaign by proclaiming that we are in “the final battle” as he promises to cast out the communists, Marxists and fascists and liberate America from these “villains.” If they are predicting Armageddon the socialist devil is just a little bit too fey to be truly menacing.

But there are more practical, prosaic reasons for this escalation in commie catcalling. The most obvious is that older voters tend to vote Republican and they have a visceral reaction to the “C” word. They react with reflexive hostility and are the most likely to think such a preposterous claim makes sense. The constant references to the “Chinese Communist Party” as the great enemy also hits home with those people. And there is some evidence that Republicans have made some inroads with certain Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups who are deeply hostile to the communist regimes from which they emigrated.

But Trump has a special reason for hitting that note right now. He’s facing a trial in Florida and the speech he gave on the evening of his arraignment made clear who the enemy is:

“If the communists get away with this, it won’t stop with me. They will not hesitate to ramp up their persecution of Christians, pro-life activists, parents attending school board meetings, and even future Republican candidates. I am the only one that can save this nation.”

He is speaking directly to potential jurors in Florida proclaiming that his indictment is the result of a communist conspiracy. According to Politico, “Harvard professor Steven Levitsky argues, for many Americans, Trump’s anti-communist rhetoric ‘just sounds silly… But (for) people who are either descendants of Cuban exiles or actual Venezuelan exiles — that actually struck some chord.'”

Silly isn’t the word I’d use but it will suffice. I’d expect to hear a whole lot more commie talk before this is through. 

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about conservatives’ obsession with communism