“They want to take away your hamburgers,” former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka declared in February. “This is what Stalin dreamt about … America will never be a socialist country!” The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) audience cheered. The video played on my phone as I waved at Danny, the homeless man who begs for food every morning at the Newark Penn Station, where scores of poor people sleep in wheelchairs or lean on crutches or stand by the delis to ask for change.
These folks need more than “hamburgers.” They need jobs and homes. Yet, as the 2020 election season starts, Trump has branded progressives as “socialists” who will steal property and bring tyranny. The president’s fearmongering contrasts with the actual Green New Deal that some Democrats support but failed to pass in the GOP-controlled Senate. It’s a fear driven by ideology. Republicans paint the poor as undeserving, marked by cultural or personal character flaws. Whereas Democratic Socialists believe people have the ability to run the economy and society to meet their needs. Why this difference in perception? It is because Republicans aren’t afraid of socialism — they are afraid of equality with people they see as inferior.
The Crime of the Century
“The Democratic Party,” President Trump told an El Paso audience, is “becoming the party of socialism, late-term abortions, open borders and crime.” He tapped into a long tradition of the right, demonizing socialism precisely as it rises in popularity. With every wave of leftism throughout history, a counter-reaction crashed against it.
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The U.S. has had three Red Scares, or right-wing campaigns to inflame public fear of socialism. The first came in 1917 as Bolsheviks remade Russia into the Soviet Union, American workers struck en masse and anarchists mailed bombs to politicians. The government deported hundreds of suspected radicals. The second Red Scare began after World War II as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. fought for supremacy. Sen. Joseph McCarthy hunted for “reds” in government and media. In the years following the 2008 Wall Street crash, another leftist resurgence sprang up, and with it, a counter-reaction. We are now in the third American Red Scare.
Republicans who red-bait Democrats also accuse “socialism” of property theft, amnesty for “criminals” and tyranny. The themes are consistent in conservativism, but it’s the 1962 film, The Truth About Communism, narrated by Ronald Reagan, that is the modern GOP blueprint. In dirge-like tones, Reagan spoke of a peasant’s lifetime savings taken by Bolsheviks. Later Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul updated this theme, saying Sen. Bernie Sanders’s proposals, such as free education, constituted “theft.” Conservative media star Ben Shapiro repeatedly calls socialism theft, and even declared, “Socialism is rape. Capitalism is consensual sex.”
So, if socialism is theft, who are socialists stealing for? Conservatives see them as taking from “good, honest, hardworking Americans” to give to the “undeserving” poor. In his 1976 campaign, Reagan regaled crowds with myths of Black women milking the welfare system or public housing with fancy pools. Later Republicans like Mitt Romney talked of the “47 percent … who are dependent on government.” Sen. Paul Ryan described inner cities as filled with “generations of men not even thinking about working.”
Fear of the “underserving poor” is manipulated into a fear of tyranny. Many conservatives believe socialists will use poor people as shock troops to create the Soviet States of America. In The Truth About Communism, Reagan claimed Russian prisoners were handed guns to enforce Bolshevik power. His successor, Vice President George Bush, used that trope of “criminals” unleashed by liberals in the infamously racist Willie Horton ad, which showed a Black man who raped a white woman while on furlough from prison. Now, Trump reuses that imagery in his ad warning of “illegal Mexican gangs,” designed to stoke racist fears. It builds on his baseless accusation that Democrats drove undocumented migrants to the polls and cost him the popular vote. It repeats the same nightmare scene of Reagan’s film in which Bolsheviks or in our case, just liberals, use the lower classes to seize state power and eventually take property.
Consistently, Republicans declare socialism is a crime not only because they believe it “steals” property, but because the poor are already “criminals.” A deep contempt for working-class and poor people, especially immigrants and people of color, is engraved in today’s Republican Party. They don’t think the downtrodden deserve equality because in the GOP mind, they are not equal.
The Bottom Is Left
Who supports socialism in the U.S.? It turns out to be the people who need it most. The students in debt they can’t pay want socialism. The mothers who can’t afford daycare want it, and the workers, injured and waiting in emergency rooms, want it. The homeless people sleeping outside in winter want it, and the father working three jobs to pay for rent wants it.
“I’m not running from the left,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “I’m running from the bottom.” She was elected because she mobilized millennials and people of color who are hungry for progressive policy but are ignored by machine politicos. Later, she said, “Our swing voter is not red to blue … our swing voter is the non-voter to the voter.”
The bottom of the U.S.’s class hierarchy is a treasure-trove of potential socialism. The country is a pyramidal society where the top 1 percent own as much as the bottom 90 percent. Lost in the crevices are half a million homeless people who stay in shelters, or sleep (and sometimes die) outside in the cold. Typhus and tuberculosis spread in tent cities like they ripped through medieval towns. In public housing, trailer homes and boarded-up towns are 39.7 million poor people, 18.5 million of whom live in deep poverty. Many are women, people of color and children raised by single mothers. Nearly 30 percent of Americans live at or under twice the poverty line.
The weight of poverty poisons the body with stress, and pressure is constantly simmering and building beneath the surface at the bottom of the class hierarchy. For decades, both Republicans and Democrats released this pressure every election cycle with a bait and switch. The Republicans offered scapegoats. The Democrats have offered empty tokenism through their support for Obama and now reparations.
Underneath, the pressure rose and fused disparate voters into a combustible coalition. Seething class resentment cuts across party lines. Polls show the public wants to tax the rich. The public wants Medicare for All but gets iffy if it means high taxes and long lines to see a doctor. The public wants free college. Amazingly, if not told which party proposed it, the public wants the Green New Deal.
Is it because Americans want to be the next Soviet Union? No. It simply means people want a future. They have been lied to so much by centrist politicians that they are willing to listen to anyone who dreams big.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
Democratic socialism is not a Marxist fever dream; it’s a call for help. It’s less socialism than humanitarian aid for a people in crisis. Millions of Americans are in dead-end jobs, slipping behind on bills, deep in debt and scared of climate change.
“Something is wrong … with capitalism,” Martin Luther King Jr. told his staff in 1966. “There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” Saying the economic system causes pain means moving beyond the conservative image of the poor as flawed, personally or culturally, or the liberal image of them as unlucky victims of a more or less functioning meritocracy. To honor our human potential, capitalism must be dismantled, its pieces taken apart and recombined into a new world.
“Climate change is one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said at the rollout of the Green New Deal. “To combat that threat, we need to be as ambitious and innovative as possible.” In its 14 pages, the plan envisions a World War II-scale mobilization of millions of workers. They will repair roads and bridges, build smart grids, upgrade industry to be zero carbon, build green public transit, remove carbon from the air, clean up waste sites, and clean up the poisoned land and waterways. When they come home, those workers can rest in new, green housing, and if sick or injured, they can go see a doctor, using a Medicare for All card.
It’s a plan as big as the problem. It also scares moderate Democrats. In a hardball move, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked it for a vote. “I’ve noted with great interest the Green New Deal,” he said. “We’re going to be voting on that … give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel.”
The Senate voted 57 against it, 43 Democrats dodged going on record by voting present. It gave Republicans a chance to red-bait and fearmonger. Sen. Cory Gardner, facing a hard re-election, jumped at the chance. “This idea is about socialism,” he said. “That’s what this is. Look at it. Read it.”
Socialism. Theft. Crime. Tyranny. Conservatives are so trapped in their ideology, they see planet-saving reforms as heralding the next Soviet Union. They cannot accept that the Green New Deal can do what all their tax cuts and laissez-faire capitalism have failed to do: let Americans make an honest living from dignified work.
Democratic socialism is more than a change in policy, it’s a change in how people are perceived. They are no longer the “underserving poor” or “criminals” at the command of communist zealots. What drives democratic socialism’s ideology is the image of workers as the source of national renewal.
We need this new vision now because we’re at the crossroads. The choice is between a slightly less habitable Earth versus one in which a million people die from diseases, floods and heat waves. It’s bigger than the debate over socialism. It’s bigger than conservatives’ irrational fears. It’s about survival and whether we believe our descendants deserve to live.