Donald Trump is perhaps the most unpopular president in recorded history, and he will soon face the most daunting re-election campaign in recent memory. Dogged by investigations and hamstrung by a lack of achievements, he has thus far failed to settle on a sharp message for 2020. “Promises Kept,” though less authoritarian, doesn’t have quite the ring of “Build the Wall” or “Lock Her Up.” But at Tuesday’s State of the Union, Trump unveiled what some advisers believe will be the winning message in November of next year. “Tonight,” he said, “we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” The Republicans in the chamber—nearly all rich white men—stood and applauded, while many Democrats scowled.
Trump’s allies see this as a crucial argument heading in to 2020. After the State of the Union, Trump’s 2016 communications director, Jason Miller, told Axios’ Mike Allen that the president “elevated the wedge issue of ‘socialism’ in a way nobody else could.” Allen wrote that Republicans “loved ... the endorsement-by-sitting-in-silence when he hammered socialism.” With the border wall in limbo, little progress on a nuclear treaty with North Korea, and the 2017 tax cuts looking worse by the day, Trump doesn’t have any major accomplishments to campaign on beyond his Supreme Court appointments. But he does still have a strong economy. Trump is “trying to frame 2020 as another big, directional election ... betting that [his] people are going to actually like the direction the country is going,” another Trump campaign veteran told Allen.
Trump’s State of the Union paean to capitalism undoubtedly pleased his base, who have been the focal point of his entire presidency. But there are reasons to believe that making 2020 about “America First v. Socialism,” in Axios’ phrasing, might backfire for Trump. While the economy has continued to grow under Trump, there is rising dissatisfaction with income inequality and capitalism itself. Trump may think that red-baiting can make his toxic presidency appear to be the lesser of two evils. But this strategy requires taking greater ownership of a system that an increasing number of Americans think is unfair—and that didn’t work out so well for his Democratic opponent in the 2016 election.
Socialism’s long comeback in America began after the 2008 financial collapse, which made Americans keenly aware of the banking industry’s power and the country’s massive wealth inequality. “The richest Americans,” wrote Brown University economist Mark Blyth in his 2013 book Austerity, “own more assets than the bottom 150 million, while 46 million Americans, some 15 percent of the population, live in a family of four earning less than $22,314 per annum.” Outrage over inequality drove the creation of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City in 2011, and in 2016 it was the foundation of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders’s campaign ultimately failed, but it could be argued that he won in the long term. Today, nearly every major Democratic candidate for president endorses some version of universal health care, which would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. The Democratic primary will be fought over issues like how to reduce inequality and tax the rich, as well as on costly spending programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The party’s most popular young star, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is an avowed socialist. Democrats, by a 10-point margin, now think that socialism is more appealing than capitalism, and that’s significantly more true of people under 30. Polling has even suggested that 70 percent of the country supports Medicare for All, including a majority of Republicans.
Trump’s strategy is commonplace in partisan politics: to define the opposing party by its most extreme members. As The New York Times reported on Wednesday, focusing on socialism “could provide Mr. Trump with a potentially effective weapon in confronting an increasingly aggressive and more liberal Democratic Party, defining it through attacks on Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who describe themselves as democratic socialists, and other members of the party pushing progressive policies like a 70 percent tax rate and ‘Medicare for all.’”
There is historical evidence that Trump’s strategy could work, as red-baiting has been an often effective tool for conservative politicians over the past century. The question is whether that remains true today. As the Times acknowledged, “there is no evidence of any growing public angst about socialism sweeping the United States.” It’s true that Americans broadly see social programs like Medicare for All in a much better light than they do socialism itself. One August NBC/WSJ poll, though something of an outlier, found that only 19 percent of voters viewed socialism positively. Then again, Sanders may end up as the only Democratic candidate for president who defines himself thus.
The bigger flaw in Trump’s anti-socialism strategy, though, is that it’s forcing him to be staunchly pro-capitalism at a time when its popularity is severely ebbing. In doing so, Trump is forgetting one of the most important lessons of his 2016 victory. Hillary Clinton made the case that the economy was strong and that Democratic stewardship over it should continue. Trump railed against a “rigged” system that had decimated rural and Rust Belt communities, and he vowed to fix it. This message, combined with his pledge to protect entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, was vital to his upset victory—helping him to win key the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. (His approval is now underwater in all three states by double digits.)
Today, Trump is not only embracing the “rigged” system, but further owning his own unpopular economic policies, notably the $1.5 trillion tax cut he signed into law in December of 2017, which largely benefitted corporations and rich Americans. In the State of the Union, Trump boasted that “we are considered far and away the hottest economy anywhere in the world.” But many Americans still aren’t feeling that heat, just as they weren’t in 2016. Most of the economic gains have gone to the top 20 percent, and wage growth, while ticking upward over the past six months, has been largely flat throughout most of the economic recovery. This, much more than Sanders, is why more Americans have warmed to socialism. “The prime mover of millions of Americans into the socialist column has been the near complete dysfunctionality of contemporary American capitalism,” argued Harold Meyerson in The Guardian.
That’s not to say that Trump’s strategy won’t yield any benefits for him. Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO contemplating an independent run, has already discerned that dividing the Democratic Party is the best path to victory. The response to Trump’s attacks on socialism has been relatively quiet on the left thus far, but the Democratic Socialists of America did release a statement on Tuesday decrying Speaker Nancy Pelosi for tepidly applauding. “Nancy Pelosi clapping at Trump’s remark about socialism, while children in Flint drink poisoned water, tens of thousands die for lack of health insurance every year, and we are headed off a climate cliff because big oil refuses to give up their profits. is peak capitalism,” the statement read. “The American People will not stand for it.”
But any such infighting on the left is likely to be semantic and largely forgotten once Democrats nominate a candidate. We can fairly predict that the nominee will support universal health care, taxes on the rich, economic reform, and an infrastructure stimulus—all policies that will appeal to the millions of Americans who have been left behind by the economic recovery, and who fear they’ll fall even further behind when the economy inevitably turns for the worse. Trump, by contrast, will be shouting “better dead than red” and insisting that the economy is the greatest, ever. He thinks he set a trap for Democrats with his State of the Union jab, but in reality he has just trapped himself.