Donald Trump thinks climate change is a hoax invented by China and that exercise drains humans’ finite energy reserves. But dense though he may be, he clearly has a special intuition about the American psyche. Consciously or not, Trump senses what will transfix, flatter, enrage, humiliate, impress, and distract tens of millions of people. He’s got America’s number — not the whole country, but enough to take the Republican primary and then the 2016 election by storm with no political experience whatsoever.
Since then, the entire Republican Party establishment has been trying to decide what to do with their magnificent moron. Some, unable to stomach Trump’s unpredictability, are waiting in the wings for better days. But many angle for proximity to him, hoping to steer and coax the president. They are routinely ignored and rebuffed, and frequently banished when Trump tires of them. But Trump can’t devote his scarce mental energy to serious consideration of every decision that crosses his desk, and his rotating cast of advisers retains some influence.
These advisers have hatched a plan for Trump in 2020. According to the Daily Beast, they want him to go hard against “socialists and communists,” to red-bait his way to reelection. He has obliged in public on several occasions, saying, for example, that any vote for a Democrat is “a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream,” and promising in his 2019 State of the Union address that “America will never be a socialist country.”
But privately, Trump is not so sure this will work. In closed-door meetings, he has expressed concerns that people might actually like the idea of eliminating college tuition, canceling student and medical debt, and dispensing with health insurance co-pays, premiums, and deductibles. If that’s what socialism stands for today, then maybe it’s wise to lay off and scaremonger about immigrants or Iran instead.
“A lot of people think it’ll be easy to beat,” he’s reported to have said about socialism at a private event recently. “The truth is, it might not be so easy.” Trump has a crystal ball, and, peering into it, he sees that socialism holds a certain appeal in a nation wracked by inequality and disenchanted with business as usual — the same populist mood that he masterfully manipulated in his own presidential bid.
Trump is right. According to a Harris poll conducted in March, half of millennials and Generation Z respondents said they would “prefer living in a socialist country” to a capitalist one. These age groups will make up 37 percent of the electorate in 2020. And even 27 percent of people over the age of sixty-five have a positive view of the word “socialism.” Capitalism is losing its luster, and disparaging its opposite doesn’t hold the same promise it once did.
Smart capitalists know that the best way to beat socialism is to erase it, to rule it out of order from the start. That’s because the numbers are on socialism’s side. Socialism is an ideology that holds that the working class ought not to be exploited and dominated by a handful of economic elites, that they ought to instead control their own lives and enjoy the full fruits of their labor. And the majority of people are working class, a reality that’s baked into the structure of capitalism.
If political elites can make socialism officially taboo, as the United States successfully did during and after the Cold War, then it’s relatively smooth sailing. They can draw arbitrary lines demarcating the boundary between liberalism and conservatism, and apportion voters between the two relatively evenly, setting into motion a political struggle that is as bitterly factional as it is undergirded by a broad consensus about the inviolable rights of corporations, the superior wisdom of capitalist markets, and the largesse of the deserving rich. But the moment socialism ceases to be unthinkable, it has a natural constituency among the vast majority of people on the basis of their material interests. That constituency still has to be organized, but the potential is there.
Socialism may even be capable of dramatically realigning the electorate. People who once strongly prioritized, say, traditional religious values may begin instead to prioritize their identity as workers, if that’s presented as a serious option. In time, they may find that they care less about whether gay couples adopt children than they do about whether they’re being paid enough to adequately care for their own children. If given permission to view themselves as members of a class in motion, a class that refuses to meekly accept its fate, then their political identities could begin to shift. This isn’t hypothetical; scenarios like this have played out many times before in history.
For much of the twentieth century, socialism was an uncontroversial scapegoat in American politics. The Right, resting on its laurels after the collapse of the Soviet Union abroad and the neoliberal reorientation of the Democratic Party at home, called everything it didn’t like “socialist” with impunity. The Democrats, for their part, considered socialism a smear and sought to distance themselves, burying the idea further underground. The word functioned like a curse and worked like a charm.
But that era has come to a close. Wages are stagnating, rents are skyrocketing, benefits are eroding, jobs are thinning, tuition is ballooning, the planet is warming, and we live in a country where the cost of an ambulance ride makes people afraid to call for help when their own lives are in danger. Socialism sounds like change, and people want change. Trump, himself a beneficiary of the nation’s impatience with the status quo, seems to have caught on quicker than the rest of the Republican Party.
When Trump expresses concern that socialism might have legs in 2020, he’s talking specifically about Bernie Sanders, the only presidential candidate who openly calls himself a socialist and indeed the politician who has put the idea back in circulation in the last few years. When Trump says socialism won’t be easy to beat, he specifically means Sanders won’t be easy to beat. In fact, his advisers’ strategy will work fine for any other candidate besides Sanders: Trump can just call his opponent a socialist, his opponent will deny it, and the catalytic potential will be squashed. The trouble with Sanders is that he won’t deny it. That’s what makes him dangerous.
By the millions, people are drawn to Sanders’s positive vision of a society transformed, one where education, housing, health care, a secure retirement, a clean environment, free time, greater empowerment at work, and meaningful input in the political process belong to the many, not just the few. By the millions, people are activated by Sanders’s vision of a future where the working class doesn’t just accept the hand it’s dealt — where it begins to fight back, and win.
Take it from the political savant-in-chief himself: the biggest threat to Donald Trump is Bernie Sanders. As ever, it’s socialism or barbarism.