President Donald Trump had an insult and a warning in his State of the Union address when he said “we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country.”
It was a warning because he suggested the US could follow the same path as Venezuela, which despite its oil riches has become an unstable country.
It was an insult since he was suggesting Democrats want to take the US toward socialism, which has long been thought to be a dirty word in US politics.
“America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control,” Trump said. “We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Get used to this topic. Trump used it repeatedly in November as he campaigned for Republican candidates and its inclusion at the State of the Union address suggests he’ll be bringing it back as the 2020 campaign ramps up. Here are some of the ways Trump has used the specter of socialism, including about Venezuela, as an argument against tax hikes, as part of a pledge to protect Medicare, and as a dream for his ideal opponent. Note: The factba.se database is an incredible resource for exercises like this.
Socialism will turn the US into Venezuela
“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom – and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair. Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country.” - Trump’s State of the Union Address, February 5, 2019.
You hear this argument a lot, not just from Trump and other conservatives, but also from Democrats like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
It is true that the Venezuela government has called itself socialist in previous years when the Venezuelan economy was doing better and before some socialists held it up as a model. But that was before leaders in Venezuela, like the erstwhile President Nicholas Maduro, had turned to authoritarianism and become antidemocratic. But the path from strongest capitalist society in the world to near-failed socialist state-turned authoritarian regime would be long and have a lot of offramps. Plus, the US economy does not rely on a state-run oil company, as Venezuela’s does almost entirely.
Democrats are socialists
“They want to impose socialism on our country.” - Trump in Chattanooga, Tennessee, November 4, 2018
While most Democrats don’t call them socialists, a growing number embrace the idea of democratic socialism as espoused by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has pushed tax hikes and bold new government programs like the Green New Deal, which aims to provide jobs and cut down on carbon emissions.
Sanders is the only self-avowed democratic socialist in the Democratic 2020 field – he is expected to run – and he’s been talking about socialism for decades.
Other progressive Democrats do not like to be called socialists. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has bristled at the idea. “Come on, I’m a capitalist,” she once said during an interview.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, another progressive who thinks the government can do a lot more, calls himself a populist, but he says Trump has mangled the idea of populism.
There are also Democrats who want nothing to do with socialism, like the billionaire Bloomberg, an avowed capitalist. Former Vice President Joe Biden has said the US doesn’t need socialism.
Democratic socialists say they don’t want a purely socialist society where the government controls all production. Rather, they want to encourage a government more active in providing services and benefits like health care, transportation and housing.
Americans don’t want socialism
“I do really want to run against a true socialist because I can’t believe that’s what this country wants.” But let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a very interesting fight.” Trump in Tupelo, Mississippi, on November 26, 2018.
As to whether the country wants socialism, that’s another question entirely.
As CNN’s Gregory Krieg wrote last year, one recent Fox News poll suggested 36% of Americans said it would be a good thing for the country to move toward socialism, compared to 51% who said it would be a bad thing. That’s a much tighter spread than in previous times Fox asked the question. Pair it with data from Gallup that show younger Americans have a more positive view of socialism than capitalism and you have a country possibly more open to the idea. But certainly not there yet.
Taxes are socialism
“That’s what socialism gets you when they want to raise your taxes to 70%. You know, it’s interesting, I’ve been watching our opponents – our future opponents – talking about 70%. Number one, they can’t do it for 70%. It’s got to be probably twice that number.” - Trump on January 24, 2019, during a trade meeting at the White House
Two times 70% would be 140%, which would be one heck of a tax. But he has a point here that social programs like the Green New Deal would require either a ton of new government revenue or realigning the political conversation away from the idea that debt, for a country like the US, is a bad thing.
Trump’s tax argument misleads about Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal – her office has said it’s really more of a conversation-starter – which would be for a top marginal tax rate of 70%. That means income over $10 million would be taxed at that rate. Income before $10 million would be taxed at lower rates. It would have affected the grand total of 16,087 tax returns of $10 million or more reported in 2017 to the Internal Revenue Service.
A separate wealth tax idea from 2020 hopeful Warren would place an annual tax rate of 2% on a household’s wealth between $50 million and $1 billion and a 3% tax on wealth over $1 billion.
The public isn’t overwhelmingly sold on the idea of a wealth tax. In a CNN poll conducted by SSRS and released Wednesday, 41% of Americans said they would support an additional tax on those who earn $10 million or more a year at 70%, but 54% said they would favor a tax for those whose net worth tops $50 million.
Medicare and socialism
“Democrats want to raid the Medicare to fund socialism.” - Trump at a campaign rally in Tupelo, Mississippi November 26, 2018.
The idea behind this comment is a little weird.
Medicare is a government-run, “single-payer” health care system for older and disabled Americans. It’s arguably the most socialist element of US society.
Providing “Medicare for all” is the promise of the more progressive 2020 candidates, although there are big disagreements over how exactly to achieve such a promise. If the 2018 election was any indication, there will be a fight in 2020 over who can believably become the party and the candidate to protect Medicare.