Republicans believe they have hit on a bold, brand new line of attack that is sure to doom Democrats heading into the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump made it a central point of his State of the Union. Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, promises to bring this fresh hit in his party’s effort to regain control of the House.
The big plan is to ― wait for it ― attack Democrats as socialists.
“Socialism is the greatest vulnerability by far that the House Democrats have,” Emmer told the New York Times.
As any American who has developed to the stage of object permanence can tell you, this isn’t a new plan. It is, in fact, the oldest trick in the book.
Every single political actor since the late 19th century advocating for some form progressive social change ― whether it be economic reform, challenging America’s racial caste system or advocating for women’s rights or LGBT rights ― has been tarred as a socialist or a communist bent on destroying the American Free Enterprise System.
Contemporary political conservatism has been focused on blocking social change that challenges existing hierarchies of class, race and sex since its founding in response to the French Revolution. Socialism emerged as the biggest threat to class hierarchies in due time and conservatives have called everything they don’t like socialism ever since.
In the U.S., this dates back at least as far as the first presidential candidacy of “Prairie Populist” William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Bryan, who ran for president as a Democrat three times, was variously attacked a “socialist” and a “communist” during each of his campaigns. His 1896 presidential nomination took the Democratic Party on a “perilous adventure in radicalism and centralization,” according to one conservative New York City paper. This despite the fact that he ran against actual Socialist Party nominees.
But it was the 1932 election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that brought about the widespread partisan deployment of socialism accusations in U.S. politics. The Democratic Party candidate campaigned on a promise to enact a policy of expansive governmental action to rein in the private abuses of corporate America, provide baseline economic security and empower labor unions.
Republican President Herbert Hoover attacked this New Deal as “a disguise for the totalitarian state.” The American people were faced with a choice between “free enterprise” and “collectivism.” Hoover lost the election in a landslide.
Conservative elites in both political parties were shocked by the popularity of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Conservative businessmen recruited former New York Gov. Al Smith, a former Democratic Party presidential nominee once tarred as a socialist by conservative opponents, to call Roosevelt a communist.
“Just get the platform of the Democratic Party and get the platform of the Socialist Party and lay them down on your dining-room table, side by side,” Smith declared in a 1936 speech. “After you have done that, make your mind up to pick up the platform that more nearly squares with the record, and you will have your hand on the Socialist platform.”
“There can be only one capital,” Smith added. “Washington or Moscow. There can be only one atmosphere of government, the clear, pure, fresh air of free America, or the foul breath of communistic Russia.”
The attacks from conservatives did little damage to Roosevelt as he steamrolled to the biggest re-election margin since the era of the Founding Fathers. That didn’t stop the recycling of the socialist slur when he ran and won a record third term.
“State socialism, state capitalism, or Communism or whatever you may choose to call it are merely different names for the same thing—absolute and arbitrary power in the hands of the government,” Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Party presidential candidate, said.
Roosevelt inaugurated the New Deal era, but the politics of New Deal continued for decades after. And the same exact attacks followed ensuing efforts at policy reform.
In what would become a very familiar line of attack, President Harry Truman’s proposal for a national health care plan was labeled socialist as part of a public relations campaign run by the American Medical Association. That PR campaign was run by the very first political consulting firm Campaigns, Inc.
“Hitler and Stalin and the socialist government of Great Britain all have used the opiate of socialized medicine to deaden the pain of lost liberty and lull the people into non-resistance,” Clem Whitaker, a co-founder of Campaigns, Inc., told a meeting of doctors in 1949. “Old World contagion of compulsory health insurance, if allowed to spread to our New World, will mark the beginning of the end of free institutions in America.”
The 1950s were marked by the rise of anti-communist red-baiters like Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) and the paranoid political movements that fueled his rise like the John Birch Society. McCarthy and the John Birch Society saw communists everywhere during the first years of the Cold War: Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, including the Army, was filled with communists or maybe even the president himself was one.
Richard Nixon made his political career on the back of accusations of communism on the House Un-American Activities Committee and in his Senate campaign. Running against Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950, Nixon’s entire campaign involved calling her a communist. He labeled her the “Pink Lady” (pink being the color of those who were sympathetic to Red communists) who was “pink down to her underwear.”
When Democratic Party politicians began to discuss enacting a national health program for the elderly (Medicare) the American Medical Association hired the then-actor Ronald Reagan to make the case against it in a record. Reagan also wrote a letter comparing President John F. Kennedy to Communist Manifesto author Karl Marx.
During this same period, conservative segregationists in the South leaned heavily into accusing civil rights activists of socialism and communism. (The political parties were more ideologically diverse as southern conservatives tended to affiliate with the Democratic Party.)
Segregationists claimed that the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which banned school segregation, was the product of communist influence. “I have often wondered what was the source of the pro-Communist influence in the Supreme Court,” former Democratic Mississippi Sen. James Eastland declared as he demanded an investigation into communist influence on the court.
Fears of socialism ultimately helped sweep the conservative movement into power in the later part of the 20th century. Following party realignment, socialist smears have met almost every single Democratic Party candidate.
Republican George H.W. Bush campaigning in 1988 against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis said his opponent was “far outside the mainstream” due to his policies that mirrored European-style socialism.
The health care plan introduced by Democratic President Bill Clinton was akin to “centralized bureaucratic socialism,” according to then-congressman Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, would similarly characterize the bipartisan S-CHIP program, which expanded health coverage for children, as “a step towards socialism.”
And then there’s President Barack Obama.
In the waning days of the 2008 election conservatives began to lose their minds as it became clear that Obama was going to defeat Republican nominee John McCain. At a series of town hall-style events, McCain supporters ranted about “Muslims” and “socialists taking over our country.”
The Obama years were a golden time for over-the-top accusations of socialism. Obama was “a hardcore socialist,” according to billionaire David Koch. His stimulus plan was “one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment,” then-Republican House leader John Boehner said. The U.S. will “have effectively ceased to be a free-enterprise society” after the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said during his 2012 presidential campaign. Fox News host Glenn Beck said that Obama was enacting a 100-year old socialist plot originally hatched by Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. Then-Reps. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) both intimated that they had lists of Democrats in Congress who were secret socialists or “members of the Communist Party.”
Even Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, was labeled as “dangerously close” to socialism by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, during the 2016 election.
Now, Republicans hope that the public will forget that they’ve been warning about an imminent socialist takeover of the U.S. and the end of the American way of life for the better part of a century. This time it’s different and new, they argue.
That might be true as some Democrats, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent running as a Democrat for president, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), openly identify as democratic socialists, an ideological descriptor that is different than being an explicit socialist (whatever that actually means).
Conservative only have themselves to blame for that one, as Republican consultant Saul Anuzis foreshadowed in 2009.
“We’ve so overused the word ‘socialism’ that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Anuzis said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Helen Gahagan Douglas as Helen Gahagan Thomas.