Republicans have decided not to craft an official party platform at their convention this week, so in lieu of a detailed agenda for the country, its top minds delivered a simple message on Monday night: The GOP is for Donald Trump, and Democrats are for socialism.
Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle repeatedly decried the “socialists” running the Democratic Party, along with the “socialist Biden-Harris agenda,” which apparently would include shipping American jobs to China, welcoming sex traffickers across the Mexican border, the “policies that destroyed places like Cuba and Venezuela,” and, for good measure, “closed schools.”
“Their vision for America is socialism,” declared former Trump United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, adding that socialism is an experiment that “has failed everywhere.”
“They will turn our country into a socialist utopia,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) warned.
“President Trump is fighting against the forces of socialism,” intoned multimillionaire gasoline distributor Maximillian Alvarez.
This apocalyptic potpourri seems ludicrous to liberals and moderates who associate socialism with centrally planned economies, gulags and the Soviet Union. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are career moderates who have spent their time in public office defending the same neoliberal turn in economic policy that Republicans have pursued for the past 40 years, and they won their spots on the Democratic ticket by crushing their party’s progressive wing.
But to students of history, there is a certain paranoid logic to the latest Red Scare. Socialism is not, and never has been, a consistently defined economic program. It is a malleable political term whose meaning has been shaped through American history predominantly by its enemies, rather than the practitioners of any concrete doctrine. To the conservative economist Milton Friedman, progressive taxation was a socialist policy. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) once claimed that same-sex marriage was part of a socialist plan to attack “individual liberty” by extending government benefits to LGBTQ families.
Such Red Scare tactics were de rigueur during the Cold War, as they could be used to associate Stalinist butchery with whatever it was the right was upset about. Conservatives seeking to beat back the civil rights movement would rail that Marxists had infiltrated the NAACP, or attack Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a devotee of “socialism and sex perversion.”
The attempts to link socialism with efforts to dismantle American racial hierarchy go back much further than the Cold War, however. After World War I, hard-right members of both parties ranted against the supposed flood of “Judeo-Bolshevik” immigrants from Eastern Europe who planned to overthrow America. When white mobs besieged Black neighborhoods in several American cities in the summer of 1919, The New York Times and other news outlets portrayed the violence as a response to “widespread propaganda” from labor unions to convert Black families to socialism. “Reds Try To Stir Negroes To Revolt,” read a Times headline on July 28, 1919. Similar newspaper headlines accompanied strikes and other labor activism in the 19th century.
In American history, freakouts over “socialism” aren’t really about socialism. They’re about democracy ― and everything about democracy that makes American conservatives uncomfortable. Too many rights for the wrong people; not enough social distance between the elite and the rabble.
And yet even on the hard right, the idea of America as a democratic beacon of hope to the world, founded on core democratic principles, is too deeply cherished for a conservative political party to openly declare itself an enemy of democracy. They need a different word. Frequently, they choose “socialism.”
In this light, “socialism” can be understood as any political movement or policy agenda that threatens the existing racial and economic order. And the right’s targets in this project have often been individuals and organizations who really were trying to bring radical change to that order.
The wave of immigration that swept into American cities in the early 20th century did include many people from eastern and southern Europe who brought their left-wing politics with them. The NAACP was not packed with Soviet spies, but it was founded by, among others, W.E.B. Du Bois and William Walling, who both identified as socialists. And while Martin Luther King wasn’t trying to convert the country to queerness, in 1952 he wrote to his future wife Coretta Scott that he was “more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.”
Was the right’s objection to King really about the prospect of nationalized industry bringing an era of weak economic growth? Of course not. Nor are Mark and Patty McCloskey afraid that Biden will take over Facebook and Comcast and destroy so many hard-earned dividends. The McCloskeys ― two wealthy lawyers who earned an invite as RNC speakers after being charged with a class E felony for threatening Black Lives Matter protesters with guns in June ― were quite explicit about their concerns. They’re afraid that wealthy white neighborhoods will be integrated with everyone else.
“They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning,” Patty McCloskey told RNC viewers on Monday. “These are the policies that are coming to a neighborhood near you. So make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”
Monday night was not an aberration. Republicans will be screaming “socialism!” for the rest of the convention and the rest of the campaign.
In their own way, they mean it. Trump’s constant praise for dictators isn’t for show; he’s serious about his authoritarianism. So long as he is running the GOP ― and so long as the GOP’s entire agenda is “elect Trump” ― the party’s chief organizing principle will remain its antipathy to democracy.
Zach Carter is the author of “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes,” now available from Random House wherever books are sold.