Republicans have a history of weaponizing 'socialism.' But do they understand what it is?

All these policies that were once denounced as dangerously “socialist” by Republicans have become mainstays of the American political scene.
Image: President Donald Trump reacts at the final; presidential debate in Nashville on Oct. 22, 2020.
President Donald Trump reacts at the final presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 22, 2020.Jim Bourg / Pool via AP

During the final presidential debate on Thursday night, President Donald Trump repeatedly charged his opponent, former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, of plotting to bring socialism to America.

Weaponizing “socialism” is a familiar trope from conservative politicians, but one with an incredibly poor record.

“He wants socialized medicine. And it’s not that he wants it. His vice president, she is more liberal than Bernie Sanders and wants it even more. Bernie Sanders wants it. The Democrats want it. You’re going to have socialized medicine, just like you want it with fracking,” he said, throwing a flurry of triggering socialism-by-association concepts into his response to Biden’s plan for a government-run health care option.

Weaponizing “socialism” is a familiar trope from conservative politicians, but one with an incredibly poor record.

Back in 1952, President Harry Truman explained that “socialism” had long stood as the reflexive response of Republicans to the New Deal. It was, he charged on the campaign trail, simply “a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years.” To prove his point, he rattled off an array of New Deal policies — Social Security, FDIC, price supports for farmers, public power and labor rights — that conservatives had denounced as “creeping socialism.” “Socialism,” the president argued, “is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”

Over the next decade, conservatives pushed this same “scare word” socialism on a surprising range of programs and proposals.

When Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine in 1955, for instance, Democrats proposed a federal program to distribute the vaccine to all American schoolchildren. Eisenhower’s secretary of health education and welfare (HEW), a Texas millionaire named Oveta Culp Hobby, objected to the plan: “That’s socialized medicine by the back door, not the front door.”

But the Eisenhower White House wasn’t immune to charges of socialism either. The far-right radio commenter Clarence Manion accused the Republican administration of enabling a “drift toward central government,” holding up the interstate highway system as a prime example of “creeping socialism.” Even the new HEW Department, he said, was “an ominous affront to the last rampart of … state authority and responsibility.”

Once the Civil Rights Act and Medicare had been enacted, some conservatives still denounced them — and the larger Great Society programs of the Johnson administration — as more socialism.

Though conservatives complained that the Eisenhower administration was, in Barry Goldwater’s famous phrase, a “dime-store New Deal” — a cheap imitation — they mostly cried “socialism” when Democrats were in power. In 1961, the Kennedy administration proposed the program for federal health insurance for senior citizens that would come to be known as Medicare. Soon after, the former actor and conservative activist Ronald Reagan offered a blistering warning in a radio address, one soon widely circulated in a recording titled “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine.” Urging his listeners to take action before it was too late, Reagan warned that “if you don’t do this and if I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

Likewise, when JFK unveiled what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opponents denounced it too as socialism. Segregationist organizations in the South, for instance, took out large newspaper ads denouncing it as “the Socialists’ Omnibus Bill of 1963.” “What is being piously presented as a humane effort to redress past wrongs — the ‘Civil Rights’ bill — is, in fact, a cynical design to make even the least of us … subject to the whim and caprice of government bureaucrats.”

Once the Civil Rights Act and Medicare had been enacted, some conservatives still denounced them — and the larger Great Society programs of the Johnson administration — as more socialism. “This will be only the beginning,” warned conservative journalist Walter Trohan of the Chicago Tribune, “because once a country embarks on such a welfare or socialistic program, there is virtually no avenue for retreat.”

Ironically, if there has been “creeping socialism” in America, it’s apparently crept up on those who keep shouting about it.

Today, of course, all these policies that were once denounced as dangerously “socialist” have become mainstays of the American political scene. As he warns that his opponent will bring dangerous new forms of socialism to America, Trump has promised to preserve the programs that previous generations of conservative Republicans warned were dangerous new forms of socialism. “We will protect Medicare and Social Security,” he promised in his acceptance speech at this year’s Republican National Convention. Ironically, if there has been “creeping socialism” in America, it’s apparently crept up on those who keep shouting about it.