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The problem with Marco Rubio's misplaced interest in 'Marxism'

Marco Rubio keeps using the word "Marxism" to smear Democrats, not because it's accurate, but because the GOP overused "socialism" for decades.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has taught political-science courses at Florida International University, which suggests he should probably have some basic understanding of what Marxism is.

That is, at least in theory.

In practice, the Florida senator seems to love using the word "Marxism" without any regard for its meaning. In May, for example, Rubio appeared on Fox News and told viewers that those who reference "social justice" are often using a code phrase to refer to "social Marxism." And what, pray tell, is, "social Marxism"? No one, least of all the senator, seems to have any idea, but Rubio seemed to think it sounded cool, so he put it on Twitter.

Yesterday, he returned to Fox News to complain that Democrats are determined to create an "almost Marxist-type economy." Soon after, as Business Insider noted, the Florida Republican removed the qualifier.

GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida denounced the $3.5 trillion spending bill being pushed by Democrats, which includes provisions to address climate change and expand the social safety net, as "Marxism." Rubio tweeted: "The $3.5 trillion Biden plan isn't socialism, it's marxism [sic]."

Not surprisingly, the senator was mocked relentlessly for his foolish rhetoric by scholars, Democrats, and pretty much anyone with basic familiarity of Marxism. For example, The New York Times' Paul Krugman joked, "Ah yes, remember that stirring line in The Communist Manifesto: 'Workers of the world, unite to spend 1.2% of GDP on popular programs over the next decade!'"

It's entirely possible Rubio has no idea what Marxism is, but he's thinking about messaging that might prove effective in his next fundraising letter. It's also possible the senator is well aware of what Marxism is, but he assumes his political allies won't know or care about why smears like these are nonsensical.

But the more interesting dimension to this is the motivation behind the Republican's misguided rhetoric.

In the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, his opponents on the right found that incessant references to "socialism" weren't making much of an impact. GOP operatives started using "fascism" instead.

To be sure, there was nothing about the Democratic White House's agenda that resembled fascism in any way, but Republicans thought it sounded harsh and negative, so they gave it a try.

Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who tried to became national party chairman, told The New York Times 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. Fascism — everybody still thinks that's a bad thing."

Whether it made sense or not was irrelevant. What mattered was that talk of "socialism" had become tiresome, leading lazy voices on the right to look for the next rung on the rhetorical ladder.

Rubio has offered a similar example of rhetorical inflation. Is it Marxism to help young people afford community college or help parents afford child care? Not according to anyone who knows literally anything about Karl Marx or his ideas about economics and society.

But the Florida senator keeps using the word, not because it's accurate, but for the same reason Saul Anuzis needlessly tried to smear Obama with the word "fascism" 12 years ago — Republicans are desperately searching for a word that everybody still thinks is "a bad thing."