vision 2020

Will the GOP’s Red Scare Tactics Work During the Pandemic?

It didn’t work in Kentucky in 2019, but it’s a hardy perennial for Republicans. Photo: Jason Riley

Heading into 2020, there was no doubt about the one word that would sum up the Republican Party’s negative campaign message: Socialism! It has been, after all, a staple of conservative agitprop dating back to FDR, as I noted last year with a quote from the apostate Al Smith in 1926:

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 … 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.

The Red Scare tactic has been deployed with particular verve when the GOP itself has been vulnerable to extremism charges, as in 1964 and after 1994. Even as centrist Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama steered their party away from the policy prescriptions and political strategies of progressives, Republicans described their opponents as, to use Newt Gingrich’s favorite term, a “Secular-Socialist Machine,” hostile to God and country and gun rights and private property, not necessarily in that order. With the current Republican leader exemplifying an alarming combo platter of extremist impulses and wild-ass rhetoric, and showing zero capacity for broader coalition-building, it’s not surprising he and his minions have adopted the Socialism! attack line habitually. A president with his level of job approval ratings has no choice but to drag his opponent down into the mud of dubious associations, just like he managed to do with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But there have been two recent blows to the Red Scare strategy. The first and most obvious was the demise of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy at the hands of the least “socialistic” contender in the field, Joe Biden. You can bet Republicans generally and Team Trump in particular will seize on any unity gestures Biden makes as an indicator that he’s sold out to Sanders and his red red socialists; indeed, you can expect to hear often Bernie’s own claim that his movement “won the ideological battle” in the Democratic Party. And you can also anticipate a shift in focus from Sanders to other progressives, particularly if someone even vaguely to the left of Biden becomes his running mate.

The second problem, however, is that the country is in a deadly pandemic in which rugged individualism isn’t necessarily advisable, the private-sector economy is in the worst run since the 1930s, and Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are eagerly pushing for trillions of dollars in new federal domestic spending.

Yes, Republicans are still finding ways at the margins of the debate over coronavirus relief and stimulus measures to accuse Democrats of partiality to socialistic interest groups and shiftless welfare recipients, as in the Senate GOP fight to cap unemployment insurance payments to people in low-wage states. They will attack Democrats for being willing to divert hard-earned taxpayer dollars to undocumented immigrants, and to prefer relief channeled through state and local governments instead of corporations and small businesses. You’ll even hear the random Republican claim that any criticism of the wealthy is socialistic. That’s the tack being taken by Senator Kelly Loeffler, who has been under attack from every direction for the stock sales she and her husband undertook just before the pandemic which she had privileged information about struck the economy:

Adding that the couple has taken “extraordinary measures” so that they “can’t be attacked for our success,” Loeffler then insisted that this was all an attempt by the left to take her down.

“This gets at the very heart of why I came to Washington, to defend free enterprise, to defend capitalism, and this is a socialist attack,” she declared. 

Loeffler may be playing the plutocratic hand she was dealt, but other Republicans, all the way up to POTUS, may make different calculations. Obviously if the pandemic radically subsides and the economy starts roaring back before November 2, Trump can claim he has Made America Great Again for a second time, and return to attacking Democrats as socialist, globalist wreckers who want to get in the way of this great country’s Industrial Titans who are rebuilding the most fabulous economy that has ever existed. But if things are dicier, Team Trump may decide the imperative is to make sure the president plays FDR and not Herbert Hoover in the crisis. And so focusing on his party’s fidelity to the private sector and its hostility to spendthrift public-sector activism may not be the most effective message after all. Indeed, Trump may wind up championing his own distinctive version of Socialism in One Country, and channel his partisan savagery into cultural issues like immigration and abortion and the dirty hippies who want to deny fossil-fuel workers jobs.

Will the GOP’s Red Scare Tactics Work During the Pandemic?