Americans love Social Security but fear ‘socialism.’ Trump is exploiting that

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“This election will decide,” President Donald Trump declared, “whether we save the American Dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny.”

That wild claim, like nearly all Trump’s political rhetoric, bears no resemblance to the actual records of Biden, previous Democratic presidents, or party leaders in Congress. What it does resemble is arguments conservatives have made for decades against Democratic initiatives — even initiatives that ultimately became linchpins of the American Dream.

As racial justice protests continue in American cities, the Republican convention centered Trump’s home-stretch appeal around fear of physical danger from what he called “mob rule.” But the President complemented that by warning that Democratic proposals for higher taxes on affluent Americans to finance more services for others would bring economic upheaval worse than the double-digit unemployment rate and shrunken output afflicting the nation now.

Apocalyptic economic forecasts have become a Republican routine ever since President Franklin Roosevelt answered the Great Depression by wielding government power to create jobs, regulate financial markets, and protect retirees through a new old-age social insurance system called Social Security. As FDR sought re-election in 1936, his predecessor warned those intrusions on the free market risked American “tyranny” mirroring European socialism or fascism.

“Either we shall have a society based on ordered liberty and the initiative of the individual, or we shall have a planned society,” ex-President Herbert Hoover told the Republican National Convention. “There is no half-way ground. They cannot be mixed.”

Roosevelt’s landslide victory did not still that uncompromising formulation. In its rhetoric if not its actions, the GOP still refuses to acknowledge the reality that Americans embrace a mixed economy in which government constrains and tempers market outcomes.

When Harry Truman sought national health insurance after World War II, conservatives blocked it with cries of “socialized medicine.” Using the same attack, budding politician Ronald Reagan later warned that a national health program for senior citizens would ultimately doom Americans to a bleak future.

“We will awake to find that we have socialism,” Reagan warned. “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.”

The political turn toward saving Social Security and Medicare

By now, Social Security and Medicare have grown so popular that Republicans no longer dare attack them. When President George W. Bush sought to partially privatize Social Security 15 years ago, congressional Republicans shunned even considering it.

Today, Republicans call Bill Clinton a relic of abandoned Democratic centrism. But when he enacted tax increases and proposed national health care in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich tagged him with “socialism,” too.

Barack Obama’s health care program followed the market-oriented design Mitt Romney had earlier implemented as the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Running for president in 2012, Romney accused Obama of seeking “a European-style welfare state” while fellow GOP candidate Rick Perry called him a “socialist” outright.

Four years later, then-GOP candidate Ben Carson — now Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development — upped the ante by likening Obamacare to slavery. But with such popular features as protection for those with pre-existing medical conditions, the Affordable Care Act has proven resilient enough that Republicans couldn’t repeal it even while controlling both the White House and Congress.

The Sanders’ effect

This year, Republican alarms gained volume with the rise of self-styled “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders in the Democratic nomination race. That didn’t change even after he lost the nomination to Biden, a moderate, familiar former senator and Vice President.

So epithets like “socialist” and “communist” and “Marxist” echoed through the GOP’s message to voters last week. To heighten the sense of economic danger, convention speakers invoked the specter of Cuba and Venezuela more than Europe. One Cuban-American speaker suggested that Biden invokes his Catholic faith to cloak plans for a Communist dictatorship, just as Fidel Castro did.

Those overheated warnings conceal another irony. In recent decades, the free-enterprise system has performed better under Democratic presidents who favor government action to ease struggling Americans’ economic burdens than under Republican presidents who oppose it.

America’s mixed economy

The economy added more jobs during the 16 years Bill Clinton and Barack Obama served as president than during the more than 23 years of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Trump. Economic output grew faster during Clinton’s boom than Reagan’s and then slowed under the younger Bush, who bequeathed Obama a deep recession.

The pace of recovery during Trump’s first three years exceeded, ever-so slightly, the pace during Obama’s last three. But this year’s contraction triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, which Trump has failed to contain, has erased that advantage decisively and threatens to get worse.

The edge in performance under Democrats extends even to Trump’s favored measuring stick of stock market values. Over the last century, McLean Asset Management calculated last month, the S&P 500 index has risen by an average of 14.94% under Democratic presidents, 9.12% under Republicans.

Though you’d never have guessed it from his nomination acceptance speech on the White House lawn, Trump himself has acknowledged the pattern.

“It just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats,” Trump said in 2004, before he became a Republican politician.

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