One of the luckiest breaks for the United States, and indeed the world, was that Trump never actually governed as the populist he pretended to be.
It’s easy to forget after the last two years — joyrides on the public tab, the evisceration of social programs and consumer protections, the tax bill that seemed to have been written by the Monopoly Man, the handover of regulatory agencies to lobbyists — there was once real danger that Trump would come into office and do something to actually make people’s lives better, pairing a neofascist power grab with the kind of social-democratic policies that today’s Democrats treat with the suspicion of a tourist poking at a strange foreign delicacy.
Had Trump passed some version of universal health care, he would have probably secured a second term, increased the GOP’s domination of Congress, and left the Democrats wandering the political desert for a generation in the political realignment that followed.
But because Trump has no real ideology, save getting nondescript “wins” and lining his own pockets, he embraced the establishment wing of the Right and proceeded to govern as a stock-standard, if more extreme, Republican. Over the past two years he’s hemorrhaged supporters betrayed and disappointed by his embrace of radical neoliberalism, his approval rating has dwindled to historic lows, and his support has calcified where it was always going to go: the GOP base of Evangelicals, the wealthy, and the upper middle class.
Trump’s reaction to Sanders’s announcement was swift: “Bernie Sanders has already won the debate in the Democrat primary, because every candidate is embracing his brand of socialism,” his national press secretary said on Tuesday, adding the standard fear-mongering about “sky-high tax rates, government-run health care, and coddling dictators.” As CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pointed out, Sanders is only the second candidate to get a statement from team Trump in reaction to his announcement, the first being Elizabeth Warren.
RNC spokesperson Michael Ahrens put out a similar statement, warning that Sanders “is a self-avowed socialist who wants to double your taxes so the government can take over your health care” and that voters “oppose his radical agenda, just like they are going to oppose all the 2020 Democrats who have rushed to embrace it.” Meanwhile, Fox & Friends‘ Brian Kilmeade, who at this point is more a surrogate for Trump than his own campaign staff, recycled anti-Sanders Democrats’ favorite attack line, saying he’d be “outraged” at his announcement if he was a Democrat: “He won’t even join my party, yet he wants my nomination. I’d say hit the road.”
Two things stick out here. One is how weak these attacks are, resorting to the same tired GOP talking points that the party’s been hitting the opposition with for eons: they’re radical, they want to raise your taxes, they’re soft on dictators. (The last one will no doubt be an especially effective line for a president who recently tried to help an autocrat cover up a murder). Republicans have no idea how to respond to a genuine left-wing populist, so they’re hoping regurgitating tropes from thirty years ago will still do the trick.
The other is that even as Democrats and centrists deny it (publicly, at least), Trump and the GOP know who their real threat is. Inadvertently, their attacks on Sanders — issuing a statement on his candidacy, saying he “won the debate,” noting that the other Democrats have “rushed to embrace” his agenda — center Sanders, correctly, as the party’s intellectual leader with whom the other 2020 hopefuls are desperate to play catch-up.
Trump has been taking aim at socialism for some time now. Late last year, his White House Council of Economic Advisers released a baffling report on “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism” that cited Christmas sweaters, Nordic pick-up trucks, and Jacobin’s own Meagan Day in its case against Sanders’s vision. This was after a typically lie-filled USA Today op-ed under the president’s name designed to strike terror in the ears of grandparents everywhere by warning them that Sanders’s Medicare-for-All plan would in fact “really be Medicare for None.”
These attacks have amped up recently, right around the time Trump and a coterie of Bush-era neocons started trying to engineer a coup in oil-rich Venezuela in earnest. “America will never be a socialist country,” Trump said at the State of the Union to hearty applause from both parties. The day before Sanders’s announcement, Trump told a crowd in Miami that “the days of socialism and communism are numbered” and called socialism a “sad and discredited ideology” that “must always give rise to tyranny.”
Trump, or more accurately, his team of advisors, aren’t stupid. They recognize their best bet for reelection is if the Democrats put up another Clinton-style centrist who claims to be progressive during the primaries but immediately pivots right once they’re over. He knows how to beat that candidate.
But against someone like Sanders or even Warren, people who have histories of principled advocacy for working people in place of careerist ladder-climbing, he knows he’ll flounder. Trump will have two options against such a candidate: drop the economic populism of his 2016 campaign and amp up the racist fear-mongering, a strategy that already failed miserably for him in the midterms; or recycle John McCain’s 2008 playbook and call them “radical” and “dangerous,” lines that are particularly hard to take seriously when they’re coming from Donald Trump.
Trump and the Right have done a great public service: they’ve clearly identified who they see as the real enemy, and to no one’s surprise, it’s not the kind of candidate who thinks tax-advantaged savings accounts and twaddle about “brainpower” are exciting foundations for a campaign. He’s likely hoping that these attacks will damage Sanders in the coming Democratic primaries, as much as play to his base right now. But for voters who tend to see anything Trump does as automatically anathema to theirs and the country’s interests, Trump’s non-endorsement of Sanders and socialism is the best endorsement one can imagine.
Bernie Sanders is so far the only candidate who’s hated equally by Trump, the Republicans, establishment Democrats, centrist think tank Third Way, and bankers. For this election season, do as Franklin Roosevelt did: welcome their hatred.