There are plenty of conservatives who don't particularly care for President Trump, but wouldn't call themselves NeverTrumpers. Yet they are reluctant to call out the president's daily political provocations because they see the growing allure of socialism among Democrats as a bigger threat to the country. This is a profound mistake that will backfire: If Trump's tyranny of ill intentions isn't defeated, the Democrats' tyranny of good intentions — aka socialism — may well become inevitable.
Socialism is a scary word in America, and Trump is doing everything in his power to wrap the term around the neck of Democrats before the next election. He attacked the socialist boogeyman in this year's State of the Union address after the resounding Republican mid-term loss. He excoriated Democrats for their "alarming" calls for socialism and declared "America will never be a socialist country."
Republicans took the message and ran with it. They launched an ad campaign against the "radical socialism" of "The Squad," the four minority congresswomen whose ring-leader is Green New Dealer Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). They are warning voters that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed socialist, will turn America not into Denmark but Venezuela if he gets anywhere near the White House. And they are accusing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren of being a "dishonest socialist" who says she likes capitalism even as she would kill it.
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Indeed, even the normally placid Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is now dramatically declaring that in 2020, Republicans will build a "firewall that saves the country from socialism."
In truth, Republicans may well deliver the country to "socialism" if they don't ditch Trump's America First ideology — which is every bit as Big Government as socialism, but without any pretense of a higher purpose.
Socialism subordinates the interests of individuals in the name of a utopian egalitarianism, producing terrible results wherever tried. And yet it manages to seduce people because it purports to advance a just society. But America First dispenses with notions like justice. It has a zero-sum Hobbesian view of the world where one group's benefit is the other's loss. Socialists want to unite the world behind a problematic conception of the common good. But America First divides the world into us versus them, insiders versus outsiders — and then uses the full power of the state to advance the interests of the former without much regard for fairness toward the latter. It's a fundamentally tribal approach to politics where (state) might makes right.
In foreign affairs, America First has meant not merely pursuing America's interests when dealing with other countries, but doing so without any regard for the interests of those other countries. Trump's willingness to withhold aid to Ukraine until it dug up dirt on his political opponents may be the most brazen example of this.
But the more morally troubling example is Trump's recent pardons of American soldiers accused of war crimes. One lieutenant he pardoned was serving 19 years for opening fire on unarmed Afghani villagers, killing two, and then calling in false reports. His own appalled troops turned him in.
The other case involves Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher who was accused of shooting Iraqi civilians, killing a captive Iraqi fighter with a knife, and then threatening to kill fellow SEALs if they reported him. He was convicted finally only of battlefield misconduct because he posed for a photo with the corpse of the Iraqi he was accused of killing. But America Firsters at Fox News decided that taking away Gallagher's elite status — a gentle rap on the knuckles given the gravity of his actions — would be intolerable "political correctness," prompting Trump to intervene on his behalf. He ordered military leaders to lay off Gallagher, leading to the resignation of the Navy secretary.
The message here is that it doesn't matter whether these guys are war criminals, they are "our" war criminals, and so there is no need to bring them to justice. At the same time that Trump is pardoning these Americans, he defends snatching babies from migrant moms as a deterrence measure and building detention camps for peaceful asylum seekers because they were born on the other side of the border.
Supporters of America First claim that its opposition to "endless war" is some kind of high-minded principle. But it matters whether this opposition stems from a concern for the world and its inhabitants — or a contempt for them. And whether it sees contact and cooperation with the outside world as advancing America's well being — or threatening its interests. America First is decisively in the latter camp on both counts.
It is no coincidence therefore that Trump is increasingly flirting with economic autarky or self-sufficiency, a time-honored tool of left wing dictators. This is reflected in Trump's bare-knuckles approach to trade policy. He doesn't want to straighten out the rules of the game to promote free trade for all. No, he wants "deals" where America's trading partners commit to buying prescribed amounts of American goods in order to close the trade deficit. Such demands have locked him in a bitter trade war with China, and have hit U.S. farmers, whom Trump has tried to placate through a government bailout two times bigger than President Obama's auto bailout.
Meanwhile, Trump's Buy American, Hire American directive awards government contracts not to the best bid but to the one that advances his own Make America Great Again agenda, regardless of the cost to taxpayers. But that does not necessarily make him a friend of domestic industry. He has targeted Big Tech companies with anti-trust investigations because he considers them his political opponents. He has viciously gone after Jeff Bezos and Amazon to retaliate against The Washington Post's critical coverage, even, it seems, denying Amazon a lucrative defense contract, signaling to Bezos that it will be costly for him to exercise his First Amendment rights.
Equally concerning is Trump's effort to constantly jawbone American companies that don't fall behind his America First agenda. He has repeatedly rebuked automakers, such as General Motors, that shutter their American operations or open plants overseas, because he wants to keep "American" jobs in America. And he showered Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn with massive government incentives to prod it to locate its manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin to create jobs (that haven't materialized).
In other words, Trump won't slap billionaires with confiscatory taxes or regulate them out of existence, as Bernie or Warren might do, but he'll happily use state power to make them do their patriotic duty. This is just as statist as the "socialists" conservatives fear.
But if the use of state power gets legitimized for narrow, self-serving reasons, it will become impossible to stop it from also being used for seemingly more lofty goals such as addressing income inequality or saving the planet. People certainly pursue their self-interest — but they don't do so to the exclusion of every higher purpose, especially the young and idealistic. Republicans, at least since Ronald Reagan, had offered liberty as that higher purpose. But if conservatives don't push back against Trump's America First, they'll signal that all their pious talk about limited government and freedom was merely a ruse to protect majoritarian privilege. They won't have anything left to counter Democratic calls for socialism.
Indeed, when Ocasio-Cortez was queried about what she thinks of Trump's attacks on her Big Government socialism, she responded: "I find it hilarious, because this president seeks to expand government into the bodies of women. They seek to expand government to spontaneously generate detention centers all along our southern border … So this is not about who's expanding government. It's about who we are working for, and we're choosing to work for the people of the United States."
One does not have to agree with her on a single issue to see that she has a point.
It is telling that even as the America First right increasingly employs the vocabulary of interest — and abandons the vocabulary of rights — to justify its slams on outsiders and opponents, the left is abandoning the vocabulary of interests — and deploying the vocabulary of rights — to push for freebies for everyone.
The latter may be detrimental for the country in a million different ways, but it is a much better positioning for winning the messaging war. It's perhaps not a coincidence then that since Trump assumed office, support for socialism has not only inched up by five points among Democrats but also seven points among independents. Trump may also have something to do with the fact that 7 out of 10 millennials polled last month said that they'd vote for a socialist.
In the long run, Trump's strongman tendencies and his use of the state's clenched fist to slam some for the alleged benefit of others risks making people more open to deploying the heavy hand of the state to supposedly lift everyone up.
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