The Next Flight 93 Election

Is Trump going to pick a fight over socialism in 2020? That would be ... interesting.
February 6, 2019
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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez watches the State of the Union address on February 5, 2019. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Over at Axios, Mike Allen believes that the 2019 State of the Union speech, while superficially unremarkable, actually laid out the basic argument Trump is going to make as the centerpiece of his 2020 re-election campaign: America First vs. Socialism. Here’s Allen:

A notable new twist that we’ll hear a lot more about on the campaign trail: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

  • Jason Miller, a top official in Trump’s 2016 campaign, told me the president “elevated the wedge issue of ‘socialism’ in a way nobody else could.”
  • Republicans love the freeze frame of Democrats sitting emotionlessly when Trump railed against late-term abortions. And loved even more the endorsement-by-sitting-and-silence when he hammered socialism.
  • A veteran of the last campaign told me Trump is “trying to frame 2020 as a another big, directional election … betting that [his] people are going to actually like the direction the country is going.”

If Allen is correct and this is the centerpiece of Trump’s pitch, then it will be an … interesting argument for his supporters to make over the next two years.

For starters, we would expect Trump’s surrogates to argue that 2020 is another Flight 93 election—after all, if it really is the choice between center-right conservative government and “socialism” then it would be a very big deal, indeed.

The only problem is that Trump himself is the most socialist Republican to ever hold office. What is socialism? It’s Big Government and the welfare state on steroids. And not only is Trump for that, but he’s been for it while fighting Republican/conservative/capitalist orthodoxies from the start.

In 2016, Trump was the only Republican to campaign explicitly on not cutting Medicare or Social Security. This bucked roughly an entire generation of conservative thought, which has held that America’s entitlement state is unsustainable and must be reformed and that this reform will involve pain. Trump was so pro-welfare state that he even attacked Hillary Clinton from the left by saying that she’d cut Social Security and Medicare.

You can bet that come 2020, Trump will finger “Medicare for All” plans as socialist and therefore terrible. But more than any Republican ever, Trump has played footsie with single-payer:

  • In 2017, Trump told Australia’s prime minister “We have a failing health care—I shouldn’t say this to our great gentleman and my friend from Australia, because you have better health care than we do.” Australia’s health care system is literally called “Medicare” and given to all.
  • Here’s what Trump wrote about health care in 2000: “”We must have universal health care. Just imagine the improved quality of life for our society as a whole,” he wrote, adding: “The Canadian-style, single-payer system in which all payments for medical care are made to a single agency (as opposed to the large number of HMOs and insurance companies with their diverse rules, claim forms and deductibles) … helps Canadians live longer and healthier than Americans.”
  • In 2015 on 60 Minutes Trump said, “Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say. .. . The government’s gonna pay for it.”
  • What did Breitbart say about all of this? “Trump Pushes Single Payer Healthcare, Tax Increase on Wealthy”

It will be fun to watch Trump and his people suddenly believe that anything resembling any of these remarks is now a Red Menace so great that we must charge the cockpit again and vote for Trump no matter what because otherwise America will be finished as a country and blah, blah, blah.

You know what else socialists do? They meddle with the market and try to pick winners and losers. For instance, say you start a trade war. And this trade war hurts an industry that is personally important to a country’s leader. A free-market conservative might just let the creative destruction rage. A socialist might dole out $10 billion in government money to prop up the industry. Or let’s say you need votes in coal country: A free-market conservative would promote job-training opportunities or highlight alternative industries that are growing. A socialist might interfere with markets there in order to save an unprofitable industry.

Look: This isn’t all Trump’s fault. The Republican party gave up on small government conservatism 20 years ago. That’s because cutting the size of government is painful in the short run and forging political coalitions around the idea of short-term sacrifice for long-term benefits is incredibly difficult. It’s much easier to just tell people that they can have all the candy they want and leave the check for some other sucker to pick up after the next election.

And so, Republicans have spent the last generation talking about small government and fiscal responsibility while dropping taxpayer money like a bachelor party at a strip club.

The only thing Trump has done is drop the mask. He’s openly for big government. He doesn’t even make the pretense of caring about the debt or the deficit. He doesn’t have any problem with government interfering in this or that market because the government is Trump and Trump is the one who decides who wins and who loses. Just like on his game show.

You’d have to be an idiot or a dupe to look at Trump and think that he’s fundamentally any less “socialist” than most Democrats. But then, plenty of people convinced themselves that he was fundamentally less corrupt than Hillary Clinton.

Get ready for The Flight 93 Election, Part 2. It’ll be even stupider and more dishonest than the original.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is executive editor of The Bulwark.