President Donald Trump has enlisted his senior economic advisers to flesh out one of his early 2020 presidential campaign themes: Socialism is coming.
In recent months, traditionally staid official White House economic reports and briefings have begun to emphasize the potentially massive costs of an ambitious socialist agenda and warn that America could transform into a Cold War dystopia.
Story Continued Below
While last year’s Economic Report to the President, a congressionally mandated annual summary of the state of the economy, didn’t once mention “socialism,” the word appears more than 100 times in this year’s 700-page-plus tome. The 2019 report, released earlier this week, features an entire chapter on the subject, which includes a recounting of the economic fallout from socialist experiments in China, the Soviet Union and Cuba.
At the beginning of a briefing this week, staff with the White House Council of Economic Advisers distributed to reporters a set of slides that summarized the report. The last slide plastered the Soviet, Cuban, Venezuelan and Chinese flags on a graph detailing decreases in the production of livestock, crops, crude oil and cotton.
“Production declines substantially when socialist regimes take over — sometimes by more than 50 percent,” the slide read. “In contrast, capitalism spurs growth.”
The messaging — which Democrats call preposterously exaggerated — marks a remarkable synergy in the themes being discussed among both Trump’s economic and campaign teams. Campaign officials say the socialism issue resonates deeply with Trump’s conservative base, as well as more moderate Republicans — and the president’s advisers have encouraged him to continue talking about it in speeches, arguing that one of his best avenues for reelection is painting Democrats as out-of-touch radicals. “It’s going to be a huge focus,” a Trump campaign official told POLITICO.
It also marks a compromise between Trump advisers who have long wanted him to spend more time touting positive economic news and Trump’s fear-based rhetoric about his rivals. During last fall’s midterm election campaign, some Trump advisers wanted him to talk less about immigration and more about job growth, low unemployment numbers or manufacturing.
The new economic approach will be central to Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, according to a half-dozen White House officials, allies and campaign advisers, and made all the easier by progressive causes like the “Green New Deal” championed by the likes of freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“The socialism versus capitalism message is a home run with every group apart from millennials,” said one informal adviser to the campaign. “The campaign will cast 2020 through the prism of socialism versus freedom.”
It’s unclear how seriously Americans might take the prospect of Washington adopting a state-run socialist economy, but a recent CNN poll showed 71 percent of Americans believe the current U.S. economy is in good shape.
Democrats and liberal groups accuse the Trump administration of wildly stretching the truth to discredit ideas, like raising taxes on wealthy Americans or expanding health care, that might otherwise pose a political threat.
“Obviously, this is an absurd political tactic,” said Emily Gee, a health economist at the Center for American Progress. “The Trump administration clearly thinks that high-level fear-mongering on socialism is better than talking about actual policy.”
Among the Democratic candidates running for president, only one, Sen. Bernie Sanders, identifies as a Democratic socialist.
While Trump’s fixation with socialism is now familiar from his speeches and tweets, the increasing involvement of his economic team is less visible, and reflects the degree to which the Trump White House is steadily moving to war footing for the 2020 campaign.
“I ask you to join President Trump and me and the rest to put socialism on trial and convict it,” Larry Kudlow, head of the White House National Economic Council, said during a February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. In a C-SPAN interview last Friday, Kudlow predicted the Green New Deal — which calls for huge government spending programs to address climate change and inequality — could reduce economic growth by as much as 10 percent. White House aides said Kudlow is planning to continue hammering away at that message.
In addition to name-checking authoritarian communist nations, this week’s White House economic report also takes aim at Democrats’ “Medicare for All” proposals, claiming that, if the measure were funded through higher taxes, U.S. gross domestic product would plunge 9 percent — or about $7,000 per American — in 2022.
The report even takes pains to knock down the common leftist retort that Nordic countries have fared well economically despite their socialist-minded political traditions.
“Participants in the American policy discourse sometimes cite the Nordic countries as socialist success stories,” the report says. “However, in many respects, the Nordic countries’ policies now differ significantly from policies that economists view as characteristic of socialism.”
During a briefing this week with a small group of reporters, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett, who oversaw the report, defended the decision to devote so much of the report to socialism, arguing, “We as a council judged that there’s lots of confusion out there, and the confusion is on both sides.”
“We’ve got college students approving of socialism without perhaps understanding what its record is,” he added.
It’s not the first time that Hassett — who had an apolitical reputation before coming to the Trump White House — has targeted socialism. Last year, the CEA published a report outlining the economic costs of socialism. (“Coincident with the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse,” the report began.)
People close to the president also believe the focus on socialism will put pressure on more moderate Democratic primary candidates reluctant to embrace their party’s left wing. “As we run up to this presidential [election], we need to show that Democrats, as a whole, are not socialists,” Rep. Katie Hill, a freshman Democrat from a traditionally Republican-held district in California, told POLITICO recently.
An ancillary part of the president’s economic message will include a told-you-so approach, said a second informal adviser to the campaign. The campaign intends to highlight the way voters feel about the economy now versus the way people talked about it in 2016 to showcase how much economic growth has improved over the past two years under Trump’s leadership.
“We look forward to sharing President Trump’s undeniable record of success,” said the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. “Because of President Trump, unemployment rates have hit generational lows; 466,000 manufacturing jobs have been created, reversing the disastrous Obama-era decline; and paychecks have risen for Americans in the bottom half of the income spectrum. It’s no wonder 71 percent of Americans rate the economy as ‘in good shape,’ according to the latest CNN poll.”