‘Socialism’ as a political boogeyman

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — President Trump drew cheers and applause from the right-field bleachers at his State of the Union speech when he declared: “We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

It was a softer retread of the old Joe McCarthy war on communism that enflamed this nation in the 1950s, sending many Americans looking under their beds — or hiding there themselves — long before the demise of the Soviet Union.

“Socialism” as a political boogeyman has long ago been deflated by wide public acceptance of social democracy, as refined in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the midwife of the widely accepted social safety net of today’s progressivism.

Two years ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination as an avowed democratic socialist, won more than 2 million votes.

Many of them came from young Americans accustomed to having that safety net under them, limiting if not eradicating the perils of poverty.

Now the New Deal concept has been broadened into the realm of environmental protection under a Green New Deal seeking to make climate change and other such ecological crusades into everyman causes.

Trump, though, counters with partisan blather, accusing the Democrats of anti-Americanism by declaring: “America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free and we will stay free.”

Unfortunately, we are not free of the chaos of the governmental mismanagement he has delivered, including a record 35-day shutdown of many of the nation’s services and responsibilities.

The air is increasingly filled with talk of impeaching the president, on grounds of conspiracy with the Russians or of simple corruption in the way Trump has used public office to enrich himself. But it seems just as likely now that Trump could go down for rank incompetence in running the country.

An impeachable offense in practical terms comes down to what the House says it is in articles of impeachment, and then the Senate convicts or acquits. Trump could be discharged from his high office for failing, as the Constitution stipulates, to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.”

Meanwhile, a small army of Democrats has declared or is planning to seek the party’s presidential nomination next year, and much of the speculation runs to which one of them would have the best chance to unseat Trump.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has opined that Trump may not be president, much less a free man, by the time of the November 2020 balloting.

While that may be Democratic wishful thinking, the mounting cases against Trump from the Justice Department, the judicial Southern District of New York and emolument clause sleuths into his various enrichment schemes could foresee a pre-2020 ouster, or even resignation. That outcome may seem far-fetched as of now, considering Trump’s narcissistic self-appraisal and clear indications of his determination to slash and burn his way out of his current dilemmas.

But that could change if his family members find themselves in legal jeopardy.

Richard Nixon 45 years ago fought to the 11th hour of his own likely impeachment before Senate friends told him the White House tapes assured the jig was up, and he chose resignation. Who are the Senate Republicans, currently cowed by Trump, who would do the same today, and would this president listen to them?

In any event, the best recourse for the Democratic Party hoping to be the instrument of ending the Trump era might be coalescing around one challenger.

But its ranks now are divided among old liberals, moderates and conservatives, as well as progressives bolstered by new millennial political movements. So coming together behind one candidate won’t be easy.

On paper, former Vice President Joe Biden has the right credentials, but at 77 he’s hardly the fresh face the new generation wants.

Meanwhile, Trump plays the tired old card of casting “socialism” as a dirty word. But many voters now embrace its most basic tenets of enlisting government to advance the well-being of all, including those on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladder. So the former dirty word may well have been scrubbed much cleaner by now.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.