Trump, anti-Semitism and socialism

MARTY ROCHESTER

BY MARTY ROCHESTER

Last month, President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address to Congress. It was relatively well-received by the general public, with 60 percent of viewers reporting a “very positive” reaction, which was higher favorability than most Obama-era State of the Union speeches generated (based on CNN polls reported Feb. 6). 

There were two things that particularly drew my attention in the speech. 

The first was the substantial space devoted to anti-Semitism. Trump spent almost as much time focusing on “the vile poison of anti-Semitism” as he did immigration and the need for a wall. He specifically referenced two Holocaust survivors who had been invited as guests and were seated in the gallery. He could not have been more explicit in his condemnation of “hate speech” generally and anti-Semitism in particular.

I have always found it downright silly to accuse Trump of encouraging anti-Semitism, as many critics of the president have done, when he has a daughter and son-in-law who are Jewish, has arguably been the most pro-Israel president in recent years and has frequently issued condemnations of such hatefulness of the sort he offered in the State of the Union address. 

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Trump Derangement Syndrome is such that no amount of evidence supporting his Jewish sympathies is enough to change this narrative, which is grounded in the president’s Breitbart connection. (Never mind that few considered President Barack Obama anti-Semitic despite his connections to the Revs.  Jeremiah Wright and Al Sharpton.)

The second issue in the State of the Union address that especially sparked my interest, and one I want to discuss at greater length here, is the president’s raising of concern about the rise of socialism: 

“Here in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.”

Although Trump frequently gets his facts wrong, he is dead-on accurate about America’s historic antipathy toward big government and how that tradition is being challenged by shifting ideological currents. 

John Kingdon, in “America the Unusual,” succinctly describes how our political culture is unique: 

“Government in the United States is much more limited and much smaller than government in virtually every other advanced industrialized country on earth. … The center of our politics looks much less to government for solutions to whatever problems might occupy us, compared to the centers of other countries’ politics.” 

In short, Americans have been more free-market oriented and averse to taxes, regulations and other forms of governmental reach than are the French, Italians and citizens in most other countries.

At least, that has been the case up to now. As Trump noted, our political system has been drifting leftward recently, toward acceptance of Big Government — indeed, socialism. 

The Socialist Party of America was founded in 1901 and has had very little success in elections. However, their ranks are growing, as membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has increased to 50,000 from 7,000 since 2016. More tellingly, recent surveys show growing numbers of Americans, particularly millennials and young people generally, souring on capitalism. Note the following headlines:

“A Majority of Millennials Now Reject Capitalism, Poll Shows,” reporting on a Harvard University survey of young adults from age 18 to 29 that found 51 percent not supporting capitalism (Washington Post, April 26, 2016).

“Most Young Americans Prefer Socialism to Capitalism, New Report Finds,” noting that 51 percent of young people are positive about socialism, compared with only 45 percent who view capitalism favorably (CNBC, August 14, 2018).

“Millennials Would Rather Live in Socialist or Communist Nation than Under Capitalism,” reporting that only 42 percent of millennials prefer capitalism to socialism or communism (Washington Times, Nov. 4, 2017).

The Democratic Party today is becoming increasingly far-left, reflected in two of its most high profile members (Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York) being self-described democratic socialists and several of its announced 2020 presidential candidates (including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand) supporting a “Green New Deal” and/or proposing radical programs such as Medicare for All, free state college tuition for all and the like. 

A George Mason study projected that Medicare for All would cost $32 trillion over 10 years, while the former director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the entire Green New Deal would cost as much as $93 trillion, an astronomical increase in federal government expenditures. 

Howard Schulz, the founder of Starbucks who is considering running for the presidency as an independent, has called Harris’ plan to eliminate all private health insurance “not American.” Likewise, he, along with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have called Warren’s proposal to tax the net worth of those with more than $50 million in assets “ridiculous” and probably unconstitutional. 

Regarding the Green New Deal, David Brooks, a never-Trumper and moderate conservative, has noted that “the Democratic Party is ending. … I don’t know if it is socialism or not socialism —that’s a semantic game — but it would definitely represent the greatest centralization of power in the hands of the Washington elite in our history. … The government would provide a job to any person who wanted one. The government would oversee the renovation of every building in America. The government would put sector after sector [energy, transportation, agriculture, health care] under partial or complete government control. … If this were put into practice, there would have to be several new Pentagons built to house the hundreds of thousands of new social planners.” (“How the Left Embraced Elitism,” New York Times, Feb. 11).

We can debate why socialism seems to be gaining acceptance in the United States. It may be a function of the strong liberal bias our K-12 schools and universities tend to exhibit in educating young people. Then, too, there are legitimate concerns about widening inequality in America for which the free market is held responsible. 

Still, capitalism since World War II has helped to reduce global poverty dramatically and created the most successful economy in the world. Today especially, on almost all indicators — consumer confidence, high employment and labor participation rates (particularly of minorities), the stock market, job growth and wage gains, GDP growth, low inflation — the U.S. economy is on a roll. The reality is there are still myriad Horatio Alger stories of rags to riches success built on hard work and brainpower, including so many immigrants attracted to our shores by our value system.

If we do not want to risk sacrificing individual freedom and prosperity, we should be tweaking the welfare state, not radically expanding it as a substitute for capitalism.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”