Column: In Georgia, the GOP tried to revive fears of a ‘red menace.’ Are we back in 1952?

President Trump walks away from Marine One with Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) on Jan. 4.
President Trump with Kelly Loeffler on Jan. 4. Loeffler lost her bid to keep her U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.
(Associated Press)

Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, whose net worth with her husband is estimated at more than $500 million, positioned herself as a strong supporter of the free enterprise system in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate runoff race.

“Democrats want to bring socialism to this country,” she told an interviewer. Her opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock, would be “a rubber stamp for socialism,” she said.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), the Senate’s most prolific stock trader, was reading from the same playbook, saying about his Democratic runoff opponent, Jon Ossoff: “He will do and say anything that supports his radical socialist agenda.”


Loeffler and Perdue both lost.

But really — radical socialists? In the heart of Georgia? That old scare tactic was at the heart of the two runoffs and November’s presidential race as well. Republicans clearly believe that the old “red menace” strategy still has some life in it.

Donald Trump said in his own campaign that Joe Biden was a “Trojan horse” for socialism and that Kamala Harris was “a communist.” Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said of the Democrats: “Their vision for America is socialism.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said socialists have “taken over the Democratic Party.” Kimberly Guilfoyle, in her star turn at the GOP convention, fulminated that the same socialist policies that had destroyed Cuba and Venezuela were now threatening American schools and cities.

Did we go to sleep and wake up in 1952? This is dishonest demagogic rhetoric worthy of Joe McCarthy, of J. Edgar Hoover, of Richard M. Nixon. Socialism and communism were our shadowy demonic enemies during the 20th century, and they’ve never fully gone away as bogeymen, even with the end of the Cold War. But in the 2020 elections and in Georgia’s runoff Tuesday the menace of creeping socialism was elevated to near-hysterical levels.

Why spew overheated charges against certified moderates like Biden and obvious nonsocialists like Warnock and Ossoff? Well — duh! — because even if it is utter nonsense, it still has power. The GOP understands that the word socialist carries enduring, decades-old connotations for many Republicans, conjuring up images of bearded, wild-eyed foreigners who reject religion and harbor a fierce hostility to the American way of life. For others, it elicits an updated mental image which looks more like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but is no less threatening.

House and Senate leaders at the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee have confirmed that candidates tagged as socialists see a decline in their poll numbers, according to Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance). No surprise there — the word is associated with Josef Stalin and Fidel Castro and Boris Badenov and secularism and subversion. Why wouldn’t Republicans toss it around to describe ordinary liberal Democrats? According to the Pew Research Center, more than eight in 10 Republican voters have a negative impression of socialism.

The strategy is pretty transparent: Conflate your Democratic opponent with Bernie Sanders, and then Bernie with, say, Hugo Chavez. Everything else will fall into place.

But it’s a cynical, self-serving lie.

Real socialists want to replace the profit-driven capitalist system with one that favors social ownership and democratic control of the “means of production” and the economy as a whole. The word socialist is used to describe a wide range of people, from communist dictators to Scandinavian-style social democrats, from revolutionaries to reformers.

But Biden and Harris? Ossoff and Warnock? Not even close.

Sure, there are social democratic policies the U.S. has embraced for many decades and which are widely popular: the progressive income tax, Medicare and Social Security, for example.

There are people in public office who identify as socialists. Sanders, for instance, calls himself a democratic socialist and supports much higher taxes on the rich and significantly more economic regulation.

And these days there are many younger people, according to Pew, who view socialism more positively than their elders do.

But don’t kid yourself: The Democratic Party is not a socialist party.

And let me make one final, important point. I’m not a socialist, but no matter where you rest in the political firmament these days, conservative or liberal or other, I think it would be hard to avoid some misgivings about our own brand of capitalism. At a time when millions of Americans are out of work, homelessness is rising and hunger is spreading, the Washington Post reported last week that Elon Musk has quintupled his net worth since last January, bringing his fortune to about $159 billion, and Jeff Bezos has added $70 billion to his net worth, putting it at about $186 billion. At least on paper.

According to the Post, which is owned by Bezos, the two men amassed enough wealth this year alone to end all hunger in America eight times over. And a separate analysis by the paper concluded that Bezos’ philanthropic contribution to the COVID-19 relief effort was roughly equivalent to the median American giving $85.

The system is not working as it should.

Surely the United States is overdue for a debate about how to ensure that the benefits of work, profits and productivity don’t flow so disproportionately to the super rich while others watch their earnings erode and their jobs disappear. That might sound socialistic to Tom Cotton and Kimberly Guilfoyle, but it strikes me as a reasonable subject for discussion.

Why did Donald Trump pay only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and again 2017? How much did you pay?

Republicans should stop frightening voters with horror stories about creeping socialism. Instead, they and the rest of us should reflect more seriously on what it means to live in a society where inequality and unfairness are so deeply entrenched, and on how long voters will continue to opt for the status quo.