WASHINGTON — President Trump has made branding Democrats as out-of-the-mainstream, economy-wrecking socialists one of the centerpieces of his re-election strategy. He has sought to do so partly by making four junior Democratic members of Congress — all women of color who are on the left side of the party’s ideological spectrum — the faces of the party, and conflating their views with the Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination.
It is a message he has repeated with varying degrees of intensity and accuracy for weeks. And while a few of his fellow Republicans have expressed unease about how he has framed his scathing criticism of one of those four Democrats — Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who was born in Somalia and immigrated to the United States as a refugee — as a call for her to “go back” to her native country, Republicans have embraced the president’s broader efforts to cast Democrats as socialists.
How much truth is there to Mr. Trump’s characterization of the Democratic Party? Here is a fact check.
What Mr. Trump said
“A vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.”
First things first: All Democrats are not socialists. Most Democrats are not socialists. Of the 24 candidates for president, only Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont identifies himself as a democratic socialist, and of the four House members the president has taken to trashing, only Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York identifies with democratic socialism.
The rest of the presidential field has rejected the socialism label. While in many cases their policy positions are well to the left of where the party was just a few years ago, that development has other prominent Democrats concerned. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and former Representative John Delaney of Maryland are arguing that the Democratic Party cannot be defined by a candidate who embraces socialism.
Even Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is the most ideologically aligned with Mr. Sanders among the 2020 contenders, says she is not a socialist. When she is asked about the difference between her and Mr. Sanders, her stock answer has been that she is “a capitalist to my bones.”
It is true that every Democratic presidential candidate vying to replace Mr. Trump has called for increasing the federal commitment to health care, education and the environment, among other proposals. Those plans would generally require substantially more government spending, higher taxes, an increased public-sector role in private markets and a reversal of the deregulatory push championed by Mr. Trump.
While the Democratic agenda is consistent with policies the party has pursued for decades, some proposals from the more left-leaning candidates would be more far-reaching than the party’s platform in the past several election cycles. The proposal supported by some of the 2020 candidates to eliminate private health insurance would be a clear turn to the left, and calls for policies like a wealth tax are unapologetically redistributionist at a time of growing inequality.
But Mr. Trump has hardly produced an Ayn Rand meritocracy during his presidency.
In May, the Agriculture Department said it would give $16 billion in aid to farmers hurt by Mr. Trump’s trade war with China. Farmers in the Midwest — particularly in Iowa, home of the nation’s first presidential nominating contest — have said the funds do not come close to matching income they have lost because of falling commodity prices that followed China’s retaliatory tariffs.
And Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans have long advocated various government giveaways to corporations, which Mr. Sanders and others have deemed “corporate socialism.”
What Mr. Trump said
“There’s a rumor the Democrats are going to change the name of the party from the ‘Democrat Party’ to the ‘Socialist Party.’”
Putting aside the fact that it is called the Democratic Party and stipulating that it is impossible to disprove a rumor that Mr. Trump may or may not have heard, no, the Democrats are not changing their name to the Socialist Party. And there are few similarities between what Democrats are proposing and the types of outcomes Mr. Trump tries to link them to, especially when he invokes Venezuela and its economic and humanitarian crisis as a warning that socialism is a harbinger of catastrophe.
There are, of course, very different strains of socialism. To an immigrant from Cuba or Venezuela who fled countries with centrally planned economies and neighborhood spies who inform on dissenters to the government, socialism means a very different thing than to Mr. Sanders, who envisions a northern European-style social safety net that drastically increases public spending on health care, education and environmental protection.
On economic issues, Democrats in the United States are far to the right of the governing parties in most other western democracies.
Canada and Britain, for instance, have single-payer universal health care systems that are politically sacrosanct, even among their mainstream conservative parties. Northern European governments — Denmark, Norway and Sweden — subsidize far more of their citizens’ lives and tax income at far higher rates than have been proposed by Mr. Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist.
The Nordic countries — with their high tax rates and generous social benefits — are often cited as examples by Mr. Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez as models to emulate. Tax revenue made up more than 40 percent of the gross domestic product in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, for example, in 2017, compared with 27.1 percent for the United States. That revenue finances child care, basic and advanced education, health care and care for the countries’ older residents.
What Mr. Trump said
“You have some of these socialist wackos, they want to double and triple your taxes, and that won’t come close to paying for it.”
The slew of programs many Democratic candidates have supported — universal health care, affordable child care, and higher education and a higher minimum wage — are more accurately labeled proposals of social democrats rather than socialists, said Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College and scholar of the left.
But “nobody has a plan to take government ownership of the means of production,” he said, referring to the dictionary definition of socialism. “Nobody’s talking about the government taking over Microsoft or Walmart or Wells Fargo or Disney.”
Some of the Democratic plans — especially when it comes to health care — would entail substantial changes in the way the economy operates now. Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, for example, would eliminate private health insurance entirely, putting all Americans in a government-run system.
Other proposals would be very expensive. Mr. Sanders wants to eliminate the student debt of nearly 45 million graduates and eliminate tuition and fees at public four-year institutions and community colleges. He estimates the cost at $2.2 trillion, to be paid for with a tax on financial transactions.
The big unknown when it comes to cost is health care. The Congressional Budget Office was asked this year to look at the costs of “Medicare for all” programs like the one advocated by Mr. Sanders.
“Government spending on health care would increase substantially,” the report said, but it declined to provide any specific estimates because of the wide range of options about how such a plan would work.
Studies of plans like the one promoted by Mr. Sanders have concluded that patients would spend far less on health care than they do now, and the government would spend far more, presumably requiring higher taxes. For some people, any tax increase might be more than offset by reductions in their spending on premiums, co-payments and other health care costs. But others could end up paying more in new taxes than they save.
Mr. Sanders and other Democrats make the point that Americans already pay far more for health care than people in other countries but often get inferior care.
What Mr. Trump said
“Don’t underestimate the power of socialism to get a vote.”
There is some evidence that more Americans are open to socialism. A Gallup poll released in May found that 43 percent of Americans believe socialism is a “good thing” for the country, as opposed to 51 percent who said it was a “bad thing.” In 1942, the split was 25 percent saying it was a good thing compared to 40 percent saying bad thing — a spread that was twice as large as it is now.
Trying to frame policy proposals that expand the social safety net as socialism is a time-honored tradition in Republican politics, one intended more to motivate Republican voters to turn out than to change minds among Democrats.
Ronald Reagan began his political career calling Medicare “socialized medicine” that would doom the country. The Republican campaign to block the Affordable Care Act, before and since it was enacted, has consisted largely of suggesting it represents the creep of socialism into the country’s health care system.
But Mr. Trump won election in 2016 after promising to maintain the Medicare system and replace the Affordable Care Act with a health care law that would cover all Americans.