Catherine Rampell: If ‘socialism’ means government controlling the economy, Trump is the true socialist

FILE - In this June 11, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy, an ethanol producer in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Trump has repeatedly told U.S. farmers he loves and supports them and in return they largely continue to support him even though some of his promises, better trade deals and strong support for corn-based ethanol, haven't been fully kept. For many farmers and the politicians representing them criticizing the policy failures but not the president himself is a delicate dance. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

Republicans are right. The scourge of socialism is already upon us. They're just wrong about which party is to blame.

Technically, "socialism" refers to a system in which the government controls the means of production. In popular parlance, however, "socialist" has instead become a more generic right-wing slur. To the extent the descriptor signals any substance whatsoever, it's about government handouts, picking winners and losers, redistribution of wealth, or something to that effect.

And yes, some Democrats have proposed some pie-in-the-sky ideas (such as free college) that meet these vague Big Government principles. Yet, if you look at who has successfully implemented policies that fit such pseudo-socialist criteria in recent years, it’s Republicans.

Not that you'd know it from their rhetoric.

"Our freedoms are under attack because the radical left will stop at nothing until socialism has spread from coast to coast," Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, proclaimed last month when she kicked off her reelection campaign. "Let me be clear: Socialism has no place in the Hawkeye State or America, and I will stop at nothing to protect our Iowa values."

Maybe Ernst was being painfully un-self-aware here. Or maybe she thinks her voters are. Either way, for decades, "Iowa values" have explicitly included demands for big fat federal government subsidies for corn ethanol -- among other payouts and market-distorting government interventions that Republicans might in other contexts smear as "socialist."

Agricultural subsidies have been blessed and perpetuated by politicians from both parties. But lately, a Republican president, with the support of Republican lawmakers, is in the midst of a broader "socialist" endeavor to bail out the farm industry.

After President Trump picked trade wars with nearly every major U.S. trading partner -- friend and foe alike -- U.S. exports of soybeans, pork and other agricultural products dried up. The president subsequently decided to cover up one foolish economic policy with another, and another. He launched not one but two rounds of massive farmer bailouts, together totaling tens of billions of dollars.

Yet Republican politicians have portrayed neither of these taxpayer-funded handouts as "socialist."

Nor do Republicans cry “socialism” when the treasury secretary lectures U.S. retailers and manufacturers about how and where they should reallocate their supply chains; nor when the president himself lectures firms about what products to stock; nor when the administration tries to get other countries to engage in more centralized economic planning -- by, for example, demanding that European political leaders commit private companies to buy more U.S. crops and liquefied natural gas regardless of price, quality or market needs.

You would be hard-pressed to find better recent examples of the U.S. government trying to exert influence, if not outright control, over the means of production, both domestically and abroad.

When not disrupting previously functional industries, Republicans have also been busy propping up failing ones. Consider the case of coal.

Technological change (i.e., fracking) has made the U.S. coal industry less competitive; at least six major U.S. coal producers have filed for bankruptcy in the past year, with the most recent filing last week. But rather than letting markets run their course, Republicans at both the federal and state levels are concocting complicated handouts.

Trump, who rants on Twitter about how Democrats want to turn us into a "Socialist or Communist Country," has repeatedly attempted Soviet-style bailouts of failing coal plants. On Tuesday, Ohio, a state under unified Republican control, decided to copy him, with a new law that adds taxpayer-funded subsidies for coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

What of that Republican fearmongering about Democratic wealth distribution?

It’s worth remembering that wealth can be redistributed down or up. Lately, the direction of that redistribution, under Republican stewardship, has been decidedly upward -- in the form of both top-heavy tax cuts and the shredding of the safety net. As my Washington Post colleague Philip Bump pointed out, the administration’s latest attempts to gut the food-stamp program proves that while Trump’s brand of socialism may extend to farmers, it’s still not available for the working poor.

What remains interesting is how Republicans manage to reconcile their anti-socialist words with their Big Government actions.

Polling last fall from YouGov, for instance, found that Republicans overwhelmingly supported Trump’s trade-war-driven farmer bailout, despite an avowed antipathy for “socialism.” A separate YouGov poll conducted this week asked respondents whether they considered various policies to be examples of socialism, such as free college tuition (according to Republicans: yes!), or Social Security and government medical care for veterans (both no, somehow). Medicare for the elderly is decidedly not socialist, but something approximating Medicare for everyone definitely is.

So maybe the problem isn't hypocrisy, exactly. It's that the word "socialist," to Republicans at least, has evolved to mean anything the other side is for.

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.