Lashing out after his arraignment on federal charges last week, Donald Trump took aim at President Joe Biden and Democrats with language that seemed to evoke another era: He was being persecuted, he said, by “Marxists” and “communists.”
Trump has used the labels since he first appeared on the political scene, but it lately has become an omnipresent attack line that also has been deployed by other Republicans. The rhetoric is both inaccurate and potentially dangerous because it attempts to demonize an entire party with a description that has long been associated with America’s enemies.
Experts who study political messaging say associating Democrats with Marxism only furthers the country’s polarization — and is simply wrong: Biden has promoted capitalism and Democratic lawmakers are not pushing to reshape American democracy into a communist system.
That hasn’t mattered to Trump and other Republicans, who for years have used hyperbolic references to the associated political ideologies to spark fears about Democrats and the dangers they supposedly pose.
Hours after pleading not guilty in federal court, Trump told a crowd of his supporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, that Biden, “together with a band of his closest thugs, misfits and Marxists, tried to destroy American democracy.”
He added, “If the communists get away with this, it won’t stop with me.”
He again hit on the Marxist theme days later during a telephone rally with Iowa voters. The comments came after numerous campaign emails and social posts in recent months in which Trump has claimed that Biden’s America could soon become a “third world Marxist regime” or a “tyrannical Marxist nation.”
Other Republicans have piled on with similar messaging. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene last week took to Twitter to lambast what she called the “CORRUPT AND WEAPONIZED COMMUNISTS DEMOCRAT CONTROLLED DOJ.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s closest rival for the GOP presidential nomination, has argued the U.S. risks falling victim to “woke” ideology, which he has defined in interviews as a form of “cultural Marxism.”
Experts say there is a long history of U.S. politicians calling opponents Marxist or communist without evidence — perhaps most infamously Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who led efforts to blacklist accused communists in the 1950s.
In a country that has historically positioned itself against Marxism, “red-baiting is as American as apple pie in political communications,” said Tanner Mirrlees, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University in Canada who has researched political discourse about “cultural Marxism.”
The attacks are carefully constructed to hit voters emotionally, said Steve Israel, a former U.S. congressman from New York who studied political messaging as chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.
“Democrats tend to message to the part of the brain that is about reason and empirical evidence,” he said. “Republicans message to the gut.”
For some Hispanic Trump supporters who gathered outside the federal courthouse in Miami where the former president was arraigned, the charges evoked memories of political persecutions their family members had once escaped.
“This is what they do in Latin America,” said Madelin Munilla, 67, who came to Miami as a child when her parents fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
She carried a poster with a photo of Biden alongside Castro, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega — leftist leaders whose jailing of opponents has driven immigration to south Florida for decades.
Unlike the U.S., which has a tradition of respect for the rule of law and constitutional separation of powers, the judiciary in many parts of Latin America lacks the same independence. In a region where corruption flourishes, poorly paid prosecutors and judges are routinely caught doing the bidding of powerful politicians seeking to settle scores or derail criminal investigations.
A surge in immigration from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War also brought a population of staunchly anti-communist voters, some of whom have aligned with the Republican Party in part because of its forceful messaging on the issue.
Yet opposing an actual regime that suppresses individual freedom and opposes a free market economy is different from the way many Republicans use these terms now —- to falsely claim Marxists are U.S. society’s ruling class.
“Bluntly, there is no empirical ground beneath the Republican claim that Marxists rule the big institutions of American society,” Mirrlees said.
Other Republicans, from DeSantis to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have used another term, “cultural Marxism,” to characterize fights for gender or racial equity that they argue are “woke” and threaten a traditional American way of life. Cruz used it in the title of his book.
‘Marxism’ Term Historically Used by White Supremacists
Though the term has become popular among mainstream Republicans, it has a darker past. Experts say the concept of “cultural Marxism” posing a threat was historically spread by antisemitic and white supremacist groups.
For most voters who hear candidates say someone is communist or Marxist, the true meaning may matter less than the negative associations with the terms, said James Gardner, a University at Buffalo law professor who focuses on election law.
“The tactic seems to be to pick an adjective that most people think describes something bad and try to associate it with the person you are denigrating,” he said.
Still, while railing against communists and Marxists may be effective at animating voters who form the Republican base, it may not be an effective strategy in next year’s general election, Israel said.
That’s because it doesn’t as easily sway moderate and independent voters who don’t see evidence that ties Democrats to those ideologies.
“Moderate voters may succumb to the Republican argument that Democrats are for more spending, but they’re not going to fall for the argument that Democrats are Marxists,” Israel said. “The Republicans are overplaying their hand.”