The final element in Trump’s speech that seems likely to reappear frequently in 2020 was his use of Venezuela’s plight as a springboard from which to denounce “socialism.” It was another crafty move. Many of the policy proposals that Democrats have embraced as they have moved left—higher taxes on the rich, Medicare for all, free college, and a $15 national minimum wage—are popular. In the post-cold war era, politicians like Bernie Sanders have also improved socialism’s image by linking it to benign Nordic countries like Sweden and Denmark rather than the Soviet Union.
By citing Venezuela, Trump counters that. He turns an economic debate into a cultural one. He makes “socialism” a byword for the left’s supposed effort to turn America into a third world, non-white country. And thus, rather than risk his supporters being wooed by Democrats offering populist economic proposals, he again stokes their fears that Democrats will make America unrecognizable.
Is this race-baiting political spin good for the country? Of course not. As policy, Trump’s new State of the Union speech—like virtually all his speeches—is a national embarrassment. But as politics, it shows why Trump, for all his self-inflicted wounds, cannot be counted out.