As recently as October, Donald Trump’s re-election team and top Republican officials viewed the 2020 Democratic primary as a two-way race between Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Joe Biden, and had entirely written off Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in high-level strategy discussions.
A few months later, Team Trump, the GOP, and the president himself aren’t laughing off the self-identifying socialist anymore. In fact, they’re gaming out various attacks and troll tactics to deploy against the Vermont senator in a potential general election face-off.
According to four sources familiar with the internal deliberations, an aggressive anti-Bernie effort is already being drafted inside the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, and allied organizations. And one of the major ideas being kicked around is to deploy more “victims of socialism” and communist regimes to make the case—via video testimonials—against Sanders’ vision of governance.
“Bernie has never met a socialist he didn’t love, and we plan on releasing even more content featuring people who have suffered under socialism themselves,” RNC communications director Michael Ahrens told The Daily Beast on Monday. He noted that the committee had launched a “Victims of Socialism” website in October, and has “already filmed more victims” whom it hasn’t publicly unveiled yet and “will be releasing those videos in the coming months. We believe these will resonate in particular with Hispanic voters.”
Similar ideas, including content highlighting unrest in countries such as Venezuela and linking that to Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism, have been discussed by senior Trump campaign staff, per three people with knowledge of the situation. However, one of these sources said that discussions were merely “preliminary” at this time, given that there is, of course, no Democratic presidential nominee yet.
“Of course we’re going to use [socialism] against Bernie, if it’s him,” this source said. “We’re not stupid.”
According to a senior member of one outside group supporting the president, a “big push” is already being plotted, in large part targeting Florida, to underscore the plight of those who’ve lived under far-left governments. A scorched-earth approach to hitting Sanders’ past comments about socialist or communist countries would be one favored by President Trump, according to two individuals who’ve spoken to him about this in the past two months. One of the sources said that Trump privately said late last year that he wanted to see an onslaught of TV content and ads that colorfully paired Sanders with hammer-and-sickle iconography, if the senator indeed secures the nomination.
The Sanders campaign said on Tuesday evening that the fact that Team Trump was plotting ads to run against the senator was proof positive that he was intimidated by him as a potential opponent.
“Donald Trump is getting a little bit nervous about facing Sen. Sanders in a general election,” said Sanders campaign spokesman Mike Casca, “and the president’s campaign is quickly realizing that the only way to attack someone who spent his entire life standing with the working class is to lie.”
There are, additionally, major philosophical and practical differences between what Sanders proposes—which he’s for many years compared to Scandinavian models of governance—and brutal, openly oppressive systems seen in present-day Venezuela and in Eastern Bloc nations during the Cold War. In the 1980s, for instance, Sanders did laud what he saw as positive steps—including on health care and education—taken by the Castro dictatorship in Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. But the senator has shed some of the more radical proclamations of his younger days, and in some cases, just didn’t follow through when he might have had the chance.
In the 1970s, Sanders had advocated nationalizing a large percentage of American industry, as CNN reported early last year. When asked about it by CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Sanders responded, “I was a mayor of a city for eight years. Did I nationalize any of the industry in the city of Burlington, Vermont? I don’t think so.”
Trump has, predictably, not conceded such nuance, at least not in his public messaging and harangues. For months, the president has publicly trashed Sanders as “crazy” and a “communist,” forgoing the socialist label for the farther-left tag. “Well, I think [Bernie’s] a communist,” the president told Fox News host and informal Trump adviser Sean Hannity during this year’s Super Bowl interview. “I think of communism when I think of Bernie. Now you could say ‘socialist,’ but… I think of Bernie sort of as a socialist but far beyond a socialist.”
Furthermore, Kayleigh McEnany, Trump 2020’s national press secretary, said in a statement on Tuesday, “It matters little who emerges as the Democrat[ic] nominee, for we already know the outcome: far-left extremism will prevail.”
But when it comes to “socialism” of the Sanders variety, this president has some decidedly mixed emotions. Though Trump has bashed the “socialists or communists” countless times in the 2020 Democratic primary, promising that America will “never” become “a socialist country,” he’s also conceded to donors and advisers behind closed doors that running against a socialist candidate in the general election might not be quite so simple.
As The Daily Beast reported in September, the president told donors at a private event late last year that even though “a lot of people think it’ll be easy to beat [in 2020],” the “truth is, it might not be so easy.” Trump, according to a source who was in the room, added that “you can have someone who loves Trump, but many people love free stuff, too,” and warned that if Sanders and other progressive politicians convince enough voters—particularly young ones—that they’re going to eliminate their debt, “that’s a tough one” to run against in the general.
Despite his condemnations of authoritarian leftists once praised by Sanders, President Trump has shown few reservations about cozying up to various despots and autocrats—including ones who are still nominally communist.