The world is used to reading unusual Tweets from a man named Donald Trump. Most of the time, it’s the President of the United States; but sometimes, others can confound us in the same way.
Donald Trump Jr recently added a photo of his young daughter to Twitter, joking that he would remove many of the sweets and snacks she had gained in a bout of Hallowe’en trick-or-treating to give her a lesson about socialism.
I’m going to take half of Chloe’s candy tonight & give it to some kid who sat at home. It’s never to early to teach her about socialism. pic.twitter.com/3ie9C0jv2G
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 31, 2017
The President’s son received a number of witty responses from other Twitter users, some of whom brought in the Trump fortune, the President’s business dealings and the Russian interference scandal. But regardless of the Trump family’s finances, Donald Jr’s joke raises an important point about the perception of socialism.
It cannot be denied that socialism has, for one reason or another, become fashionable again. If you want a good indication of its popularity, look at the number of articles coming from the pro-capitalist institutions, whether the Conservative Party or the libertarian think thanks, about why socialism is bad.
Socialism’s innate inadequacy was meant to be a statement of fact – everyone was supposed to have accepted that socialism ended in disgrace with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But today we have a Prime Minister who must make speeches proclaiming the benefits of the free market, surely something she wouldn’t need to do unless the free market was widely disliked and distrusted.
In the wake of the unexpected success enjoyed by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, as well as the Labour Party’s shocking non-annihilation this year, the right-leaning newspapers and think tanks are awash with anti-socialist arguments. Unfortunately, not all of them are terribly good. Many rely on repeated references to the situation in Venezuela, arguing that all socialist economies will end up like that.
Then there is what Jonn Elledge dubs ‘Cleverly’s Law’, the habit to equate even the slightest criticism of capitalism or nod to social democracy with mass murder and totalitarian chaos. It goes beyond James Cleverly: Rand Paul, a Republican rival of Sanders, links a universal healthcare service with slavery, for example.
Donald Trump Jnr’s Tweet is another example of how critics of socialism understand it. Rather than analyse the system, as many distinguished thinkers have, we instead hear criticisms of political and social ideas that could fit into a number of socioeconomic systems besides socialism: authoritarianism, the use of disproportionate force, stifling civil liberties, censoring the press, swamping the nation with unbearable taxes, over-regulation et al.
Taking half of his daughter’s candy haul is, Trump Jr believes, a good analogy of how socialism works: a powerful authority taking what someone has earned (and a sizeable sum of it too) and giving it to someone else.
If this is true, then many things and ideas are socialist. The stereotypical school bully demanding the puny kids’ lunch money is not a bully but a socialist. He’s not being uncivil and threatening; he’s just enacting socialism in the playground.
Most people would agree that this is an extremely reductionist understanding of socialism. There are more theories and variants of socialism than the ones that were implemented by Lenin and Stalin; socialism has a rich history and draws on a number of concepts and ideas from talented thinkers of the past, many of whom weren’t committed to socialism but laid its foundations.
Trump Jnr joked about giving half of his daughter’s candy to “some kid who sat at home.” Of course, Trump’s admirers have a certain image in mind: a layabout child who lazily sat home and did nothing. Hence, it would be wrong to hand out his daughter’s earned sweets to someone who didn’t work for it.
But then, his daughter had gone door to door and asked for strangers to give her sweets. She hadn’t offered any services in exchange from the reward; the receipt of candy was a donation on the part of a kind neighbour. Many Twitter users pointed out that giving money to those who haven’t earned it is not inherently wrong – it would be an act of kindness to share one’s sweets with another child who, say, was too ill to go out trick-or-treating.
If we humour the comparison of socialism and authoritarianism, we could say that it was the young Miss Trump that was the authoritarian. After all, she did threaten the homeowners with a “trick” unless she was given a “treat”. Though it doesn’t happen so much nowadays, it was not uncommon for children of the past to bombard houses with eggs and flower if they did not receive sweets from strangers. Behind the silly costumes and make-up, the children that go trick-or-treating are essentially asking for sweets to stop them damaging your property: a sugar-based form of extortion!
Socialism has been reduced to a handful of key elements to such an extent that the slightest hint of anything besides free market principles is an act of socialist, authoritarian control. It may well be the case that socialism failed for good reason, but we have to convey a good argument as to why it is bad and should never be adopted. Trump Jr’s Tweet shows not just a reductionist misunderstanding of socialism, but that it’s easier to talk past people and make use of stereotypes and myths than engage with proper debate. If we want to have meaningful conversations about complex political ideas, we have to have meaningful conversations in general.