A viewer watching the Republican National Convention on Monday night could be forgiven for thinking that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were not the Democratic Party's presidential and vice presidential nominees but were leading a different ticket altogether.
"Biden, Harris and their socialist comrades will fundamentally change this nation," Trump campaign adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle warned.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asserted that Biden would be taking orders from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the four congresswomen known as the "Squad."
"Their vision for America is socialism," Haley said. "And we know that socialism has failed everywhere."
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said, "Democrats have chosen to go down the road to socialism."
The "S" word is a charge Republicans have leveled against Democrats for decades, says Thomas Alan Schwartz, a Vanderbilt University history and political science professor.
"Democrats have tended, through regulation and other ways, to be more empowering of the federal government and in regulating the economy than the Republicans," Schwartz says, "and this has been called socialism."
Schwartz says the term socialism actually refers to a political system in which the state is in charge of the economy and provides not only social welfare services such as health care, but where "all sorts of other things are in state control, including the large sections of the private economy."
In 1945, when President Harry Truman, a Democrat, first proposed a national health insurance program, which evolved to what we now know as Medicare, Republicans opposed it, arguing it was socialist. And earlier New Deal programs, including Social Security, were similarly labeled.
Now Republicans are trying to hang two Democratic proposals, the Green New Deal and "Medicare for All," on Biden, even though he supports neither, and has established a long political record as a moderate and pragmatist.
And while Sanders and "Squad" members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib identify as Democratic Socialists, their vision is more aligned with Scandinavian nations such as Denmark and Sweden, where universal health care and a wide range of social benefits — and higher taxes — are the norm, but capitalism still prevails, rather than with countries such as Venezuela and Cuba, where the state does control major industries, and authoritarians rule.
Republicans level the socialist charge possibly in an effort to scare voters into opposing the Democratic ticket and supporting their candidate, but Schwartz says he doesn't think it's that frightening a label anymore.
"Clearly the ways in which socialist was a dirty word during the Cold War have declined considerably," he says. "The fact that Bernie Sanders could mount such a challenge and be so strong despite being a self-professed socialist, I think does show that socialism doesn't scare many American voters anymore."
Ironically, President Trump and Republicans in Congress have themselves blurred the lines between capitalism and socialism, passing the CARES Act to aid businesses and providing $600 payments to unemployed workers in the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has also opened federal coffers to rescue farmers who have been hurt by his trade disputes with China and other nations.
"President Trump," Schwartz says, "is very fond of using the government and being willing to spend money and do things that might be, in another context, considered socialist."