President Trump drew a clear line Tuesday night between his party’s policies and the creeping socialism some see on the left, declaring at the State of the Union “America will never be a Socialist country” as many nonplussed Democrats appeared to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
The vow from Trump, whose speech was delayed a week amid a partial government shutdown, came as Democrats have proposed an evolving agenda of “Medicare-for-all,” free college tuition, minimum wage increases and even guaranteed basic income. Trump cited the ongoing disaster in Venezuela, where socialist policies have wrought “abject poverty and despair,” and pledged to maintain free-market economics in the U.S. “America was founded on liberty and independence and not government coercion, domination and control,” he said to Republican applause. “We are born free and we will stay free.”
“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a Socialist country,” Trump added as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat stone-faced behind him.
Viewers at home were treated to a tight shot of a frowning Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an avowed Socialist and modern-day godfather of a movement that has produced a host of far-left young Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D- N.Y., who also was shown expressionless. Other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, however, applauded the line. Sanders would tweet following the speech: “Trump said tonight, ‘We are born free, and we will stay free.’ I say to Trump: People are not truly free when they can’t afford health care, prescription drugs, or a place to live. People are not free when they cannot retire with dignity or feed their families.”
The socialism storyline was just one of several dividing lines Trump highlighted in a speech that simultaneously called for bipartisanship and unity. Trump pledged to pursue his signature project, the wall on the Mexican border, saying: “I will build it.”
“I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country,” Trump said, in a speech that variously referred to both “walls” and “barriers” at the border. “Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” Trump added. “So let’s work together, compromise and reach a deal that will truly make America safe. … This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall.” Trump framed border security as a matter of preventing human trafficking, stopping the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico and maintaining federal resources for legal citizens. Democrats, including Ocasio-Cortez, sat on their hands as Trump praised an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, Elvin Hernandez, for breaking up a notorious human trafficking ring.
But perhaps more than any other issue, the socialism schism brought into sharp relief the differences between the two parties as 2020 looms. Trump began the portion of his 82-minute speech by citing the economic decline and civil disorder in Venezuela as a cautionary tale, after his administration last week imposed sweeping sanctions against the regime of Nicolas Maduro. The country’s government in recent years limited citizens’ access to foreign currency, implemented substantial subsidies and price controls on food and other items, and fell victim to sweeping corruption — before effectively collapsing last month.
“Two weeks ago, the United States officially recognized the legitimate government of Venezuela, and its new interim president, Juan Guaido,” Trump said. “We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose Socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump continued, prompting boos from Republicans in the chamber. “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.”
Then, after a prolonged chant of “USA” broke out, Trump concluded, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a Socialist country.” Democrats largely remained seated as Republicans resumed the “USA” chant and applauded for several seconds.
Still, Democrats did find enough common ground to applaud many of Trump’s remarks. “We stood up and cheered dozens of times. I stood up and cheered more often than last time I was at a Dodgers game,” Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., told Fox News Channel’s Laura Ingraham Tuesday night. “We stood up and cheered dozens of times. Not as often as the Republicans did, we cheered more than when Obama was cheered for by Republicans, we cheered plenty, but you can’t stand up after every half a sentence and give a standing ovation.”