Opinion Trump Versus the Socialist Menace The New York Times The Commies are coming for your pickup trucks. Opinion Columnist In 1961, America faced what conservatives considered a mortal threat: calls for a national health insurance program covering senior citizens. In an attempt to avert this awful fate, the American Medical Association launched what it called , a pioneering attempt at viral marketing. Heres how it worked: Doctors wives hey, it was 1961 were asked to invite their friends over and play them a in which Ronald Reagan explained that socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives, in turn, were supposed to write letters to Congress denouncing the menace of Medicare. Obviously the strategy didnt work; Medicare not only came into existence, but it became so popular that these days Republicans routinely and falsely accuse Democrats of planning to cut the programs funding. But the strategy — claiming that any attempt to strengthen the social safety net or limit inequality will put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism — endures. And so it was that Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, briefly turned from his usual warnings about scary brown people to warnings about the threat from . What do Trumps people, or conservatives in general, mean by socialism? The answer is, it depends. Sometimes it means any kind of economic liberalism. Thus after the SOTU, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, lauded the Trump economy and declared that — i.e., apparently America itself was a socialist hellhole as recently as 2016. Who knew? Other times, however, it means Soviet style central planning, or Venezuela style nationalization of industry, never mind the reality that there is essentially nobody in American political life who advocates such things. The trick — and trick is the right word — involves shuttling between these utterly different meanings, and hoping that people dont notice. You say you want free college tuition? Think of all the people who died in the Ukraine famine! And no, this isnt a caricature: Read the strange, smarmy that Trumps economists released last fall; thats pretty much how its argument goes. So lets talk about whats really on the table. Some progressive U.S. politicians now describe themselves as socialists, and a significant number of voters, including a majority of voters under 30, say they . But neither the politicians nor the voters are clamoring for government seizure of the means of production. Instead, theyve taken on board conservative rhetoric that describes anything that tempers the excesses of a market economy as socialism, and in effect said, Well, in that case Im a socialist. What Americans who support socialism actually want is what the rest of the world calls social democracy: A market economy, but with extreme hardship limited by a strong social safety net and extreme inequality limited by progressive taxation. They want us to look like Denmark or Norway, not Venezuela. And in case you havent been there, the Nordic countries are not, in fact, hellholes. They have somewhat lower G.D.P. per capita than we do, but thats largely because they take more vacations. Compared with America, they have , much and significantly higher . Oh, and they have — because people are more willing to take the risk of starting a business when they know that they wont lose their health care or plunge into abject poverty if they fail. Trumps economists clearly had a hard time fitting the reality of Nordic societies into their anti socialist manifesto. In some places they say that the Nordics arent really socialist; in others they try desperately to show that despite appearances, Danes and Swedes are suffering — for example, its expensive for them to . I am not making this up. What about the slippery slope from liberalism to totalitarianism? Theres absolutely no evidence that it exists. Medicare didnt destroy freedom. Stalinist Russia and Maoist China didnt evolve out of social democracies. Venezuela was a long before Hugo Chávez came along. If theres a road to serfdom, I cant think of any nation that took it. So scaremongering over socialism is both silly and dishonest. But will it be politically effective? Probably not. After all, voters overwhelmingly support most of the policies proposed by American socialists, including on the wealthy and making available to everyone although they dont support plans that would force people to give up private insurance — a warning to Democrats not to make single payer purity a litmus test . On the other hand, we should never discount the power of dishonesty. Right wing media will portray whomever the Democrats nominate for president as the second coming of Leon Trotsky, and millions of people will believe them. Lets just hope that the rest of the media report the clean little secret of American socialism, which is that it isnt radical at all. The Times is committed to publishing to the editor. Wed like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some . And heres our email: . Follow The New York Times Opinion section on , and .