WASHINGTON — Some presidential campaigns begin with theatrical escalator rides; others, with speeches in windowless rooms. There is, to be sure, an escalator in the building of the National Press Club, where socialist Jerome Segal announced on Wednesday that he would seek the White House, located just a couple of blocks away. But if Segal rode it, in Trumpian fashion, cameras were not there to record the occasion. Nor did he have Melania Trump by his side.
There were, notably, free coffee and pastries, but these appeared to belong to another group’s meeting at the National Press Club. Someone possibly affiliated with the Segal campaign told those gathered to help themselves, in what may have been a sign of capital redistribution already at work.
Segal is, like Trump, a 70-something native New Yorker, his Bronx accent so strong you want to ask him about traffic conditions on the Willis Avenue Bridge. And like Trump, he has the gift of gab, launching his campaign with an hourlong address that veered into a variety of topics and included allusions to “the early Marx” (Karl, one assumes, not Groucho), Aristotle, Henry David Thoreau, the socialist icon Norman Thomas and the Old Testament.
All this was taking place just steps from the seat of American imperial might, seemingly adding evidence to the argument of Trump and his supporters that socialism is on the rise — and must be countered appropriately. Segal is the founder of Bread and Roses, a party that calls itself “the first democratic socialist party to be established in the United States in the last four decades,” which is probably why Fox News took note of its founding.
And yes, Segal is a real socialist. Not a socialist on Twitter only, not a socialist in the lukewarm, Scandinavian sense, but an actual socialist of the very kind Trump says America should fear. His website contains one of Marx’s most famous slogans: “From each according to their potential, to each according to their need.” He wants people to work less and have more leisure time. He wants “more time for friendship,” as well as peace with Iran. In fact, the longtime Middle East peace activist has been in talks with top officials in Tehran.
If anybody cared, Segal’s campaign could be a gift to Trump, who has been eagerly tethering the entire Democratic field to progressive members of Congress like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. “Put this one on the pile with the other big government socialists running for president,” Trump campaign deputy press secretary Daniel C. Bucheli told Yahoo News. “They’re all the same.”
Throngs of woke millennials did not pack Segal’s announcement presser. In fact, the room was mostly empty. He did not trend on social media. While Americans may be at least partially amenable to progressive ideas when introduced by a young, media-savvy figure like Ocasio-Cortez, it appears the real thing has little traction in the United States.
Segal seems to recognize that being a socialist in 2019 may be better than in prior years, but is still ultimately futile. It has been 107 years since socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs netted all of 6 percent in the 1912 presidential election. Socialism may no longer be the epithet it was for many years after that, but it doesn’t seem to be a winner, either.
And yet the candidate is determined. Somewhat. “Maybe I’ll go to Iowa,” Segal mused at one point, a campaign manager nowhere in sight. The chairs before him were mostly empty, though there were a couple of supporters of his socialist message, a smattering of journalists and, toward the back, a well-dressed young Russian couple whose intentions could not be readily discerned.
Segal’s candidacy could be dismissed as a fringe political ploy, but he wants to make socialism — real socialism — a centerpiece of the debate, and if he gets a centrist candidate like, say, former Vice President Joe Biden to make concessions to his ideas, he has won a kind of victory.
“I want to stay in this thing for the long haul,” Segal said, about 30 minutes into his first presidential campaign.
Certainly, Segal’s path to become a presidential candidate is unusual, even by 2019 standards. He was raised in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx at a time when New York was still a crucible of Jewish leftist thought. His father had been a socialist in Poland. Segal went to the City College of New York, known at the time as the “Jewish Harvard,” then studied philosophy at the University of Michigan. A founder of the progressive Jewish Peace Lobby, he has lived in the Washington suburbs for more than 40 years. He has also been a professor at the University of Maryland.
In 2018, Segal challenged Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. He failed to defeat him, but his new party, Bread and Roses, earned 10,000 petition signatures, which qualifies it for the 2020 and 2022 elections. Segal, who calls himself “Maryland’s Bernie,” wants to push the Democratic Party to the left. If anything, he thinks Sanders is not radical enough, at least not as a presidential candidate. Nobody is. That’s why he’s taken it upon himself to run.
“Steal this platform,” Segal tells the nearly two dozen Democrats running for president. He invites Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, and Biden, and everyone else, to borrow his ideas.
“It’s there, guys,” he said to the candidates. “It’s there for the taking.”
The platform Segal proposes is Vladimir Lenin leavened with Marianne Williamson, the spiritual guru and 2020 contender of whom the graying academic appears to be rather fond. Segal likes to talk about “the transformative power of feeling safe” from needs, as well as the “anxiety” that poverty brings. He says education needs to “add beauty to the world.”
Segal is adamant about not wanting to return to some 1930s version of socialism, the one presumably endorsed by his father. “We are articulating a new form of socialism,” he said. To make that point clear, he discussed at some length the economic problems posed by the forthcoming challenge of personal robots.
Segal endorsed “democratic ownership of the means of production,” though he assured that would not mean the seizure of private enterprise. Rather, he wants corporations to make ordinary Americans stockholders, so that when Apple’s shares rise, everyone benefits. Corporations would be coaxed into making such stock offerings by breaks from what would be, by Segal’s admission, a very high corporate tax rate.
Others have proposed high corporate taxes, too, as well as expanded social programs. But if Sanders and other democratic socialists envision Sweden, Segal envisions something more radical. “We are utopians,” Segal says on his website. Utopia, it turns out, might be a lonely place.
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