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MAGA Was Wrong
The conservative movement and the Republican Party must represent more than a shrinking coalition of the disaffected.
Make America Great Again. As Donald Trump slow-rolled into public perception as a political figure, “Make America Great Again” was the slogan he put forward to represent his unique brand of bombastic conservatism. Red hats with the phrase printed in white became symbolic of Trump support. Often shortened to MAGA both online and in general conversation, there is little doubt in the minds of most Americans about what it means and who it stands for. Or is there?
One of the unique abilities of Donald Trump is his tendency to create clear division among Americans over his persona and leadership while nevertheless presenting a stark uncertainty over his and his followers’ political ideals. Other than unending loyalty to its leader, what does MAGA stand for? Among MAGA acolytes can be found Christian nationalists, angry populists, national conservatives, Catholic integralists, libertarians, paleoconservatives, and even (as Steve Bannon calls himself) anti-state Leninists. On the extreme alt-right and alt-lite margins, there are even avowed fascists, neo-confederates, and chauvinists who consider themselves part of the MAGA movement.
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MAGA is both none of these and all of these at the same time. While each unique persuasion has done its best to breathe their own vision into the broader MAGA movement and gain support for their brands by claiming to best represent what MAGA is, the reality of MAGA is far different than a philosophical or ideological persuasion. MAGA, in many ways, is pure and unrefined populism. It has room for all of these various discontented groups because it is little more than a coalition of the disaffected.
Donald Trump rose to the top of this coalition because his bombastic reality tv star persona provided an avatar for discontent while his free-wheeling political positions and characteristic stream-of-consciousness delivery created room for various disaffected groups to project their views and values upon him. And this is why MAGA has proven to be surprisingly ductile in its adjustments to political reality and why Trump has survived so many controversies with his “Teflon” strength.
As for how MAGA overtook the Republican Party, 2016 was simply a perfect storm for the rise of a figure like Trump. The GOP had revamped its primary process to avoid the bruising primary experience that appeared to have damaged Mitt Romney’s general election perception in 2012. The goal was to allow a frontrunner to emerge and consolidate support rapidly instead of stretching out the process. But the expectation was for someone like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Marco Rubio to benefit from this approach. No one expected someone like Donald Trump to suddenly tap into such serious disaffection and frustration among primary voters. (And, incidentally, the main thing protecting Democrats from a similar takeover was the power of superdelegates in its primary process, a hurdle to a populist takeover of the Democratic Party that has now been largely neutered)
The Obama years were difficult and frustrating years for conservatives and Republicans. Despite the energy and drive of the Tea Party movement, conservatives felt feckless and ineffectual at stopping Obama’s agenda. And there was a lot of frustration directed at those viewed as the “establishment,” party figures whose business-as-normal approach stood in contrast to the rise of existential dread among conservative and Republican voters.
Fueling all of this, of course, was the Rightwing infotainment industry. Variously composed of cable news, talk radio, bloggers, and non-legacy news sites, this industry was non-existent in the Reagan years and rose to prominence largely as an oppositional force during the Clinton years. The timing of its rise led it to be characterized by a counter-cultural and anti-intellectual brand, speaking to “true America” and pushing against the power and control of the “elites,” the “liberals,” the “media,” and the “establishment.”
It’s difficult to overestimate the power and reach of the Right-wing infotainment industry. Most Americans who consider themselves conservative listen to talk radio or watch cable news for many hours every week, and many often listen or watch for several hours every day. Across America, there are many blue-collar workspaces where talk radio is on in the background for the entire workday and more than a few white-collar break rooms with cable news perpetually playing on the tv. Political commentators who rose to the top of this industry are able to exercise tremendous influence over the perceptions of those consuming their content.
By 2016, various figures such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck had, in the eyes of their followers, become the gatekeepers of movement conservatism, with traditional intellectuals and writers from places like National Review as well as politicians themselves trying to get on their programs to plug their views and arguments and gain street cred as serious conservatives by appearing routinely throughout the Right-wing infotainment industry. The mid-2010s was the golden age of Right-wing infotainment dominance, and Trump was the perfect figure to arrive on the scene and become an infotainment candidate.
And let’s not forget that the rise of Twitter and social media created whole new paths for organizing and outreach and established an online culture of algorithmic interactions that prioritized the bombastic and rewarded the trollish. Barack Obama normalized the use of Twitter as an official arm of both campaigning and political office, lowering the dignity of public service into the gutter of social media. Political movements came to be organized around hashtags, and the politically engaged became keyboard warriors rather than civic leaders. Trump took the online cues of Obama and moved things to the next level, gaining a massive online following and utilizing the ability to rise to the top of everyone’s feed through hyperbole and histrionics until he dominated the online political conversation on both the Left and the Right.
Everything about Trump, his style, his manner of speech, his instincts, his pithy statements and cute nicknames, his ability to inflame and incite reaction, his bravado, his reality tv drama…it fit perfectly into what the political culture both broadly and on the Right had become. He spoke as a perpetually aggrieved and angry observer of American decadence. He gave voice to those who said they were “madder than hell and ain’t gonna take it no more.” He was pure infotainment. He was a troll. He crashed onto the scene and tapped into something no one had realized was there. By the time anyone had realized what had happened, he’d already won enough primary elections to benefit from how the primary process had been designed. His 2016 primary election became inevitable…and it was almost a complete disaster.
As Scott Howard recently pointed out on Twitter, I’ve long argued that the story of the 2016 general election was Hillary losing rather than Trump winning. Because, for however much Trump was able to tap into discontent and rise to the top of the ash heap of our dysfunctional political culture, there was always a limit to how big he could build his coalition. At the end of the day, only 30-35% of the Republican Party ever fully bought into the MAGA message and became true believers. It took Hillary Clinton, one of the most disliked political figures in American history, to consolidate support for Trump’s candidacy. 2016 is the story of “but Hillary” and “but Supreme Court justices,” with the rise of MAGA hanging on the coat tails of “lesser of two evils” determinations.
And so, while Trump won the presidency in 2016, he did so only by the narrowest of margins and arguably made the contest far closer than it needed to be. Americans still had a bad taste in their mouth from Bill Clinton, and Hillary was universally unpopular. Her demonstration of pure political calculation by sticking with a shameless philanderer to further her designs for public office, let alone the fact that she was an Alinskyite progressive hiding in her moderate husband’s shadow, was simply something that instinctively repulsed the average American voter. In many ways, Trump brought Hillary Clinton closer to the White House than anyone else could have.
But Trump’s primary victory had demoralized the Republican electorate, and everyone had braced for Hillary’s pending victory. The bar had been lowered and those fearful, defeatist expectations created a sense of surprise, euphoria, and elation when Trump shocked everyone by winning out in the end. In jubilation, conservatives and Republicans rallied to Trump. In the ecstasy of unexpected triumph, they forgot that Hillary had been a weak and unpopular candidate, they ignored how needlessly close the election had been, and they missed the signs that while Trump had continued the trend of shifting blue-collar and minority votes away from Democrats he was nevertheless already bleeding away the support of historically Republican voters.
2016 was a fluke, and every other election since then has borne out the false narrative of MAGA and its poor vision and message for America. Americans may give in to the populist impulse from time to time and will turn to avatars of discontent in the heat of frustration and disaffection to send messages and shock the status quo. But these have never been enduring features of American politics. The figures of great consequence in American history were those with messages of hope, strength, and endurance. Figures like Donald Trump and movements like MAGA are flashes in the pan, instructive in the moment and indicative of underlying political realities but hardly the stuff of transcendent political efforts.
But Republicans failed to learn these lessons, and the party caved to the lie that it could build its future on a coalition of the disaffected and gain power through pure grievance and discontent rather than with a coherent agenda and forward-thinking vision. And Americans responded like they always do when populist discontent goes too far. They voted for the party that seemed less unhinged. They did it again and again. For three consecutive election cycles, Republican electoral expectations have fallen flat. They lost both Houses of Congress in 2018, they lost the Presidency in 2020, and they failed to achieve the expected “red wave” in 2022, even when every political factor pointed to a sweeping repudiation of Democratic governance in Washington. (The only lasting achievement in the MAGA era was the solidification of an originalist Supreme Court, but that achievement was decades in the making and due more to the effort of Mitch McConnell than Donald Trump. Indeed, what we can say of conservative victories in the courts is that legal conservatism had developed so much momentum over the years that not even Trump could derail its efforts, and, in fact, Trump rode its coattails to his narrow victory in 2016)
As many on the Right like to say, facts don’t care about feelings. And these election results are the most stubborn of all facts. The Republican Party is perhaps at its weakest moment since the political dominance of FDR, and the turn-around has to come swiftly if the progressive vision of the Democratic Party is going to be sufficiently checked and reversed anytime soon. And there can be no swift turn-around if the realities and shortcomings of MAGA and its leader are not acknowledged by the vast majority of Republicans and conservatives.
MAGA has proven to be a tremendous weight on the electoral validity of the Republican Party. In 2022, it has become painfully difficult to champion a conservative vision for America, both thanks to the unhinged nature of the populist anger that MAGA embraces and the serial distraction provided by its chief avatar. And these fits of rage and pique are accomplishing little in the way of American renewal and, instead, are actively enabling the progressive governance that so many American voters feel forced to vote for as they are repulsed by the vitriol of MAGA and the pettiness and ugliness of Donald Trump.
MAGA was wrong about what ultimately inspires Americans. The Republican Party was wrong to embrace MAGA and believe it could ride discontent to power and influence. The conservative movement has been wrong to allow infotainment shock jockeys to become arbiters of ideological purity and was wrong to enable a petty and small-minded man like Trump to represent the movement in the minds of American voters. It’s time to correct course. It’s time to offer a vision of true American renewal, of hope, and of America as a shining city on a hill. It’s time to re-embrace what makes American conservatism unique and powerful and what makes America truly great. It’s time to put this MAGA nonsense behind us.
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