Donald Trump formally became the leader of the Republican Party in 2016 — but this should not be considered a hostile takeover. If the courtship was reluctant at first, Trump and the Republicans both realized in due course that they needed each other, and indeed fulfilled each other.
Trump's relationship to his followers is that of a god-king - fascist cult leader, based upon collective narcissism, fantasies of violence, cruelty and an entire set of shared delusions. When Trump began his presidential campaign In 2015, he attracted large crowds. Then he gave them a collective identity by embracing "Make America Great Again" as his slogan. The MAGA movement was born.
Seven or so years on, what does MAGA mean now? And what have Trump and his movement accomplished? By any humane, reasonable or moral standards, nothing worth doing, or in any way "great." They pushed American democracy to the brink of chaos. They normalized right-wing political violence, culminating (for now) in the Jan 6 coup attempt and attack on the Capitol. They strove to reverse the civil rights and human rights progress of the 20th and 21st centuries in America.
They elevated conspiracism, anti-intellectualism, a rejection of empirical reality and science, Christian nationalism, white supremacy, misogyny and hostile sexism, and a total disregard for the rule of law. America's global reputation as an "indispensable nation" and the world's greatest democracy (which was already damaged) was permanently stained by the Age of Trump. At least a million people died in America because of how the Trump regime and the Republican Party willfully sabotaged public health and relief efforts in response to the COVID pandemic.
Contrary to what the professional centrists of the mainstream news media and political class would like to believe, the MAGA movement and other illiberal forces are not going away. In many senses, they are only getting started.
America is not the same country and people it was six years ago in a myriad of other ways as well. Joe Biden's administration has made great strides against the pandemic, and has shown leadership on a maddeningly difficult set of international challenges, including the Ukraine war. Biden and other leading Democrats are finally speaking in a bold and direct way about the danger to American democracy represented by the "MAGA Republicans," to use the president's term.
For the first time in his life, Donald Trump may face serious consequences for blatant defiance of the law regarding the Espionage Act and classified documents. Public opinion polls suggest that Trump is still the likely Republican presidential nominee in 2024, if he chooses to run. But his support is softening among more "mainstream" conservatives and independents.
Many more Americans are at last waking up to the existential danger of the fascist MAGA movement. It is now at least possible that Democrats will hold one or possibly both houses of Congress, something that seemed inconceivable a few months ago.
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What does the MAGA movement actually mean in 2022? Who are its true believers? It is crucial for defenders of democracy to have answers to these fundamental questions. A new poll by Grinnell College and Selzer & Company offers a number of important findings:
Fewer than half of all Republicans (42%) describe themselves as "MAGA Republicans," and that group is noticeably older than other Republican voters. A majority of MAGA supporters (55%) are age 55 or older, as compared to 37% of non-MAGA Republicans, and an even larger majority are male, almost 60%. MAGA followers are highly likely not to have college degrees (a super-majority of 76%) as compared to 61% of other Republicans.
NBC News reports that MAGA followers are mostly Protestant (61%) and disproportionately Southern (46%). In an age of declining religious observance overall, 40% say they attend religious services at least once a week.
Trump followers are mostly not poor white people in rural areas. They're older suburbanites with above-average incomes but no college degree — and a high degree of alienation.
This new data corroborates and reinforces other findings about Trump's followers. They are not predominantly poor white people in rural areas, contrary to stereotype. In fact, they tend to live in suburban areas, and have median household incomes well above the national average. As political scientists and other experts have shown, poor and working-class Americans are more likely to support Democrats (or not to vote at all) than to support the Republicans.
Trump's followers disproportionately work in skilled trades and other blue-collar professions. They tend to have average or above-average incomes but lack college degrees. That social cohort, according to social science research, feels a high degree of alienation and resentment toward "elites" and others in society perceived as passing them by, culturally or economically.
The much-cited 2016 Harvard Business Review article "What So Many People Don't Get About the U.S. Working Class" addressed this issue in some detail, describing it as the "class culture gap":
One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that "professional people were generally suspect" and that managers are college kids "who don't know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job." ...
Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. "[I] can't knock anyone for succeeding," a laborer told her. "There's a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I'm sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have," chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. ...
Manly dignity is a big deal for working-class men, and they're not feeling that they have it. Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place. It's comfort food for high-school-educated guys who could have been my father-in-law if they'd been born 30 years earlier. Today they feel like losers — or did until they met Trump.
MAGA followers, as profiled in the new Grinnell College poll, are also the core audience for Fox News and other elements of the right-wing echo chamber. They are also highly likely to be affiliated with white right-wing Christian evangelical churches and therefore to hold Christian nationalist views. These findings generally support the view that Trumpism and American neofascism are based more in white identity politics, racial resentment and social dominance behavior (including hostile sexism) than exclusively in economic or material factors (to the degree that race and class can even be disentangled in America).
These findings support the view that Trumpism is based more in white identity politics, racial resentment and social dominance behavior (including hostile sexism) than in specific economic or material factors.
Of course this all comes with qualifiers. MAGA no doubt signifies different things to different people. Because of "social desirability effects" — a phenomenon that leads respondents not to tell the truth or to conceal certain information from pollsters out of shame, fear or uncertainty — there may in fact be many more MAGA supporters than the Grinnell College data suggests.
In an era when Trump's movement has almost fully subsumed the Republican Party and all of "conservative" politics, to claim that there is a substantive difference between MAGA and overall Republican ideology is dubious. In a recent conversation with Nicole Hemmer, author of the new book "Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s," I asked what her definition of MAGA was:
It's a kind of toxic nostalgia. Make America Great Again — calling back to the past is certainly a big part of the appeal of that slogan. It means rolling back the clock on everything from Roe v. Wade and the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act to [some time they imagine] when America was great. But it's become so much more than that. MAGA is now a kind of expression of identity. It's an expression of loyalty to Donald Trump and it's a commitment to a particular political style, a kind of own-the-libs politics that has become so prevalent on the right. ... Anything is possible, and then you can continue to push the envelope, particularly when it comes to rolling back democratic institutions and processes. If you're MAGA, you believe that what happened at the Capitol wasn't an insurrection, and in fact that the people who precipitated that attack are being held as political prisoners. There is a whole set of beliefs about politics about democracy, American history and Donald Trump that are loaded into MAGA as a label.
Ultimately, MAGA is an identity, a belief system, a lifestyle and a form of religious politics and cult behavior. It manifests a particular type of white racial logic based upon distortions, outright lies and fantasies of a perfect, nearly all-white and profoundly Christian America, virtually free of social and political discord. Of course no such America ever existed. Unfortunately for the present and future of American democracy, there are millions of white Americans — as well as others who aspire to honorary whiteness — who are willing to do anything, including acts of violence, to protect that fantasy and then try to make it real.