MAGA replaces Reaganism

The Republican Party drops Reagan's revolution for Donald Trump's culture wars

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 17, 2023 9:01AM (EDT)

Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

As the GOP presidential primary campaign gets underway it's fascinating to see how the Republican Party has changed since Donald Trump descended onto the scene back in 2015. Ever since the successful White House runs of Ronald Reagan, virtually every Republican seeking higher office called themselves "conservative" and hewed to the Reagan revolution ideology — described as a "three-legged stool" — that centers global leadership and a strong national defense, traditional family values, low taxes and small government. Within that framework, there were minor differences on specific issues but generally speaking, in order to win the GOP nomination it was required that Republican candidates adhere to that basic philosophy.

In hindsight, it's clear that this may not have been the huge winner Republicans assumed it to be since the party's nominee has won the popular vote for president only once in 35 years. But for decades it was an article of faith in the political establishment and among the mainstream media, as well as the Republican party itself, that those policy priorities were held by a majority of the American people. However, over time, and through several incremental changes that were hard to see at the time, Reagan's conservative movement became a shell of its former self. The right-wing populism popularized by talk radio's Rush Limbaugh and then Fox's Bill O'Reilly and ultimately Donald Trump now defines the Republican Party.

The main characteristic of what we are now calling the MAGA movement is the hysterical culture war issue of the day.

Whether it's immigrants allegedly taking over American society with their unacceptable foreignness or the educational system evolving with the multicultural society that the U.S. has become, modern Republicans are obsessed with grievance and backlash. But we've recently learned that they are also so insular and self-segregated in their right-wing media silos that they refuse to accept any facts that interfere with their worldview. They literally can't handle the truth.

This came to light most recently with their reaction to the reports that Fox News executives and personalities knew that Joe Biden had legitimately won the election but felt obligated to tell their audience that he didn't for fear of losing them to the competition. The network had reportedly wanted to untether itself from its unethical relationship with Trump but found that it would lose money if it did, so executives backed down. A Fox spokesperson said in a statement that Dominion "mischaracterized the record" and "cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context."

At this point, I'm actually more interested in the new Big Lie that's forming around the January 6 insurrection.

Variety commissioned a poll last week to find out whether or not the revelations in the Fox News story have affected their audience and unsurprisingly, for the most part, the 60% of viewers who have heard about it don't care. I'm frankly surprised that many are aware of the scandal since the network hasn't covered it. Of that 60%, 21% percent of them said they trust the network less after seeing the evidence. However, I don't know that we can assume that means they trust it less because the network didn't tell them the truth that Trump had lost the election. Maybe they trust it less because the Fox News stars don't really believe that Trump won the election. I suspect there are more than a few of that 21% who are upset about the latter. Nine percent said they were watching less now that they know about this while others said they are watching more for some reason. Perhaps they respect Fox celebrities and executives for being liars? 17% of those who heard about the lies said they now believe the 2020 election was not stolen. Huzzah! But 57% of those who know about it are still convinced it was. Trump's Big Lie lives on and it seems that absolutely nothing will persuade them otherwise.

It does not appear that any of Trump's rivals are going to even attempt to address this issue because they don't want to alienate Fox, their main conduit to the GOP base, so that's probably as good as it's going to get. At this point, I'm actually more interested in the new Big Lie that's forming around the January 6 insurrection. Unlike the 2020 election where skeptics could say that the process was obscure or that those in charge were engaged in subterfuge and fraud, January 6 happened on television screens all over the world in real time. There are hours and hours of footage taken by participants on the internet and hundreds of trials taking place in federal courtrooms in which not one J6 defendant has been found not guilty. That there could be any dispute about what took place that day is mindboggling.

It is unsurprising that some people would suggest that there were plants in the crowd who incited the riot. That's almost a cliche. But to contend that there was no riot at all is simply deranged. Yet that hasn't stopped Tucker Carlson from making that case nor has it stopped millions of Trump voters from throwing their last vestige of normal brain function out the window.

The right-wing populism popularized by talk radio's Rush Limbaugh and then Fox's Bill O'Reilly and ultimately Donald Trump now defines the Republican Party.

GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's gift to Carlson was the House security tapes from that day so that he could cherry-pick certain scenes was an extremely audacious maneuver. And it seems to have worked to convince a significant number of Fox News viewers that what they all saw with their own eyes never happened. It is a full blown mass delusion. Donald Trump is running with this new narrative, claiming that the investigations into the events of that day are a witch hunt and that the January 6 defendants are political prisoners. He has promised to pardon all of them if he is elected in 2024. And, as with the Big Lie, the rest of the candidates aren't exactly jumping up to contradict this new narrative. Sure, they are on record saying the violence was wrong back when it happened, but most, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are trying to walk a fine line with remarks like this on the first anniversary of January 6, playing down the significance:

"They are going to take this and milk this for anything they could to try to be able to smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump. When they try to act like this is something akin to the September 11 attacks, that is an insult to the people who were going into those buildings.

The last thing you would want to do is insult those very fine people who were beating cops over the head with flagpoles and chanting "Hang Mike Pence." Of course, most of the voters DeSantis is trying to attract are now convinced that none of those things ever happened because according to Tucker Carlson, the police were actually leading the peaceful protesters on a guided tour of the capital that day.

All Republicans running for office are going to be required to parrot this line to some extent in 2024 because Trump and his accomplices in the House and at Fox News have declared it to be the official MAGA doctrine. If they want the votes of the Republican base they are going to have to run on the new official GOP slogan: "You can believe me or you can believe your lyin' eyes." It fits perfectly on a bumper sticker. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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