If Trump falls, will MAGA vanish? It won't be that easy

Trump's hold over his followers is unshakable. If he is finally removed from the scene, they'll need a new Trump

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 29, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

A Trump supporter walks up Marietta boulevard ahead of the former presidents arrive in Atlanta, Georgia, United States on August 24, 2023. (Benjamin Hendren/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A Trump supporter walks up Marietta boulevard ahead of the former presidents arrive in Atlanta, Georgia, United States on August 24, 2023. (Benjamin Hendren/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Donald Trump arrived at the Fulton County jail last Thursday in an extended motorcade, before the ex-president was arrested and booked on felony charges for his attempt to steal votes in Georgia as part of his Jan. 6 coup plot.

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat described the scene on Twitter: "The aim of this part of the spectacle is to look 'presidential' and generate as much dramatic build-up as possible to the moment when he takes a hit on behalf of his people. Maximize the glamour, then milk the outrage to keep the $ coming in."

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, William Bunch elaborates:

It was a remarkable night of imagery over substance, yet there was little discussion of why this accused felon was getting a phalanx of dozens of motorcycle cops, comprising police who are drawn to Trump's authoritarian bluster like moths to the light.

Donald Trump immediately monetized the image of his mug shot, with it now becoming part of his fascist strongman aesthetic and another way for his cult members to signal their loyalty to him.

A Washington Post report offers further details:

Not long after Donald Trump was booked on felony charges alleging that he participated in a conspiracy to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia, his 2024 presidential campaign was selling merchandise featuring the first mug shot of a former American president.

The merchandise, which includes T-shirts, mugs, koozies and bumper stickers of the former president's mug shot, was for sale about 90 minutes after he was released from an Atlanta jail on Thursday. The merchandise, which includes $34 shirts, is accompanied by the words "NEVER SURRENDER!" Trump surrendered at the jail Thursday, was booked and got released on a $200,000 bond in a move his legal team negotiated this week.

The Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee is also selling his mug shot, saying it would give out a T-shirt in exchange for a $47 donation. The Trump campaign claimed in a fundraising email that his mug shot was an attempt "to make him look like a criminal in front of the entire world."

"Please make a contribution of $47 to prove that YOU will also NEVER SURRENDER our mission — and we'll send you a FREE T-shirt with President Trump's OFFICIAL MUGSHOT PRINTED ON IT," the campaign's email reads.

In a press release, Virginia Tech political scientist Chad Hankinson explained the demagogic messaging of Trump's mug shot as meant "to convey strength and defiance, likely a strategy used to rile up his base. The likely interpretation for them is that he is fearless, powerful, confident, and undeterred by efforts to undermine him."

Like other political strongmen and demagogues, Donald Trump is using his power and authority over his followers to extract more money from them. Reuters reports that political analysts believe the Trump mug shot "could be a huge fundraiser":

"His superfans are going to see this and it will be a fist-pumping exercise for them to send in that $25 and get that shirt or that mug," said David Kochel, a veteran Republican presidential campaign operative in Iowa. "It's kind of sad at the end of the day that the campaign is going to celebrate his indictment over 13 criminal charges — but that's where our politics is."

Trump has for months sought to leverage the criminal probes against him to rally support from his base, starting with his first indictment in New York. His fundraising groups, including his past and current presidential campaigns, have reported investing more than $98 million in merchandise operations since 2015, buying items like bumper stickers, hoodies and coffee mugs to sell.

Speaking to Reuters after the Republican debate on Wednesday, co-campaign manager Chris LaCivita said his team had been focused on turning the four indictments into a positive, "making sure that we were making lemonade at every opportunity, which I think we did."

Veterans of other political operations say campaigns can make a 50% profit or more on their merchandise sales and LaCivita on Thursday warned off those trying to make money from the image without the campaign's permission.

On X (formerly Twitter), cult expert and therapist Steven Hassan pointed out the obvious parallels that many observers, even after seven years of experience with the Trump phenomenon, are eager to avoid: 

I would ask everyone to stop posting / showing Trumps mugshot. Demagogues want people to put their attention on them. Their biggest fear is to be forgotten. Btw, the pose I believe was modeled on Adolf.

Trump's former wife claimed that he kept a copy of Adolf Hitler's speeches at his bedside. Trump also openly admires brutal dictators such as Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong-un.

Since cults and mind control organizations are almost always involved in criminal activity, their leaders often end up in prison, or worse. Donald Trump potentially faces long prison sentences if he is convicted in the four criminal trials on 91 felony charges he faces so far. If he is found guilty on a significant number of those charges, it's entirely possible he will die in prison.

Public opinion polls and other evidence suggest, however, that Trump's criminal charges have not weakened his control over his MAGA followers and the larger Republican Party. If anything, the opposite is true: Trumpism, like other forms of fascism or authoritarianism, is corrupt power that rejects the rule of law and democracy, and the ex-president's criminal charges have only made him more popular with his true believers.

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman turned never-Trumper and pro-democracy advocate, explained this dire reality in a recent interview with Salon:

Trump has moved beyond cult leader. He's a full-on martyr with his base. I hear it every day. Each new indictment has strengthened his support among "non MAGA" Republicans and conservatives, who have told me that it really seems like they're piling on him now and he's being unfairly targeted by the justice system. That's a powerful narrative.

One of the most important dimensions of Trump's position as a fascist cult leader — and one little discussed by the mainstream media and political class — is that he could not possibly hold such power and influence over his MAGA followers without assistance and support from many others. There is a vast infrastructure supporting his movement, which now includes most of the Republican Party and its leaders, a media propaganda machine, White Christian evangelical churches, right-wing donors, think tanks and interest groups, and many other agents and organizations.

Trumpism, like other forms of fascism or authoritarianism, is based on corrupt power that rejects the rule of law and democracy. The ex-president's criminal charges have only made him more popular with his true believers.

Donald Trump may be a fascist cult leader, but he is not omnipotent. He should be understood as the figurehead of a much larger neofascist right-wing movement and anti-democracy conspiracy. The power of the Trump cult was on display during last Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, when six of the candidates onstage raised their hands immediately when asked whether they would support Trump if and when he is the party's nominee. Those same candidates largely defended Trump when asked about his alleged crimes, and the crowd in Milwaukee loudly booed any criticism of Trump and the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

In a recent interview with Salon, Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the pro-democracy group the Lincoln Project, explained his view that America was facing "a serious crisis":

Trump is leading a crime family masquerading as a political party. He empowers individuals who believe violence is a political tool, support racism and misogyny, and don't want anything to do with governing — only obtaining power. 

Trump has completely and utterly destroyed the Republican Party. The party of Reagan is no longer a legitimate party concerned about policy. It is an authoritarian force with designs on taking control of the nation and destroying any opposition to its bankrupt vision.

At the Atlantic, Tom Nichols, another former Republican, explored what last week's debate had revealed about the Republican Party:

The GOP has mutated from a political party into an angry, unfocused, sometimes violent countercultural movement, whose members signal tribal solidarity by hating whatever they think most of their fellow citizens support. Ukraine? To hell with them! Government agencies? Disband them! Donald Trump? Pardon him!

Instead of participating in the debate on Fox News, Trump posted an interview with former Fox primetime host Tucker Carlson, where he was given free rein to lie, make threats, launch attacks, play the victim and depict an alternate reality of deep state persecution of "your favorite president," an entirely innocent man whose actions are "perfect" and who loves his country.

Trump's Tucker Carlson interview does not mean that Trump and Fox News are at war. If and when he becomes the Republican nominee, the network will, of course, embrace him once again.

Some observers took Trump's interview with Carlson as another sign that the ex-president and Fox News are at war. That is too simplistic. Fox News has effectively created a force field around Trump, insulating its viewers  from the truth about his alleged or apparent crimes and criminal prosecutions. If and when Trump becomes the 2024 Republican nominee, Fox News and the larger right-wing echo chamber will, of course, fully embrace him both for ideological and commercial reasons.

Trump's power over tens of millions of Americans is evidence of how Fox News and the larger right-wing propaganda machine, over the course of several decades, have created a fact-free alternate reality for their public. Ultimately, Trump can retain his power because his MAGA followers are effectively isolated from outside (i.e., more accurate) sources of information and community that might help them find meaning and make sense of their lives and the larger world. Instead, Trump and his media supporters feed them ever more extreme falsehoods, and Trump's followers resolve this cognitive dissonance by further surrendering to his cult.

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In a recent interview with Truthout, political scientist and Salon contributor Anthony DiMaggio explained how Trump's power as a cult leader will likely not be weakened by his criminal trials:

One thing that seems clear to me is that none of these charges are likely to have much of an impact on Trump's core voters. They concluded long ago that the "deep state" is out to get Trump, that evidence is being manufactured and manipulated against him in a "witch hunt" to destroy the former president, and that these "attacks" on Trump are entirely motivated by Democratic partisanship.

Trump traffics in this sort of conspiratorial rhetoric routinely. His hardcore supporters live in an alternate reality in which his claims are true simply because Trump says so. For those who doubt this, I'd direct their attention to polling during Trump's term revealing that nearly two-thirds of Trump's supporters said there was nothing that he could possibly do that would make them reconsider their support. ... That is a cultist level of devotion that is independent of any sort of evidentiary threshold that might make someone reconsider their support for him.

In her newsletter, Ruth Ben-Ghiat largely echoes that conclusion, noting that it was "no surprise" that Trump declined to participate in last week's debate:

That's how demagogues behave.

Debates among presidential candidates enact the democratic principle of mutual tolerance: the notion that those who don't share your political views have a right to free expression. The public hears an exchange of views by individuals who are on equal footing and bound by rules which are enforced by an impartial arbiter.

This is anathema to the authoritarian mindset. Personality cults posit the leader as a man above all others, and the egalitarian staging and format of debates make them dangerous to his brand. Moreover, authoritarians who depend on disinformation, threat, and corruption (including fixing elections), have much to lose by submitting to spontaneous questioning by a rival or a third party.

It would be an error of reasoning and inference to conclude that if Donald Trump is defeated at the polls once again, or even convicted and sent to prison, the MAGA cult will dissolve. That movement, and the larger neofascist tendency behind it, are much larger than any one person. Because of its vast infrastructure and power, the MAGA cult — which now controls the entire Republican Party and "conservative" movement — will almost certainly be taken over by another leader, who may be even more dangerous than Trump. If Trump is finally removed from political life by defeat, incarceration or death, he may also become a legendary martyr or deity for the movement.  

Power abhors a vacuum. If Trump leaves the scene, a new Trump will rise. America's democracy crisis is not likely to end anytime soon, no matter how many members of the news media, the political class and the general public would like to wish it away.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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