Understanding the MAGA Political Project

Last night, Judge Aileen “Loose” Cannon took another step toward legal immortality by turning down the Department of Justice’s offer to act somewhat judicially and allow the government to proceed with its criminal investigation of her political patron (the one referred to by the actual president as “the last guy”). When she became a judge, she swore an oath to “administer justice without respect to persons … faithfully and impartially”, yet she announced in her ruling that “principles of equity” required her to consider “the position formerly held by Plaintiff”. In other words, Loose gave her patron everything he asked for because he’s a very special person.

Now, more senior judges will be forced to remind a human monster that equality before the law is still a thing nd he’s just another plaintiff. Which will make him very, very mad.

On that note, I’m going to step away from this blog for a while, but leave you with historian Thomas Zimmer’s thoughts on what Loose Cannon and her ilk are trying to accomplish:

[The MAGA movement’s] assault on democracy [is] animated not by nihilism, but by conviction – by the idea that America must forever remain a land where a traditional white Christian patriarchal order is upheld.

This isn’t just a matter of semantics. The idea that we are dealing with nihilists and opportunists underestimates or ignores the Right’s ideological vision for how U.S. society should be structured and the deliberate, systematic way in which the Right attempts to realize it.

I appreciate [Tom Nichols, writing for The Atlantic] pushing back against the narrative that MAGA Americans are simply motivated by economic anxiety, for which there is very little empirical basis; and he’s right to reject the idea the conflict could be solved by compromise or persuasion.

[MAGAs] are indeed not interested in debate, or a different perspective, or building bridges, or compromise. The only thing they would accept from “the Left” (which is everyone in the pro-democracy camp) is compliance, submission. There is no truce to be had.

But the key question is: Why is “normal” political deliberation not an option, why are [they] so clearly willing to tear constitutional government down? Nichols has a clear answer: Because they are “anti-American nihilists,” purely driven by anger and resentment.

Leaving it there, however, is a little bit like parachuting into an ongoing conflict, seeing people with torches and pitchforks in their hands, and simply concluding that “Ah well, I guess these guys just want to burn stuff down” …

All this resentment, anger, and lust for revenge is not aimless: It is directed against certain traditionally marginalized groups of people who are claiming equality and respect, and against the institutions that are supposedly doing their bidding to destroy “real America.”

Nichols himself rightfully diagnoses “fears about social status” as an animating force behind the [MAGA] project – and all the evidence we have points to the fact that those are racialized, gendered fears about the “wrong” kind of people getting ahead in America.

This is absolutely key: It’s not a coincidence that all this anger and resentment is targeting people who have traditionally not been allowed a seat at the table of power, right at the moment when they are threatening to claim their seat….

These numbers … are indicative of a very clear rightwing vision for the country: The supposed victimization of white Christians has to be reversed, their rightful status at the top needs to be restored.

Among [Republican] voters 90% say Christianity is under assault; 3/4 say bias toward whites equals bias toward minorities; 70% say immigrants are undermining US values & traditions; ~3/5 say white men the most persecuted group; ~3/5 say men are now punished for acting like men.

This is why the president was right to tie the “MAGA Republican” assault on the political system to the broader reactionary struggle to roll back the post-1960s civil rights regime in his “Soul of the Nation” speech in Philadelphia….

The “nihilism” interpretation falls short of explaining what it is that holds the American Right together – [the defeated president] and his disciples, the Republican establishment, rising white Christian nationalist extremists, the reactionary intellectual sphere, rightwing militant groups.

All of these different factions on the Right are ultimately united behind the same political project of fighting back against the “Un-American” leftist forces that are out to turn the country into something it must never become: an egalitarian, multiracial, pluralistic order….

Yes, they want to tear down and destroy, but only those institutions that are supposedly captured by this “Un-American” enemy within.

This is not at all an aberration from long-standing rightwing attitudes towards the state and civic institutions, which conservatives have only ever defended if they perceived them to be allies in the struggle to entrench traditional hierarchies. Whenever the government or the institutions acted as an engine of racial and social progress, conservatives saw it as the enemy. Conservative support for state authority and establishment institutions has always been contingent on them working to uphold reactionary rule….

At its core, the politics of “law and order” has always been a promise (and a threat) to mobilize all the tools available to the modern state to keep insubordinate groups in check and uphold a certain racial, social, and cultural order: traditional white Christian rule.

It is therefore not at all surprising that the January 6 insurrectionists were viciously attacking police officers while displaying the Thin Blue Line flag, or that this symbol is regularly displayed by those who embrace political violence against state authority in general.

The Thin Blue Line flag doesn’t say “We stand with the police” – it says “We stand with the police as long as they’re working to uphold the kind of ‘law and order’ that allows us to dominate with impunity while subduing those who dare to oppose our rule.”

… [It is crucial] to see how all of this is connected, all part of a multi-pronged, multi-level reactionary counter-mobilization that has a judicial arm, a political arm, an intellectual arm, and a paramilitary arm, all flanked by a massive, highly effective propaganda machine.

In this context, the supposedly mindless, nihilistic, anarchist raging has a specific role to play: to spread violent chaos and intimidation, in a direct assault on the foundations of democratic society. The MAGA raging is inherently political. Democracy depends on people feeling safe in the public square. If they don’t, because it’s ruled by intimidation and threats of violence, they won’t be able to participate as citizens. It’s what these extremists want: Rule and dominate through violence and harassment….

The “nihilism” approach completely isolates MAGA from the context and continuity of the long struggle over democracy and the fact that those who oppose it have often been willing to embrace violence, have often opted to tear the system down rather than accept defeat….

The fact that the Right in general is deliberately pursuing a reactionary political project, one that is animated by ideology and conviction rather than blind, nihilistic rage, makes the threat to American democracy more, not less acute.

Whether It’s Nihilism or Semi-Fascism, They Cannot Be Reached

It’s not always easy to come up with the right word, especially when dealing with ideas like fascism and nihilism. I think “semi-fascist” is an excellent label for today’s Republican Party. I don’t think “nihilist” is, because it usually refers to the belief that moral and religious principles are meaningless, or that life is. Tom Nichols, a writer for The Atlantic, uses the word to describe the the MAGA crowd. Whatever he calls it, he understands that they are beyond the reach of normal politics:

Joe Biden’s “Soul of the Nation” address got at a cold and disquieting truth: The MAGA movement cannot be placated, reasoned with, or politically accommodated in any way. There is nothing its adherents want—and nothing anyone can give them—beyond chaos and political destruction.

Joe Biden’s address to the American people last week was, as I wrote at the time, necessary and right. The staging was bizarre, and the speech had some of the hallmarks of a group product that hadn’t been subjected to a final spackle-and-smooth by a chief writer. But Biden got one big thing right, and that one thing explains why D____ T____ and the MAGA World apologists are reacting with such fury. The president outed them as anti-American nihilists:

They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country … MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.

This, as Biden pointed out, is what makes the MAGA movement so dangerous. It has no functional compass and no set of actual preferences beyond a generalized resentment, a basket of gripes and grudges against others who the T____ists think are looking down upon them or living better lives than they are. It is a movement composed of people who are economically comfortable and middle-class, who enjoy a relatively high standard of living, and yet who seethe with a sense that they have been done dirt, screwed over, betrayed—and they are determined to get revenge.

Biden broke with tradition by saying what presidents are never supposed to say: He admitted that he was finally giving up on trying to accommodate a group of Americans, because he understands that they do not want to be accommodated. I know that some of my friends and colleagues believe that Biden, as president, must continue to reach out to MAGA voters because they are our neighbors and our fellow citizens…. But how do we reach those voters? These citizens do not want a discussion or a compromise. They don’t even want to “win,” in any traditional political sense of that word. They want to vent anger over their lives—their personal problems, their haunted sense of inferiority, and their fears about social status—on other Americans, as vehemently as possible, even to the point of violence.

How do any of us, and especially the president, engage with such a movement, when every discussion includes the belief that the only legitimate outcomes are ones in which the MAGA choice wins? Such an insistence is not civic or democratic in any way, and it is not amenable to resolution through the democratic process.

This, by the way, is why it was a mistake for Biden to raise issues such as abortion and privacy in his speech. Yes, the opportunists who will ride into political office on the bed of a pickup flying MAGA flags will attack these rights, but that is incidental to their real interest, which is power and the spoils it brings. Issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and contraception are really just hot buttons meant to rile up the voters. (MAGA World, as a movement, seems to have a kind of tabloid-television-style obsession with sex, which makes sense, as it is led by a tabloid star who literally bragged about the size of his penis on a GOP debate stage.)

For Biden even to mention something like abortion undermined the more important part of his speech, which is that MAGA is a movement that doesn’t believe in anything but violence, chaos, and power. Right-wing pundits have seized on that part of his speech because it was the only thing they could argue with; they know that trying to describe MAGA and T____ism with any consistency is pointless. Smaller government? More democracy? Power to “We the People”? Good luck with that: T____ just endorsed a [Republican] candidate for governor, Geoff Diehl in Massachusetts, by telling a crowd that Diehl will “rule your state with an iron fist, and he’ll do what has to be done.”

As a native son of the Commonwealth, I have no concerns that the Bay State is going to elect someone on D____ T____’s say-so. But T____’s authoritarian blather makes Biden’s point. The MAGA movement isn’t interested in politics, or policies, or compromises. It is interested in destruction and seeing others made as miserable as its followers are. MAGA is a movement of people who seem to be, in so many ways, deeply and profoundly unhappy, and suffering from an emptiness and anger deep in their spirit. There is no political solution for that. All Joe Biden did was finally say this obvious truth out loud.