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.

They Have a Point

Every 20 minutes or so, unless I’m asleep, I wonder why millions of otherwise sane people would give Republicans more power in Congress or make T____ or somebody like him president again. I won’t go down the list of reasons why Republicans don’t deserve to be in charge of our government. At the moment, I’m thinking about why so many people prefer them to be.

I believe the predominant reason is that they don’t like how America has been changing. But the change they’re upset about is not how the rich keep getting richer and the rest of us are treading water or falling behind. Otherwise they wouldn’t vote for politicians whose overriding goal is to lessen the “tax burden” on people and corporations that are already doing fine. The problem they see lies elsewhere.

Most of them fear they’re not on top anymore or soon won’t be.

President Lyndon Johnson, who knew politics backwards and forwards, made a relevant point way back in 1960. Bill Moyers, Johnson’s press secretary, recorded the moment:

We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” he said. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

It’s not all about race, however.

If you could find the typical American who prefers the Republican Party, he would have characteristics like these. In addition to being male, he’d be white, solidly or loosely Christian, heterosexual and nationalistic. He’d be comfortable making fun of people unlike him. He wouldn’t live in a big city or have a 4-year college degree. He might be financially secure or trying to get by on Social Security, but he would fondly look back on a time when someone with his characteristics would automatically feel pretty damn good about himself and his place in the world relative to “lesser” people and “lesser” countries. 

Obviously, nobody has to meet all those criteria to happily vote Republican, since millions of women vote that way (many of whom believe a man should be “the head of the family”).

The point is that recent trends have made it less important, less praiseworthy, less powerful, to fit those Republican-friendly criteria. That fact — what those of us on the other side call “progress” — bothers millions of Americans a great deal. The feeling that they’re falling behind millions of people unlike themselves means a politician who acts or talks tough and promises to address their concerns about their perceived loss of status — to somehow reverse that progress — is immediately appealing, even if that politician owns a gold toilet and doesn’t resemble Jesus in any way. He may be despicable and a con man, but he claims to be on their side, and occasionally does something that makes them happy while angering their supposed enemies. That’s enough to get their support. 

In light of this, an article at FiveThirtyEight explains “why Democratic appeals to the ‘working class’ are unlikely to work” with Republican voters, even if they’re part of “the working class”:

… The dividing line in the American electorate is not economics; it’s race and culture…. And on this issue, Democrats and Republicans could not be further apart. It’s why Democratic appeals to win back the [white, especially male] working class are unlikely to work…

In the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform, “building a stronger, fairer economy” was the second item listed, after strategies to deal with COVID-19, and it sounded a populist note: that the American economy is tilted toward corporations and the wealthy, and that it’s harder than ever for Americans to move up the economic ladder. “Americans deserve an economy that works for everyone — not just for the wealthy and the well-connected,” their platform reads….

[But] Republicans mainly think of the working class as a cultural and racial identity, and not an economic one. When Democrats … pitch themselves to working-class voters, [it’s] primarily a populist appeal bent on uniting the working class against corporate greed….

This takes it as a given that the long-term trends in economic outcomes, which have affected many Americans, are what T____’s voters are responding to. This line of thinking, though, ignores other changes in American life and politics, such as an increase in global trade, a shift toward knowledge work instead of blue-collar labor … and a more expansive view of rights and equalities for racial, ethnic and gender minorities….

[A Democratic strategist offers this advice:] “The way we get around [ideological polarization] is by talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates….Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues.” But this assumes that voters will forget about the party alignments that are deeply entrenched.

When Democrats lament a bygone era in which they won the working-class vote, they are primarily talking about the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt— a time when the economy was radically shifted toward worker and labor power. But that was also a time when policies meant to favor the working class were specifically designed to help white men. The relative position of many people in the economy — and society at large — has shifted, and if that’s what Republican voters are responding to, messages of economic justices and leveling the playing field for all workers won’t change that. 

Unquote.

Yes, they have a point. They’re not automatically on top anymore. That they don’t deserve to be automatically on top hasn’t sunken in.