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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 14: Why Everybody’s Talking About MAGA

Noting a shift in some of the rhetoric we are hearing from both parties, I tried to explain it at New York:

Earlier this week, I got an unusual communication from a member of the White House press corps who wondered if I had inspired Joe Biden’s use of the term ultra-MAGA for Rick Scott’s wildly right-wing 2022 agenda for Republicans. I owned up to contriving the term in an effort to describe Scott’s combination of Trumpian rhetoric with Goldwater-era policy extremism. But I had no idea if Biden or someone in his circle read my piece and decided to borrow the neologism or (more likely) came up with it independently for parallel reasons.

Biden hasn’t just hit Scott with “ultra-MAGA”; in the same speech, he also referred to Trump himself as “the great MAGA king.” And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has taken to railing against “MAGA Republicans” as well.

So Democratic leaders are now saying “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) where they would have once used “right wing” or “ultraconservative” or even “wingnut.” This appeared to be a strategic decision, not just a verbal tic or a tossed-off insult. And indeed, on Friday, the Washington Post reported that the rhetorical shift is the result of a six-month research project led by Biden adviser Anita Dunn and the Center for American Progress Action Fund:

“The polling and focus group research by Hart Research and the Global Strategy Group found that “MAGA” was already viewed negatively by voters — more negatively than other phrases like ‘Trump Republicans.’

“In battleground areas, more than twice as many voters said they would be less likely to vote for someone called a ‘MAGA Republican’ than would be more likely. The research also found that the description tapped into the broad agreement among voters that the Republican Party had become more extreme and power-hungry in recent years.”

Despite the potential liabilities, usage of “MAGA” and its variants has been spreading in Republican ranks as well — and the trend began even before Trump decided he liked Biden’s insult and started posting MAGA King memes on Truth Social. For example, Steve Bannon referred to Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette’s rivalry with the Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz as “MAGA vs. ULTRA-MAGA.” The former Trump adviser was using “ULTRA-MAGA” as a compliment; in his eyes, Barnette is deeply devoted to The Cause, while the TV doctor is most palpably devoted to self-promotion.

So why is this happening now? And is the greater embrace of the term on both the right and the left just a coincidence? I don’t think so.

Democrats really need to make the 2022 midterm elections comparative rather than the usual referendum on the current occupant of the White House, who is held responsible for whatever unhappiness afflicts the electorate, which is reflected in Biden’s chronically low job-approval ratings. They also need to find a way to motivate elements of the Democratic base to vote in November, which isn’t easy because (a) Democratic constituencies (particularly young people) rarely vote in proportional numbers in non-presidential elections without extreme provocation, and (b) many base voters are “unenthusiastic” about voting thanks to disappointment over the limited accomplishments Biden and his congressional allies have chalked up since taking control of Washington.

The tried-and-true bogeyman who could help make 2022 comparative because he continues to meddle in politics and threaten a comeback is, of course, Trump. The specter of his return could be especially scary to young voters, whose unusually high 2018 turnout was attributable to their loathing for the 45th president. So it behooves Democrats to remind voters as often as possible that the Republican candidates who are on the ballot this November are surrogates for the Great Orange Tyrant. And invoking the red-hat symbolism of MAGA is an efficient way to do that. “Ultra-MAGA” suggests there are Republicans who are Trumpier than Trump, like Scott. The whole GOP, we can expect Biden to regularly suggest between now and November, is crazier than a sack of rats and getting crazier by the minute. That’s more important than the price of gasoline at any given moment.

For similar reasons, in intra-Republican politics, the MAGA brand is legal tender among the majority of GOP voters who turn to Mar-a-Lago for direction the way that flowers turn toward the sun. Wearing the red hat or referring to themselves as “MAGA warriors” is a way for Republican politicians to show a particular attachment to Trump. And ultra-MAGA is essential for candidates like Barnette who follow the Trump agenda slavishly but don’t have the Boss’s actual endorsement for whatever reason. It’s also a handy way for ambitious right-wing politicians to suggest there is a cause that will survive Trump’s own career and will indeed flourish under their own leadership. MAGA works a lot better as a symbol of Trumpism Without Trump than such debatable and obscure terms as national conservatism or conservative populism. When he goes after Mickey Mouse with a claw hammer, Ron DeSantis is definitely ultra-MAGA, especially compared to such damaged goods as Mike Pence, who is merely MAGA or even ex-MAGA.

So get used to it. Until we get a better fix on how to describe the ideology of the followers of Donald Trump, both they and their political opponents are likely to keep relying on the MAGA brand, which now means more than the nostalgia for the white patriarchy of yore that Team Trump probably had in mind when it came up with the slogan to begin with. If Trump runs for president in 2024, he’ll have to decide whether his slogan will be “Make America Great Again, Again” (as he has already redubbed his super-PAC) or something else. But for now, everybody pretty much knows it means one person’s dream and another’s nightmare.

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