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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

French: Not Just Rage, But Also the Joy of Community Unites MAGA America

The following article by NYT opinion columnist David French, author of “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation,” is cross-posted from The New York Times:

I’ve shared this fact with readers before: I live in Tennessee outside Nashville, a very deep-red part of America. According to a New York Times tool that calculates the political composition of a community, only 15 percent of my neighbors are Democrats. I’ve been living here in the heart of MAGA country since Donald Trump came down the escalator. This is the world of my friends, my neighbors and many members of my family. That is perhaps why, when I’m asked what things are like now, eight years into the Trump era, I have a ready answer: Everything is normal until, suddenly, it’s not. And unless we can understand what’s normal and what’s not, we can’t truly understand why Trumpism endures.

It’s hard to encapsulate a culture in 22 seconds, but this July 4 video tweet from Representative Andy Ogles accomplishes the nearly impossible. For those who don’t want to click through, the tweet features Ogles, a cheerful freshman Republican from Tennessee, wishing his followers a happy Fourth of July. The text of the greeting is remarkable only if you don’t live in MAGAland:

Hey guys, Congressman Andy Ogles here, wishing you a happy and blessed Fourth of July. Hey, remember our Founding Fathers. It’s we the people that are in charge of this country, not a leftist minority. Look, the left is trying to destroy our country and our family, and they’re coming after you. Have a blessed Fourth of July. Be safe. Have fun. God bless America.

Can something be cheerful and dark at the same time? Can a holiday message be both normal and so very strange? If so, then Ogles pulled it off. This is a man smiling in a field as a dog sniffs happily behind him. The left may be “coming after you,” as he warns, but the vibe isn’t catastrophic or even worried, rather a kind of friendly, generic patriotism. They’re coming for your family! Have a great day!

It’s not just Ogles. It’s no coincidence that one of the most enduring cultural symbols of Trump’s 2020 campaign was the boat parade. To form battle lines behind Trump, the one man they believe can save America from total destruction, thousands of supporters in several states got in their MasterCrafts and had giant open-air water parties.

Or take the Trump rally, the signature event of this political era. If you follow the rallies via Twitter or mainstream newscasts, you see the anger, but you miss the fun. When I was writing for The Dispatch, one of the best pieces we published was a report by Andrew Egger in 2020 about the “Front Row Joes,” the Trump superfans who follow Trump from rally to rally the way some people used to follow the Grateful Dead. Egger described the Trump rally perfectly: “For enthusiasts, Trump rallies aren’t just a way to see a favorite politician up close. They are major life events: festive opportunities to get together with like-minded folks and just go crazy about America and all the winning the Trump administration’s doing.”

Or go to a Southeastern Conference football game. The “Let’s Go Brandon” (or sometimes, just “[expletive] Joe Biden”) chant that arises from the student section isn’t delivered with clenched fists and furious anger, but rather through smiles and laughs. The frat bros are having a great time. The consistent message from Trumpland of all ages is something like this: “They’re the worst, and we’re awesome. Let’s party, and let’s fight.”

Why do none of your arguments against Trump penetrate this mind-set? The Trumpists have an easy answer: You’re horrible, and no one should listen to horrible people. Why were Trumpists so vulnerable to insane stolen-election theories? Because they know that you’re horrible and that horrible people are capable of anything, including stealing an election.

At the same time, their own joy and camaraderie insulate them against external critiques that focus on their anger and cruelty. Such charges ring hollow to Trump supporters, who can see firsthand the internal friendliness and good cheer that they experience when they get together with one another. They don’t feel angry — at least not most of the time. They are good, likable people who’ve just been provoked by a distant and alien “left” that many of them have never meaningfully encountered firsthand.

Indeed, while countless gallons of ink have been spilled analyzing the MAGA movement’s rage, far too little has been spilled discussing its joy.

Once you understand both dynamics, however, so much about the present moment makes clearer sense, including the dynamics of the Republican primary. Ron DeSantis, for example, channels all the rage of Trumpism and none of the joy. With relentless, grim determination he fights the left with every tool of government at his disposal. But can he lead stadiums full of people in an awkward dance to “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People? Will he be the subject of countless over-the-top memes and posters celebrating him as some kind of godlike, muscular superhero?

Trump’s opponents miss the joy because they experience only the rage. I’m a member of a multiethnic church in Nashville. It’s a refuge from the MAGA Christianity that’s all too present where I live, just south of the city, in Franklin. This past Sunday, Walter Simmons, a Franklin-based Black pastor who founded the Franklin Justice and Equity Coalition, spoke to our church, and he referred to a common experience for those who dissent publicly in MAGA America. “If you ain’t ready for death threats, don’t live in Franklin,” he said.

He was referring to the experience of racial justice activists in deep-red spaces. They feel the rage of the MAGA mob. If you’re deemed to be one of those people who is trying to “destroy our country and our family,” then you don’t see joy, only fury.

Trump’s fans, by contrast, don’t understand the effects of that fury because they mainly experience the joy. For them, the MAGA community is kind and welcoming. For them, supporting Trump is fun. Moreover, the MAGA movement is heavily clustered in the South, and Southerners see themselves as the nicest people in America. It feels false to them to be called “mean” or “cruel.” Cruel? No chance. In their minds, they’re the same people they’ve always been — it’s just that they finally understand how bad youare. And by “you,” again, they often mean the caricatures of people they’ve never met.

In fact, they often don’t even know about the excesses of the Trump movement. Many of them will never know that their progressive neighbors have faced threats and intimidation. And even when they do see the movement at its worst, they can’t quite believe it. So Jan. 6 was a false flag. Or it was a “fedsurrection.” It couldn’t have really been a violent attempt to overthrow the elected government, because they know these people, or people like them, and they’re mostly good folks. It had to be a mistake, or an exaggeration, or a trick or a few bad apples. The real crime was the stolen election.

It’s the combination of anger and joy that makes the MAGA enthusiasm so hard to break but also limits its breadth. If you’re part of the movement’s ever-widening circle of enemies, Trump holds no appeal for you. You experience his movement as an attack on your life, your choices, your home and even your identity. If you’re part of the core MAGA community, however, not even the ruthlessly efficient DeSantis can come close to replicating the true Trump experience. Again, the boat parade is a perfect example. It’s one part Battle for the Future of Civilization and one part booze cruise.

The battle and the booze cruise both give MAGA devotees a sense of belonging. They see a country that’s changing around them and they are uncertain about their place in it. But they know they have a place at a Trump rally, surrounded by others — overwhelmingly white, many evangelical — who feel the same way they do.

Evangelicals are a particularly illustrative case. About half of self-identified evangelicals now attend church monthly or less often. They have religious zeal, but they lack religious community. So they find their band of brothers and sisters in the Trump movement. Even among actual churchgoing evangelicals, political alignment is often so important that it’s hard to feel a true sense of belonging unless you’re ideologically united with the people in the pews around you.

During the Trump years, I’ve received countless email messages from distraught readers that echo a similar theme: My father (or mother or uncle or cousin) is lost to MAGA. They can seem normal, but they’re not, at least not any longer. It’s hard for me to know what to say in response, but one thing is clear: You can’t replace something with nothing. And until we fully understand what that “something” is — and that it includes not only passionate anger but also very real joy and a deep sense of belonging — then our efforts to persuade are doomed to fail.

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