An article in the Atlantic this morning points out that most of the people who stormed the Capitol were not affiliated with white nationalist gangs like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. Instead, they were predominantly middle-aged and middle-income Trump supporters who identified as MAGA. The authors write the article like it’s a revelation. It’s not. It was obvious.
While White nationalist organizations and militias used Trump as a recruiting tool, rank-and-file MAGA never officially joined them, even though they were still sympathetic. The rise of the Boogaloo Bois, Three-percenters and the like came to light because Trump and his supporters made them acceptable. The racists in the GOP saw them as a counter to Black Lives Matter and protest organizations trying to end the systemic racism that leaves people of color disproportionally incarcerated and shot or injured by law enforcement.
We should view MAGA as the political arm of a White nationalist movement that’s become dominant in the GOP and those groups like Proud Boys as the paramilitary arm. We’ve seen alliances like this one in countries around the world and throughout history. The most famous one is the Brown Shirts who did the dirty work of the Nazis as they rose to power in pre-war Germany, but they were also part of the political culture of Central and South American countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Right-wing death squads killed peasants, activists, priests, and nuns demanding a fairer society in countries like El Salvador, Chile, and Guatemala.
Those organizations were tolerated because they had the tacit support of more middle- and working-class citizens who may never have joined one. The groups also enjoyed the protection of the conservative political class and military which turned a blind eye to their atrocities. And like MAGA, they used propaganda to portray opponents as communists and terrorists, the rhetoric of the modern GOP.
The United States is certainly in a different place than pre-war Germany or the Latin American countries of the 1970s and ’80s, but the relationship between MAGA and the extremist organizations that promote their cause is similar. MAGA is the broad popular front that supports authoritarian grifters like the Trumps, Josh Hawley, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. The militia are the muscle that silences opposition through fear and intimidation. Combined they make a dangerous political organization that’s propped up by either the excuses or silence of too many mainstream conservatives and Republicans.
The rot within the GOP was evident for decades to anybody who looked very closely at the party. The movement conservatives stayed in denial, bashing anyone who accused the party of catering to racists. Today, the White nationalist sentiments of too many Republicans is out in the open with the bull horn replacing the dog whistle.
The party is probably irrevocably broken, though the drama within it will play out for several more years. The party that once prided itself as the promoters of liberty, small government, individual freedom, and personal responsibility is now the party of anti-democratic, anti-immigrant authoritarianism and conspiracy theories. The split has shown how much the influence of movement conservatives who once dominated the GOP has dwindled. Without the populists, they do not have enough supporters to win elections while the populists reject their core tenants of conservatism that support traditional institutions and customs.
The mainstream conservatives face nothing but bad choices. They can start their own party, looking at years in the wilderness before they have any sort of governing majority. They can join the Democrats and try to build a center-right wing of the party, but they won’t get a warm reception from the party’s left flank. Or they can stay in the Republican Party and continue to pretend that they aren’t compromising with racists and people who would end our democracy as we know it. If they’re smart, they’ll reject the latter.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >