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The meaning of MAGA

Republicans debate whether Trumpism is a momentary movement or the future of the party

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., at a campaign rally, March 9 in Rome Ga. Associated Press / Photo by Mike Stewart

The meaning of MAGA

Bernie Moreno’s first call after finding out he won the primary for U.S. Senate in Ohio was to former President Donald Trump.

“I want to thank President Trump for all he did for me, for his unwavering support, for his love of this country,” Moreno said in his victory speech on Tuesday night, shortly after he got off the phone with the former president. “It’s going to be a tough next seven months. But we’re going to retake the U.S. Senate, we’re going to have President Trump in the White House, and we’re going to get the America First agenda done.”

Moreno described the “America First” agenda as securing the border, establishing energy dominance, and shrinking federal agencies—all longstanding priorities of the Republican Party. Moreno also wants to remove so-called establishment Republicans from the party, including people like his primary opponent, state Sen. Matt Dolan.

Dolan supported several policies on the America First agenda, especially regarding border security and the economy. But he resisted Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump by widespread ballot fraud. Dolan also blamed Trump for the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. At an interview during a campaign stop last week, Moreno said any opposition to Trump in Ohio would have its “last gasp of breath” during the primary.

As the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Trump is again asserting his authority as head of the Republican Party. He handpicked Republican National Committee’s new chairman, Michael Whatley, and co-chairwoman, his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, saying he had never seen such a unified party. But polls show that Trump and his supporters, known collectively as the Make America Great Again movement, do not have unanimous support among Republicans. The presidential campaign this year will test how well MAGA and moderates can co-exist within the Republican party.

Hopes for realignment

An 2023 NBC poll found that roughly 52 percent of Republicans view the MAGA movement favorably. A National Institutes of Health political violence study more narrowly defined MAGA Republicans as people who voted for Trump in 2020 and believe he won the election, numbering at roughly 33.6 percent of the party and 15 percent of the population. A 2023 Vanderbilt Unity Poll found roughly 38 percent of Republicans self-identified as MAGA.

Shane Trejo leads a pro-Trump political action committee in Michigan called the Grand New Party. He says Trump brought hope to a damaged Republican Party.

“Trump is a politician who is able to transcend boundaries in a way no politician in this area ever could,” Trejo said. “We have a corrupt establishment—horrendous Republicans who have refused to get on board or play ball with Trump, even as he’s done a lot of great things for our country.”

Some of these things were low inflation and high job rates, Trejo recalled. He also said the Republican National Party has not done enough to investigate alleged election fraud, and he blames established leaders in the GOP.

“We need a people-driven Republican Party rather than an elite-driven Republican Party,” Trejo argued. “The Trump effect has been a good thing. There will be growing pains with empowering the grassroots because they don’t have institutional knowledge. But we’ll be able to develop a new leadership class that goes more toward serving the common people of Michigan and of the country.”

Trejo has a litmus test for analyzing candidates in the new GOP. They must affirm the 2020 election was fraudulent, that critical race theory advocates racism against white people, that the border should be closed and illegal immigrants (whom he calls “invaders”) should face mass deportation, and that anyone who countered Trump’s policies should not be in a position of leadership.

In Arizona, Mark Finchem is running for state Senate on those positions. The former secretary of state candidate complained that the RNC under former chairwoman Ronna McDaniel did not encourage candidates to run on stolen election platforms. He said McDaniel’s resignation gives him hope that Trump is redefining the party. Finchem said he is loyal to the GOP but is concerned that it is too enmeshed with “the bureaucratic state.”

As president, Trump frequently fought with his cabinet officials, especially toward the end of his term when senior staff advised him against litigating election fraud claims. Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina told WORLD they no longer trust the Justice Department because it pursued criminal cases against Trump involving classified documents and an alleged conspiracy to defraud the election.

“Frankly, many of the individuals who surrounded Trump during his first term thwarted his agenda,” Finchem said. “My prayer is that he is super selective of individuals that are in his next administration. I’m a clean house kind of guy.”

In Washington, some Republicans who have publicly opposed Trump are taking a step back or resigning altogether. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the longest-serving conservatives in Washington, said he will give up his role in November but finish his term in office. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, will resign at the end of the year, and Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., will vacate his seat this weekend.

“It’s good that they’re leaving because if you can’t support the party platform, I don’t know what your motivations are,” Finchem said. “The litmus test for any Republican is do you or do you not support the party platform? And the platform is Make America Great Again.”

A changing tide

David Byler, a senior researcher with Noble Predictive Insights, said often a mixture of policy and style divides MAGA Republicans from the rest of the party.

“These people are more likely to be on board with immigration restrictions, more likely to be interested in some of the election fraud events,” Byler said. “And then the centrist Republicans tend to be more interested in the old GOP priorities—things along the lines of tax cuts. It really is the difference between someone who came to the Republican Party because of John McCain versus somebody who came to the Republican Party and loved Donald Trump. And he’s the dominant figure for them.”

WORLD asked voters across the early primary states what “MAGA” means to them. Support for Trump was first and foremost, including wholehearted support for his policies and the beliefs that the criminal trials against Trump are politically motivated, that a deep state is persecuting conservatives, and that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Voters frequently used MAGA and “America First” interchangeably.

Much of Trump’s rhetoric centers around accusations that Democrats and political elites do not care about the average voter. His emails tell supporters he is being attacked for their sake and it is vital to democracy to remove Democrats from the White House in November. Speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February in Washington, Trump portrayed himself as the wronged winner of the popular vote.

“For hard-working Americans, Nov. 5 will be our new liberation day,” Trump told a crowded ballroom of supporters. “Your victory will be our ultimate vindication, your liberty will be our ultimate reward and the unprecedented success of the United States of America will be my ultimate and absolute revenge.”

Speaking to a luncheon of Republican women in Greenville, S.C., in February, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., focused on ways that Democratic priorities conflict with Republican values, arguing there is no room for compromise. To standing ovations, she asked, “Aren’t you tired of the political elites and the pundits and the press treating you like you’re stupid?”

“Our party is going through an identity crisis,” Greene continued. “But there are a lot more of us America First Republicans than there is the old George Bush establishment neo-con. The message is being sent to the establishment Republicans that we are not that party anymore. We are the party for America first and make America great again. And everybody needs to get over it.”

Uneasy neighbors

Greenville, S.C., is one of the largest and most conservative centers in the state. In 2016, self-described MAGA organizers took over all of the leadership positions in the county party. They said they were reclaiming the region from the establishment and returning it to the grassroots.

“Trump is the standard bearer,” mySCGOP chairwoman Yvonne Julian said. “But this is also beyond Trump. It really is back to populism, back to trying to stop the globalist tyranny.”

Julian spoke to WORLD just before she held a prayer meeting on the day of South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary. While the Greenville County Republicans do not formally endorse candidates, a Trump lawn sign declares “Trump 2024” outside the party headquarters in Greenville, and the building is papered with portraits and posters of the former president.

“The goal is to coalesce around this movement, but that’s going to be difficult for the elite political class because the America First movement does not support a permanent political class,” Julian said. “The people who have run the party in the past, what we would call the establishment, don’t align with America First. Hopefully they get past that.”

She was referring to the Fourth District Republican Club, headquartered less than a mile down the road from the county party offices. Nate Leupp, the former chairman of the county GOP, gave up his seat in 2016. MAGA Republicans called him a RINO (Republican In Name Only), but members who supported Trump but not the new local leadership begged Leupp to set up a new political apparatus.

Now the Fourth District Republican Club operates in the same way the county party does, just without RNC backing. Leupp hosts presidential candidates and popular Republican names for club meetings. He attended Trump’s primary victory party in Columbia, S.C., in February. Trump contacted the club for information on where to hold rallies and whom to meet in the district. GOP Sen. Tim Scott, another vice president hopeful, calls Leupp to wish him a happy birthday and to set up speeches.

Leupp has served as a convention delegate for the former president twice. He said he was not originally convinced of Trump’s Republican bona fides. Since then, he said, he was encouraged by Trump’s pro-life policies and foreign policy stances that strengthened the United States’ standing on the global stage. But Leupp said Trump radicalized voters in a way that is toxic to the party.

“Trump made the party more conservative, and I do like that aspect,” Leupp said from the club headquarters in Greenville. “But the Republican Party existed before President Trump, and we will exist after President Trump. The logical Trump supporter would be quick to say he’s not perfect. But I learned a long time ago to quit trying to think logically about outcomes with Trump.”

Resisting MAGA

Moderates say they’re not ready for a Trump takeover, and they still represent nearly half the party. Several supporters across early primary states clarified to me that they are Republican “but not Trump Republican.”

“It’s not that I disagreed with policies he had in place, I just felt he was too much of a bully to his own party,” Massachusetts voter Angela Nikolopoulos said in January. “Considering how divisive the whole country became during his term and especially after the Jan. 6 Capitol storming, we’re not going to get anywhere by putting him back in office. And that’s not fair to America.”

Nikolopoulos hoped Haley would last through March 12, when her state would hold a presidential primary. With the options down to Trump and Biden again, she said she would not vote in November.

Ellen Floyd, 73, has voted Republican her whole life, but this year might be different.

“So many of my family will support Trump no matter what,” Floyd told me at a Haley campaign stop in Moncks Corner, S.C., in February. “For the first month or two in 2016, I did support Trump. I thought he was going to be different because he was not a politician. I thought he was going to maybe do something for the country. But when he started making fun of everybody who ever said anything against him, I knew he was not the man I wanted to be president.”

In Iowa, 24-year-old Sam Vannatta is a registered Republican who has worked on Democratic and Republican campaigns. He said he has dwindling hope that moderates can pull the GOP back from the MAGA wing of the party.

“The results from Ohio do show the stronghold that Trump and that wing of the Republican Party have,” he told WORLD. “It does leave me to wonder if there is still room for moderate conservatives, or if the party has been completely taken over by Trump. I personally cannot identify with today’s Republican Party anymore.”

Other moderate Republicans say they will vote for any Republican remaining in November, even if they don’t fully subscribe to Trump and the MAGA movement. Despite tensions within the party, Trump has enough support from Republicans to mount a serious challenge to Biden. The candidates are in a close race in most general election polls, with neither candidate beating the other by more than the margin of error.

“It would be Trump—reluctantly, though,” said South Carolina voter Malorie Novak at a Haley campaign stop in February. “I guess he’s the lesser of two evils.”

“I suppose I’ll go with Trump, because I feel like there’s no other thing I can do,” New Hampshire voter Cheryl Milligan told WORLD. “I will never vote for Biden.”

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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