Has Trump become too tame for the MAGAverse?

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As Americans reflect on the grisly anniversary of Jan. 6, many will spend the time thinking that the worst outcome for American democracy could be an imminent return of Donald Trump to power. The view is rooted in an understandable assumption: that to embolden Trump now would be to give renewed vitality to extremists like the ones who fomented the attack at the U.S. Capitol one year ago.  

While there’s little doubt that a Trump White House 2.0 would be a worrying outcome for U.S. politics, it’s far from the worst possibility that the country could be facing. What’s more disconcerting than a Trump comeback that emboldens the far right in America? A far right in America that, at this moment, is so self-confident that it no longer needs emboldening. 

From 2016 to 2020, Trump’s most artful political feat was enforcing compliance to an agenda that went to the extremes: calling the press the “enemy of the people”insisting on “locking up” political opponentsclaiming unchecked executive powerchallenging the legitimacy of U.S. elections; and instigating violence at the seat of American democracy. By saying and doing the unthinkable, Trump energized and activated his supporters. 

But here’s the reality today: Trump was perhaps more successful than even he anticipated in radicalizing the MAGAverse. With or without Trump, parts of the GOP base have actually eclipsed Trump in their extremist tendencies. In fact, here’s the once-improbable truth: To a nontrivial chunk of Republican voters, some of Trump’s messaging now looks increasingly tempered, increasingly moderate, increasingly stale — in short, increasingly intolerable. 

Case in point: During an interview over the holidays, Donald Trump stirred a media frenzy by committing a cardinal sin for a politician on the right. “Yes” – in response to a question about whether he got the COVID-19 booster – was all Trump needed to say to start the mutiny. Audience members booed. Alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told his followers to “move on” from the former president. Conservative media personality Candace Owens dismissed Trump as “old.” Rightwing radio host Wayne Allyn Root demanded “an intervention” for Trump. For a leader with a supposedly unshakable base of support, the swift and unequivocal recoil was notable. 

It’s far from just COVID-19. 

Even as he impelled his party to the ideological poles, a significant slice of the GOP electorate is arguably now further to the right of Trump on plenty of policies: immigration, race relations, guns, the environment and criminal justice, among others. More disturbingly, at least some parts of the GOP base wish Trump would go much harder in defending organizations like the Proud Boyspushing fringe QAnon conspiracy theories and fighting to usurp power from President Biden.  

Even on Trump’s defining issue – the “Big Lie” – some voters actually want more from their man. Conservative commentator David A. French, for example, recently predicted that some Republican voters might turn away from Trump “not because he went too far (i.e. Jan. 6 and the election lie) but because he doesn’t go far enough.” It’s no coincidence that, according to recent Washington Post poll, 40 percent of Republicans now think violence against the government is legitimate. 

Trump was a novelty to his voters in 2016 when the reference point was Mitt Romney and John McCain. But thanks to Trump opening the door to the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who endorsed a “bullet to the head” of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who labeled Jan. 6th the country’s “1776 moment,”and many others, Trump supporters can get their fix elsewhere. As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently observed, “It’s as if the Trump base felt some security when their man was at the top, and that’s now gone. Maybe Trump was the restraining force.” 

Maybe the biggest misconception about Trump’s base is that it is beholden to Trump — full stop. As former West Virginia GOP leader Gary Abernathy observed, many political observers seem to “operat[e] under the delusion that Trump’s base is composed of sheep who will follow their leader’s every command.” The reality: “Trump’s supporters love him not because he’s their Svengali, but because he thinks like they do.” And when he doesn’t, they let him know.  

That MAGA voters are now so quick to jump on Trump when he strays from their preferred views should be both comforting and worrying for Americans concerned about the country’s already fragile political state: comforting because, even as Biden’s poll numbers continue to fall, perhaps Trump’s loyalty on the right isn’t as solid as is often believed; worrying because, if Trump doesn’t go far enough for the Republican base, the question inexorably becomes, “What would be far enough?”

Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is associate professor and director of the Centre on US Politics at UCL (@CUSP_ucl). 

Tags attack on the Capitol Christian nationalism Donald Trump Jan. 6 riot January 6 Insurrection Joe Biden John McCain Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Right-wing populism in the United States trumpism

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