There's Nothing Funny About MAGA's Clown Car
MAGA’s blitzkrieg against American freedoms is already well underway – and still gaining strength.
In recent weeks, many Democrats have been enjoying some Schadenfreude at the new GOP House majority’s expense – the embarrassing debacle of a 14-ballot Speaker election, George Santos making The Talented Mr. Ripley look like Honest Abe, and so on. But it’s a dangerous distraction to believe that these punchlines have any real political consequence. While Democrats win late-night, democracy loses daylight.
On January 6, 2021, the criminal conspiracy to overthrow the 2020 election – mounted by Trump and his congressional allies and backed by MAGA militias – failed. Yet MAGA finds itself in a better position than it was then, with control of the House of Representatives and even stronger Red state majorities, which they are already exploiting to illegitimately secure their own power and curtail the freedoms of their constituents. Half of all Americans now live in states that are subject to the iron grip of MAGA Republican state legislatures, which have been acting with the swift and ruthless efficiency that their U.S. congressional counterparts conspicuously lack.
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We cannot afford to treat the MAGA-run Republican Party as a legitimate democratic party, let alone a normal one. MAGA is the modern incarnation of a reactionary, nativist faction1 that has been with us since the nation’s founding, when the Slave States held out for constitutional protection of their “property” rights and “self-determination.”
This Faction has never recognized the legitimacy of any democratic outcome that conflicted with its White Christian Nationalist values.2 Those commitments to theocracy, patriarchy, and white supremacy remain non-negotiable. Inevitably, the Faction violently resists every attempt to enforce democratic values for all – from Slave Patrols invading northern states to kidnap runaway “property”; to rebelling against the United States3; to the KKK’s terrorist campaign to first end Reconstruction and then crush resistance to Jim Crow regimes while destroying the wealth gained by African Americans after WW I; to mass resistance against Brown and subsequent Supreme Court rulings; and now militia groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys attempting violent takeovers of both state and federal capitol buildings, threatening election workers and elected officials, and terrorizing communities of color.
The Faction has given itself different names over time – Confederates, Southern Democrats, Dixiecrats, the Tea Party, and now MAGA Republicans – but it hasn’t changed its basic supremacist commitments.
When John McCain graciously conceded to Barack Obama in 2008, he not only acknowledged the legitimacy of the result, he celebrated the importance of electing the first Black president. With that, he unwittingly sparked a revolt by the nativist, theocratic wing of the Republican Party, which felt betrayed by the corporate establishment wing’s willingness to acknowledge Obama’s legitimacy. The Tea Party was born, and in 2010 began a wholesale purge of establishment “RINOs.” The Tea Party rebranded as MAGA, which continued this purge – with the definition of “RINO” modified to include any Republican who questioned Donald Trump’s lies.4
Beginning with their jackpot 2010 election, the illiberal MAGA Faction has taken control of the state governments in 31 states where 49 percent of all Americans live. In the last twelve years, they have destroyed two-party competition and gerrymandered themselves into two decades of unchallenged control of the state legislatures in those states, and have used that iron grip to strip women of their reproductive freedom, made it much more difficult for people of color to vote, and much, much more.
By 2020, MAGA had complete control of the congressional Republican Party. While MAGA looks hopelessly incompetent on the congressional stage, they have the power to create substantial chaos – groundless impeachment votes against President Biden, endless hearings on manufactured controversies that will make Benghazigate look tame, and yet another hostage situation with the debt ceiling that could destroy America’s credit rating.
No matter how buffoonish or embarrassing this new MAGA House majority proves itself to be, we must never lose sight of this fact: MAGA is, and continues to be, one of the most successful movements in American history. It has already achieved many of its goals more quickly and comprehensively than America’s other political movements driven by spasms of nativist anger (which are well documented in Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life). And none of these previous movements were able to capture one of the two political parties – let alone the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. (After the Civil War, the Democratic Party, with a sustained terrorist attack by the KKK, overturned Reconstruction with similar alacrity.)
In this post, we’ll look at some data on the success of the MAGA political project. First, we’ll see just how complete MAGA’s coup of the congressional Republican Party has been. Then, we’ll look at MAGA’s alarming success in taking over state governments, which has recreated a 21st Century version of the authoritarian regimes that characterized the region before the Voting Rights Act. This state-level takeover has systematically rolled back civil and human rights, in the process lowering living standards and the quality of life for most.
The MAGA Republican Caucus
Only 32 of the 222 members of the Republican Caucus were elected before the 2010 Tea Party election, and they know that they will quickly have MAGA primary opponents if they stray from the party line. In other words, 85 percent of the members of the Republican Caucus were elected in 2010 or later.5 To give you a sense of how extraordinary that is, consider that twelve years after Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” class was elected, those elected since 1994 constituted only 65 percent of the 2007 Republican Caucus. No party caucus has been replaced with such alacrity since World War II. Moreover, the 141 who were elected with or after Trump constitute 64 percent of the Republican Caucus, significantly more than the post World War II average of 52 percent of each caucus elected in the most recent four cycles.
On January 13, 2021, just five days after the deadly attack on the Capitol, only 10 of 211 House Republicans voted for Trump’s impeachment (fewer than one in twenty members of the caucus), and of those 10, only two returned to Congress in 20236. Of the House Republicans running for reelection, those who voted for the creation of the January 6th Commission were four times as likely to have a competitive primary, which they were nearly five times more likely to lose. And those who voted against the Commission were 10 times more likely not to have a primary opponent at all. Thus, we’ve seen the systemic purge of the few remaining “RINOs” with any respect for the rule of law.
As the following table shows, 100 percent of the Republican leadership supported and protected every element of the criminal conspiracy to overturn the election – voting against certifying electoral college votes, and then voting against impeaching Trump or even creating an independent bipartisan commission to investigation January 6th, even after the bill to create it incorporated Republican demands. Committee and subcommittee chairs were nearly as likely to have toed Trump’s line.
Of the 141 Republican Representatives who have been elected since Trump was elected in 2016, 130 (about three-fifths of the Republican Caucus) have never served in the majority, meaning that they have never had any governing obligations. In fact, Brookings found the 2019 Freshman class to be the least experienced cohort in congressional history.7 Moreover, none of the current chairs of standing committees from the MAGA or Tea Party cohort served as chair of a committee when Republicans previously were in the majority.8
Their inexperience is compounded by ideological opposition to compromise – as well as the certainty that efforts to compromise will be immediately punished by MAGA-aligned media like Fox News and others, and could lead to primary opposition in the next election.9 The following chart shows the dramatic cost of Tea Party/MAGA brinkmanship that has led to government shutdowns. Tea Party/MAGA Shutdowns have been ten times as costly as all shutdowns over the previous 46 years.10
When Obama was president, the Faction’s system-wrecking nihilism brought the nation to the brink when their refusal to raise the debt limit caused the first downgrading of the nation’s credit worthiness rating. As John Boehner put it in his memoir, On the House, “It wasn’t about any so-called principles—it was about chaos. But it was chaos that developed in a predictable pattern: the far-right knuckleheads would refuse to back the House leadership no matter what, but because they were ‘insurgents’ they never had the responsibility of trying to actually fix things themselves.”
The Insurrectionist Protection Racket
In an election that should have been about accountability for an insurrection, the only Republicans held accountable were those who opposed the insurrection. Just hours after a deadly attack on the Capitol that was intended to overturn the election, 139 MAGA Republicans voted to overturn the election – results that they knew were legitimate at the time, as confirmed by testimony from Bill Barr and others. Yet in the midterm elections it was nearly impossible for a pro-insurrectionist MAGA Republican to be voted out of office. This was by design.
Of 122 pro-insurrectionist Republicans who were on the ballot, an astonishing 94 percent faced no possibility of electoral consequences for trying to overthrow the duly elected president. Overall, only seven Republicans who voted against certifying the results of the election ran in a district that even appeared in the Cook Ratings (likely Republican, lean Republican or toss-up), and two of them lost. On the other hand, of the nine who voted to certify who ran in competitive districts, eight won.
This was no accident. Of those 122 Republicans who voted against the election, 90 were in states in which Republicans drew the lines. Republican line drawers made sure their districts were safe. Of those 90, 89 of them were put in safe districts. Only one was put in a competitive district. (Seriously, just one – Steve Chabot, who lost.)
If you’re thinking this might simply be an unfortunate, but still fair, result of America’s geographic polarization, think again. While it is certainly true that many communities are very partisan, that is not the reason there should be so few competitive seats.11
The MAGA Blitzkrieg
So, MAGA has completed a coup of the Republican Party at the federal level, and renewed an undemocratic stranglehold on the states where roughly half of Americans live. What is MAGA doing with this power? For one thing, it uses the power it already has to illegitimately gain, and illegitimately preserve, even more power for itself. For another, MAGA uses the power it gained illegitimately to curtail the freedoms of the people subject to its rule, reducing their quality of life in the process. These harms fall hardest, of course, on the marginalized groups that MAGA seeks to dominate. But they also affect the white Christian men MAGA seeks to elevate.
MAGA state legislatures have wasted no time using their illegitimate “mandates” to roll back civil rights, and force through disastrous economic policies that leave half of Americans rapidly falling behind the other half who don’t live under MAGA state governments.
Recreating the Jim Crow South
In 1876, the Republican Party, worn down by relentless terror attacks by the KKK, having lost their 92 seats and their commanding House majority to the backlash to the depression following the Panic of 1873 and the financial scandals of the Grant Administration, abandoned military reconstruction in order to resolve the disputed presidential election in favor of Rutherford Hayes. Then, in 1883, the Supreme Court handed down five rulings, known collectively as the Civil Rights Cases12, which all but erased the gains promised by the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments (which had marked a quantum leap towards America realizing its aspirations of equality promised in the Declaration of Independence). The Confederate States quickly wrote new constitutions initiating Jim Crow regimes which ensured that white elites in the Jim Crow South could rule without the threat of true electoral competition.
The following chart dramatically shows how MAGA has recreated this post-Reconstruction playbook.13 This was made possible by the Federalist Society majority on the Supreme Court with cases like Shelby County, Rucho, Brnovitch, and Citizens United.14 In the chart, Blue means that Democrats controlled both chambers of the state legislature, red means that Republicans controlled both chambers, and white means that each party controlled one chamber.15 The last 88 years are divided into three periods, (1) the Jim Crow Era (1932-1968) when Republicans never controlled a single chamber of a Confederate state legislature, (2) the Voting Rights Era (1968-2008) during which the Democratic grip on Confederate state legislatures continued until halfway through this period, when a semblance of two-party competition appeared, and (3) the MAGA Era (2008 - Present) when emerging electoral competition in the Confederate states was snuffed out so that these states are now nearly as red as they were blue during the Jim Crow Era.
In most of the Union states, throughout the entire period, two-party competition has been the norm. It was rare for either party to control the state legislatures for more than 12 years consecutively in any of the periods, and control of the chambers was very often split (white spaces).
In the Confederate states … well, just take a look.
In 2022, MAGA increased their majorities in 20 of the 26 state houses they controlled.
The following chart follows the same conventions except that Blue or Red now signifies partisan trifecta. What’s significant to see here is (1) just how unusual sustaining trifectas for more than 12 years has been over the last century in the Union states, yet it has been the norm in the Confederate states both before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and in the MAGA Era, and (2) how quickly the Voting Rights Act exposed how illegitimate the claim was that the state legislatures reflected democratic sentiments in those states.
Throughout the MAGA Era, both in Congress and in state legislatures, MAGA has deployed a ratcheting strategy – that is, doing as much damage as it could whenever it has trifectas, safe in the knowledge that even if the backlash elected a Democratic president (or governor) they would have sufficient legislative strength to block efforts to reverse their substantive gains. And state legislatures in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Michigan went even further, using lame duck trifectas to curtail the powers of incoming Democratic governors.
MAGA Defends its Legislative Monopolies with the War on Voting
Since 2008, MAGA Republican trifectas have passed legislation to make it more difficult for people of color to vote. Impolitic politicians sponsoring those laws are regularly quoted saying that that was the intention, and some even brag about the success they’ve had limiting Black turnout. The “fraud” these laws are always meant to prevent is from just one kind of voter, and the MAGA executive branch in those states has pursued high visibility arrests and prosecutions against Black voters who turn out to be innocent or trapped by a technicality. This is in sharp contrast to the Blue States16 where steps have been taken to lower barriers to voting.
Scholars have been estimating the “cost of voting” for more than two decades. By scoring each state based on several metrics, such as average wait time at a polling place or whether the state allows early voting, this study provides both an index score (higher means it is harder to vote) for each state, as well as a database showing the scoring criteria going back to 1996. As you can see, in the last 14 years, the cost of voting in the MAGA states has more than doubled while drastically declining in Blue states.
With that in mind, the following graphs should come as no surprise. They show the impact of the diverging trends in registration and voting for Black and white Americans since 2008. While many commentators have focused on a decrease in Black turnout since Obama, in fact, in the Blue states, it has actually increased by 1.8 points, according to the Census Survey on Voting and Registration. But in the MAGA states, Black turnout has decreased by 4.0 points.
Thus, the gap between Black and white voting in the MAGA states increased from being 0.8 points in favor of Black turnout to 7.5 points in favor of White turnout.
The War on Democracy
In Laboratories Against Democracy, Jake Grumbach develops a Democracy Index, in which 0 is the average for the period from 2000 to 2018. The former “Union” states score above average in his index, whereas the score in “Confederate” states is much worse. As you can see below, the democracy score for MAGA states has decreased roughly twofold since the beginning of the MAGA control era.17 (Higher scores are more democratic; note that the latest score is for 2018 and does not include either the post 2020 MAGA voter suppression and election sabotage bills nor the recent round of gerrymandering.)
The War on Women and Children
Beyond ensuring their perpetual grip on power, MAGA has enacted an agenda18 that has rolled back rights for women and working people, as well as scrimping on provisions for children while privileging the rights of gun owners over all others. And, where federal laws and SCOTUS rulings appeared to be impediments, they’ve been enacting laws to authorize vigilantes to do what state governments cannot (see my earlier memo on “The Vigilante Faction” for more).
Americans’ freedoms are not merely in danger; they are already being taken away. This is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one. When American democracy is in such crisis as I’ve outlined above, the media should be laser-focused on exposing the architects of this crisis – in particular MAGA, its origins, its financial backers, the agenda it has already achieved, and the damage it has done – and the tools they are using to accomplish their goals, such as gerrymandering and voter suppression.
As defined by James Madison, a “faction” is not an ordinary political party, but a group that is organized against the interests of broader society. (Federalist 10)
For more on the connection to White Christian nationalism, see (alpha): Butler, Anthea (White Evangelical Racism); Howe, Ben (The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values); Jones, Robert (White Too Long and The End of White Christian America); Phillips, Kevin (American Theocracy) and Whitehead, Andrew and Perry, Samuel (Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States); Schlozman, Kay Lehrman (The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy)
At the time, the first “Civil War” was named the “War of Rebellion,” and it was the United States, not the North or the Union, who won. The lessons the 1850’s have for us in the present are clear. Then as now, using the term “civil war” falsely credits the secessionists as being equivalent to the legitimate government. If we hope to be a single America, then we have to acknowledge that those calling for a “civil war” are actually calling for the overthrow of the legitimate government of the United States. MAGA, like their Confederate ancestors, are criminals, not patriots.
See especially (alpha): Blum, Rachel (How the Tea Party Captured the GOP); Brody, David (The Teavangelicals); Corn, David (American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy); Cervais, Bryan and Morris, Irwin (Reactionary Republicanism: How the Tea Party in the House Paved the Way for Trump’s Victory); Fried, Amy and Harris, Douglas (At War with Government: How Republicans Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump); Hacker, Jacob and Pierson, Paul (Let them Eat Tweets); Milbank, Dana (The Destructionists: The Twenty Five Year Crack Up of the Republican Party), Miller, Tim (Why We Did It); Parker, Christopher and Barreto, Matt (Change they Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America); Skocpol, Theda and WIlliamson, Vanessa (The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism); Sykes, Charles (How the Right Lost its Mind); and Zelizer, Julian (Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich and the Rise of the New Republican Party).
Of course, the MAGA Congress looks nothing like the rest of America: Less than 1% of congressional Republicans identify as a religion other than Christian, less than 15% as women, and less than 2% as Black. LGTBQ representation is 0% - Santos is the sole LGTBQ-identifying member and is less than .05% of the Republican caucus. (WER Research using publicly available demographics of Congress)
The two re-elected were Dan Newhouse of WA-04, and David Valadao of CA-22. This line was updated to correct an error which stated Valadao was the only representative re-elected.
Eleven of the 141 elected in 2016 or later were elected in 2016 and were in the majority for two years.
This sentence has been updated to clarify ambiguous language about which committee chairs were being referred to.
This post necessarily devotes less attention to the importance of MAGA media, which I’ll be coming to soon. These treatments are especially important: Benkler, Yochai (Network Propaganda); Brock, David (The Fox Effect); Hemmer, Nicole (Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics); Rosenwald, Brian (Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party that Took Over the United States)
The shutdown under Carter was the first to furlough workers, but only affected the FTC (1600 employees). Back wages to furloughed workers constitute a substantial cost in any shutdown.There was another 3 day shutdown in January of 2018 where as many as 800,000 workers were furloughed, but the costs have not been calculated. Dollars are nominal; not adjusted for inflation (Office of Management and Budget)
In order to discuss the impact of MAGA line drawing on its ability to win the majority, we have to agree on a definition of what “fair” or “democratic” lines would look like. Overwhelmingly, the conventional definition requires district lines to meet two criteria – that neither party is advantaged, and that the voting power of minorities is not reduced. Conventionally, the rough gauge of the fairness of maps is that Democrats and Republicans end up with a share of seats proportional to the votes for their respective party. For districts drawn in 2022, that evaluation was based on how well Biden and Trump did in those new districts. I think that this definition is profoundly incorrect, if the intention of election is to establish the consent of the governed.
I’m going to use David Byler’s “No, gerrymandering didn’t cost Democrats the House” in the Washington Post to explain the shortcomings of many “data-driven” arguments being made using the conventional definition of fairness. Most observers come to the same conclusion that Byler does in his graph title - “The 2022 House map was uncompetitive but mostly fair.” They argue that there is gerrymandering on both sides, and these maps are the fairest (to both parties) in a long time, so surely there’s nothing to see here and we should all move on. Essentially, some analysts have concluded that as long as the safe districts more or less “balance out,” it’s no problem that maps are being drawn so that one party completely dominates each district – producing a super majority of “safe” seats.
While it is certainly true that many communities are very partisan, that is not what’s going on here. Let’s unpack Byler’s chart by (1) comparing how many districts would fall into each category using the lines used in 2020, which themselves were considered to be very gerrymandered, and (2) comparing the trends to more or less competitive districts by who drew the lines. No surprise - Republican maps delivered 5 percent fewer districts (in the same states, using the same 2020 results), while the Independently drawn maps created 3 percent more competitive districts.
(Although it’s not my main critique of Byler’s and others’ data journalism, note that the data he shows is for redistricting overall. He doesn’t take the time to see what’s more pertinent, and heavily implied by his headline – what Republican gerrymandering did.)
This is not “fair” to us as voters just because the advantages each party has given itself in line-drawing cancel each other out nationally. Meanwhile, only two-thirds of Americans readily identify with one party or the other, and many of them don’t do so strongly.
Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883) In an 8-1 ruling the SCOTUS found that acts of discrimination barring Blacks from public businesses such as hotels and restaurants are acts of private discrimination, and not violations of the 14th amendment. As a result, sections 1 and 2 of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were ruled unconstitutional.
Note this chart has not been updated to reflect the 2022 midterm results.
Among the excellent books covering the Supreme Court in the 21st Century (alpha by author): Avery, Michael and McLaughlin, Danielle (The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back from Liberals); Chemerinsky, Edwin (Worse than Nothing: The Dangerous Fallacy of Originalism); Cohen, Adam (Supreme Inequality the Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America); Greenhouse, Linda (Justice on the Brink: A Requiem for the Supreme Court); Lithwick, Dahlia (Lady Justice: Women, the Law and the Battle for America); Millhiser, Ian (The Agenda: How a Republican Supreme Court is Reshaping America); and Whitehouse, Sheldon (Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of the Supreme Court and The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court)
Technical note - the chart is based on control in each presidential election year beginning in 1932. It was not worth the effort to gain the precision to mark dates for state legislatures that are elected in odd years since doing so would not change the conclusion. Also, note that the charts reflect who controlled the legislatures in the election year, not who won the election that year.
CA, CO, CT, DE, HI, IL, ME, MD, MA, MN, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VT and WA.
Regional numbers are weighted by state population in the chart below - in other words, California’s Democracy Index has a proportionally greater impact than New Hampshire’s on the Union States number.
The Red states in this chart are classified by governing majority, not voting, and consist of ten of the original eleven Confederate States (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) as well as Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Sources for chart data:
Minimum Wage: U.S. Department of Labor
Abortion Bans: Kaiser Family Foundation, Guttmacher
Attacks on Abortion Rights: Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher Institute, WER Research
Gun Laws: http://www.statefirearmlaws.org/resources
Death Penalty: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/state-and-federal-info/state-by-state
ACA: Kaiser Family Foundation, WER Research
TANF: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Education Spending per capita: Urban.org, taxpolicycenter.org, Census.gov, WER Research