MAGA 2.0

https://www.ajc.com/opinion/mike-luckovich-blog/422-mike-luckovich-mickey-and-ronald/472WF6YUX5AHJLNSUV2HPYQ5CU/

What if Trump isn’t the worst of our problems?


To many Americans, what’s been going on in Florida lately must seem so bizarre as to be almost comic. It’s gotten increasingly difficult to tell real headlines from stories in The Onion.

The witchhunt against critical race theory has gotten so out of hand that math textbooks are being banned. Public-school teachers who tell their students about the mere existence of same-sex marriages or people who transition from one gender to another (facts that may be necessary to understand other students in the classroom or their families) are not just breaking the law, they are said to be grooming the students for abuse by pedophiles. And if you object to that law, you too are probably grooming kids for pedophiles.

When the Disney Corporation came out (too late) against the law, the DeSantis administration punished it by getting the legislature to reverse the company’s completely unrelated tax advantage — a move which might be illegal, but otherwise will put two Florida counties on the hook for a billion dollars of debt.

When was the last time a Republican governor declared war on a corporation that employs 75,000 of his constituents?

If you think DeSantis’ actions don’t fit any American model of political behavior, you’re right. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely unprecedented. As Zack Beauchamp observed in Vox, the model is Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. And it may be the next step in the evolution of Trumpism.

The difference between Orbánism and traditional conservatism. The central message of traditional American conservatism is that government needs to get out of the way so that the private sector can create prosperity. So: low taxes, limited regulation, limited government services for the people. What working people miss in public goods (like parks, public education, healthcare, and economic security) supposedly will be more than balanced by all the good-paying jobs that will trickle down from unfettered capitalism.

That rhetoric was never fully embodied in conservative policy, which was fine with government intervention that subsidized oil exploration, the defense industry, and other big-corporate interests. But in spite of occasional inconsistencies, it was a reliable first guess at how conservatives would view an issue.

Traditional conservatives nodded in the direction of the culture war, but their hearts were never in it. Instead, they made cynical use of social/cultural issues to win elections, so that they could assemble enough power to push their small-government economic agenda, as Thomas Frank described in What’s the Matter With Kansas? in 2004.

The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

Orbánism, by contrast, uses social/cultural issues as a way to increase government power and entrench the Orbán regime’s hold on that power. Beauchamp explains:

Orbán’s political model has frequently employed a demagogic two-step: Stand up a feared or marginalized group as an enemy then use the supposed need to combat this group’s influence to justify punitive policies that also happen to expand his regime’s power. Targets have included Muslim immigrants, Jewish financier George Soros, and most recently LGBTQ Hungarians.

Whoever the current scapegoat is, the ultimate enemy is always the same: the “cultural elite”.

Broadly speaking, both Orbán and DeSantis characterize themselves as standing for ordinary citizens against a corrupt and immoral left-wing cosmopolitan elite. These factions are so powerful, in their telling, that aggressive steps must be taken to defeat their influence and defend traditional values. University professors, the LGBTQ community, “woke” corporations, undocumented immigrants, opposition political parties — these are not merely rivals or constituents in a democratic political system, but threats to a traditional way of life.

In such an existential struggle, the old norms of tolerance and limited government need to be adjusted, tailored to a world where the left controls the commanding heights of culture. Since the left can’t be beaten in that realm, government must be seized and wielded in service of a right-wing cultural agenda.

The difference between Orbánism and Trumpism. At its root, Trumpism has always been a personality cult. If that wasn’t already obvious in 2016, it certainly had became so by 2020, when the Republican Convention refused to update its platform, replacing it instead with a resolution whose only substantive point was

RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda

In other words: The Republican Party stands for whatever President Trump chooses to announce. The party’s position on healthcare, education, foreign policy, immigration, and everything else is whatever Trump says it is.

Since Trump lost the 2020 election and tried (unsuccessfully) to stay in power anyway, Trumpworld has gotten even more culty: Where you stand in MAGA-land depends not on your support or opposition to any political philosophy or policy proposal, but what you say about Trump. Liz Cheney has been tossed out of the Wyoming Republican Party because she denies that Biden stole the election and holds Trump responsible for the 1-6 coup attempt. Marjorie Taylor Greene is at the center of the movement, because she has never breathed a word against the Orange One. If Brad Raffensperger had “found” the 11,780 votes Trump needed to win Georgia, he’d have Mar-a-Lago’s full support. But he didn’t, so Trump is campaigning against him.

Trump has become associated with both social conservatism and traditional conservatism, but the relationship is almost entirely opportunistic: Trump says things to his crowds, and if they respond he uses the line again. In the course of the 2016 campaign, these applause lines evolved into slogans, like “Build a Wall”. After he took office, underlings were tasked with turning those slogans into policies. The policies often seemed half-baked because they were: Candidate Trump never had any idea how he would implement his applause lines.

But in hindsight we often overlook all the times when candidate Trump floated liberal ideas, like when he told 60 Minutes that his healthcare plan would cover everybody and “the government’s gonna pay for it”. Or when he said his tax plan would raise taxes on the rich. If his stadium crowds had responded to those proposals the way they responded to building a wall or banning Muslims, he would happily have stolen Bernie’s agenda, and underlings would have been tasked with turning those slogans into programs.

The point was never policy. It was big, beautiful crowds cheering for Trump.

He got elected as a Republican, so he staffed his administration with Republicans and leaned on Republicans in Congress to create legislative victories for him. That was as far as his governing vision went. Paul Ryan already had a tax plan — one that handed trillions of dollars to corporations and the very rich — so that got passed. No two Republicans in Congress had the same vision of how to replace ObamaCare, so nothing happened.

Trump ended up appealing to the same kind of voters Orbán targeted — the racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamaphobes Hillary Clinton labeled a “basket of deplorables” — so Trumpism started converging towards Orbánism. But it never completely got there, because ultimately Trumpism could only be about Trump. Beauchamp explains:

During his presidency, many observers on both sides of the aisle compared Trump to the Hungarian autocrat — and not without some justification. But after a 2018 visit to Hungary, I concluded that Trump was not competent or disciplined enough to implement Orbán-style authoritarianism in America on his own. The real worry, I argued, was a GOP that took on features of Orbán’s Fidesz party.

In the end, Trump is Trumpism’s biggest weakness: It’s the personality cult of a man with an unappealing personality. No wonder over 80 million Americans turned out to vote against him in 2020.

The law as a weapon. One point of convergence between Trump and Orbán is the use of boogeymen: Trump’s invading migrant caravans, for example. But it’s never been in Trump’s character to go full apocalyptic: There are villains in the world, but none of them are a match for Trump. His worldview is ultimately too episodic to support a death-struggle against the Apocalypse. Every day is a new story in which he defeats his enemies. He wins today, he won yesterday, he’ll win tomorrow. Anybody who tells you he’s not winning is peddling fake news.

Orbánism is much darker. Satanic forces threaten our entire way of life, and only a government much stronger than the current one can stand against it. Norms of civility and fair play can’t be allowed to stop us from defending society from the existential threat.

What’s hardest to grasp from a traditional American point of view is that the law, whatever it says, is just a weapon to use in the apocalyptic struggle. It does not embody ideals or principles of any kind. It’s nothing more than a stick you can use to club your enemies.

Trump sometimes used laws this way, but denied he was doing it — illustrating the adage that hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Title 42 is a good example: A 1944 public health law allows the government to keep asylum-seeking immigrants from entering the country during a public-health emergency.

We know, of course, what Trump thought about the Covid pandemic: He repeatedly and consistently played down the idea that it was an emergency requiring drastic action, and encouraged his followers to behave as if nothing unusual were happening. When state governors took emergency anti-Covid actions, Trump tweeted things like “Liberate Michigan” while armed protesters surrounded the state capitol and conspirators plotted to kidnap Governor Whitmer.

But he wanted to shut down immigration, and Title 42 was a law that allowed him to do it. So for that purpose, and that purpose only, the Covid pandemic was an emergency.

In the Orbán model, by contrast, there is no need for hypocrisy or denial. Society is in a death struggle, so you pick up whatever weapon happens to be lying around and use it without apology.

That’s what DeSantis is doing against Disney. There is no cover story that lays out a connection between the Reedy Creek Improvement District and the Don’t Say Gay law. Nor does DeSantis claim that his sudden interest in Disney’s tax status is coincidental. Disney has sided with the pedophiles threatening to destroy American society, so it must be punished. (And other corporations must be warned what can happen if they step out of line.)

It’s not about ideology or the spirit of the laws; it’s about clubbing your enemies.

It’s worth pointing out that a government powerful enough to keep corporations in line by threatening reprisals is precisely the nightmare scenario of traditional conservatives. It is almost certainly illegal to use state power this way. But will courts packed with conservative judges say so? And if they do now, what if a President DeSantis gets to appoint even more judges?

That’s how events played out in Hungary. Here’s Beauchamp again:

This use of regulatory power to punish political opponents is right out of Orbán’s playbook. In 2015, Lajos Simicska — an extremely wealthy Hungarian businessman and longtime Orbán ally — turned on his patron, using a vulgar term to describe the prime minister.

In retaliation, the government cut its advertising in Simicska’s media outlets and shifted contracts away from his construction companies. After Fidesz’s 2018 election, Simicska sold his corporate holdings (mostly to pro-government figures). He moved to an isolated village in western Hungary; his last remaining business interest was an agricultural firm owned by his wife.

Technically, that was all probably illegal under Hungarian law too. But by then, the judiciary was under control.

The broader movement. DeSantis’ move to Orbánism did not come from nowhere. The Hungarian model has been widely praised and publicized in conservative circles for some time now. Tucker Carlson has broadcast his show from Hungary. Later this month, CPAC will hold a meeting in Budapest, with Viktor Orbán as its featured speaker.

This week, the New York Times has been running a series on Tucker Carlson and his message. Part 3 focuses on just how dark and apocalyptic that message has become.

Night after night, the host of the most-watched show in prime-time cable news uses a simple narrative to instill fear in his viewers: “They” want to control and then destroy “you”.

A key part of the Carlson worldview is “replacement theory”, that Democrats want to import a new electorate that can be counted on to outvote the previous White majority. He also uses the “grooming” smear to legitimize violence:

I don’t understand where then men are. Like, where are the dads? Some teacher’s pushing sex values on your third grader. Why don’t you go in there and thrash the teacher? This is an agent of the government pushing someone else’s values on your kid about sex. Where’s the pushback?

Moving on? Already, we are seeing stories about how the Republican Party is “moving on” from Trump. That buzz might gain momentum if Trump-endorsed candidates underperform in the upcoming GOP primaries, or if the January 6 Committee’s public hearings in June capture public attention. As the 2024 presidential cycle begins, Democrats, moderates, and traditional conservatives alike may be tempted to sigh with relief if some alternative to Trump emerges.

But we need to be careful not to relax too quickly. Most likely, the Trump alternative will not be some Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney-like traditional conservative, or represent a Lisa Murkowski or John Kasich-ish move back towards the political center. The alternative could be DeSantis himself, or some other MAGA 2.0 figure. We’ll need to pay attention to the darkness of the rhetoric and the commitment to the rule of law. If people believe what this candidate is saying about the threats to our way of life, what will they be willing to do to win? Or do to their enemies after they win?

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Comments

  • Nancy Banks  On May 2, 2022 at 10:32 am

    The silence from almost every Republican speaks volumes about what is happening in Fl. It is beyond outrageous. These are very scary times.

  • Barry Mauer  On May 2, 2022 at 11:04 am

    I don’t think it’s as complicated as this essay makes it seem. Historically, big business has aligned with the right wing and even fascism. Fascists are happy to accept the alliance until it no longer serves them. Same thing has happened here, both with Trump and DeSantis.
    Trump fought against many corporations while in office and acted in ways that were bad for business (except his business). But his anti-business actions built up his fascist hordes, so he didn’t care.
    In Florida, Disney has disproportionally funded the Republican Party, helping to give them a stranglehold on state politics. No they are stung like the frog by the scorpion.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On May 2, 2022 at 1:05 pm

    DeSantis is not a more clever or effective version of Trump. In fact, he may be even less competent than his mentor, because DeSantis is driven by ideology in a way Trump isn’t. The following is from a commenter on Political Wire, that I saw on electoral-vote.com, so it’s at least third or fourth hand, but it jibes with DeSantis’ legislative style and gives us an idea of the incompetence we could expect from a DeSantis presidency.

    “I have a college friend who is a member of the Florida state legislature and he has been giving me the comical inside “play by play”. Basically, DeSantis, nor his staff had any idea what Reedy Creek was, what it did or cost. There were a couple staffers who tried to tell them literally the day of the signing, but they didn’t want to hear it.

    “DeSantis literally thought that this “Disney Tax District” was a way Disney was getting away without paying their taxes. He had no idea of the debt and infrastructure maintenance responsibilities not just for Disney, but for large swaths of business and FL residents outside the bounds of their property.

    “There was quite a bit of swearing from DeSantis’s staff and a handful of his strongest legislative supporters in conference room in the state capitol building the day after the signing when it became clear that they would now obligate the state of Florida to the tune of billions of long term debt and hundreds of millions of yearly expense that the Mouse had been shouldering.”

  • Geoff Arnold  On May 2, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    The underlying (and often explicitly) fascist philosophy of Putin, Orban, and DeSantis is analyzed very effectively in “The Road To Unfreedom”. https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/B074YM8W91/ In particular, the GOP’s decision to focus on cultural-sexual themes of “decadence” echos Putin’s pivot in 2012-2013.

    “Gay rights were nothing more than the chosen weapon of a global neoliberal conspiracy meant to prepare virtuous traditional societies such as Russia and China for exploitation. President Putin took the next step at his personal global summit at Valdai a few days later, comparing same-sex partnerships to Satanism.” (Road to Unfreedom, p.51.)

  • Wade Scholine  On May 3, 2022 at 10:49 am

    Just a couple of nits.

    Obamacare repeal didn’t fail because no two Republicans agreed on what should replace it. Republicans were damned near unanimous about replacing it with nothing and that’s how it would have been if not for a last-minute deathbed conversion by John McCain.

    As for Trumpism being a personality cult around someone with an unappealing personality… Is there even such a thing as a personality cult around a person with an appealing personality? Also, unappealing to whom? The people who voted for him sure seem to find him appealing.

  • Paul  On May 4, 2022 at 11:33 am

    Fascism. The name for what is being described as Orbanism is fascism.

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