[Column] The afterlife of MAGA

Posted on : 2021-02-22 15:52 KST Modified on : 2021-02-22 15:52 KST
John Feffer
John Feffer

By John Feffer, author and co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. He has been stripped of his Twitter account. Although he narrowly escaped conviction this month in his impeachment trial in the Senate, his political future is precarious to say the least.

Yet his ideology of Make America Great Again (MAGA) lives on — in the hearts of many Americans, in the calculations of a majority of Republican politicians, and even in some of the policies of the Biden administration.

Trump still enjoys widespread popularity

Donald Trump remains a popular figure despite his efforts to overturn American democracy, his failure to contain the coronavirus, and his inability to pass any major legislation or achieve any major foreign policy victories. His final job approval rating was 29%, and a majority of Americans believe that he should be barred from running again for president. Yet 53% of Republicans would vote for Trump if the Republican primary were held right now, and 64% have said they would join a new, Trump-led party.

The appeal of Trump goes beyond his MAGA nationalism. Although he is quite obviously a member of the American elite, he has become the leader of an anti-elitist faction of the American population. He is popular among white nationalists like the Proud Boys, libertarians who want what Steve Bannon once called the “destruction of the administrative state,” social conservatives who champion a narrow version of Christianity and a traditional view of the family, and those who fear losing their economic status as a result of globalization and immigration.

Most of the Republican Party has closed ranks around him. Only 10 Republicans in the House voted for his impeachment, and only seven Republicans in the Senate voted for his conviction. Several of these courageous politicians have already been censured by their state Republican Parties. After threatening to create his own political party, Trump now seems determined to solidify his control over the Republican Party.

Over the next two years, a war among three factions will test the unity of the Republican Party. Trump will continue to demand absolute loyalty from his followers. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will try to maintain a “big tent” that accommodates all the different kinds of Republicans. Meanwhile, a third group of centrist Republicans, including several former members of the Trump administration, are exploring the possibility of setting up their own party — or at least a faction within the Republican Party — in order to make a definitive break from the ex-president.

But perhaps the most unexpected persistence of MAGA can be found in the policies of the Biden administration.

Legacy continues even under Biden

Although the new administration has reversed many of Trump’s policies and rejoined many international efforts — the World Health Organization, the Paris climate agreement, the UN Human Rights Council — it has also embraced key aspects of Trump’s MAGA agenda.

For instance, the new administration isn’t altering Trump’s approach to China. Biden hasn’t lifted any of the tariffs or sanctions Trump imposed on Beijing, and has continued to talk tough about confronting China militarily and on trade.

On economic issues, the new administration has emphasized “buy American” provisions in government purchasing. Biden has proposed assessing a 10% tax penalty on US companies that engage in offshore production in other countries, and a 10% tax credit for those that bring their production back to the United States.

On the pandemic, the administration is continuing to focus on inoculating Americans, and not so much on getting COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of people elsewhere in the world. True, Biden directed the United States to join the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility, which ensures equitable distribution of the vaccine to the Global South. But the United States has not provided anything close to the funding necessary for COVAX to meet even its modest goal of vaccinating 20% of the populations of participating countries by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, the United States and other rich countries have made sure to acquire as much of the new vaccines as they can, ensuring a dearth of supply for the rest of the world.

Biden administration not just about exceptionalism

Of course, American exceptionalism existed before Trump brought MAGA into the White House. The idea that the United States is an exception to the rules governing the rest of the world has a long lineage in American history, from the initial stirrings of empire in the late nineteenth century to the Iraq War and the continuous drone strikes of the twenty-first century.

So even if Biden reverses some of the worst cases of Trump’s nationalism by rejoining some international organizations and abiding by some global agreements, it’s not likely that he’ll push for a significant reduction in the US military budget (the highest by far in the world), in US arms sales (the highest by far in the world), or US overseas military bases (the greatest number by far in the world).

Fortunately, the Biden administration is not only about American exceptionalism or continuing the MAGA legacy of the Trump years. Especially on environmental issues, the new administration is genuinely focused on working with other countries to reduce the world’s carbon footprint.

And Biden is intent on making America carbon-neutral by 2050 at the latest. His “clean energy revolution” is not exactly a Green New Deal, but it’s close. By shifting away from fossil fuels, by rebuilding US infrastructure in sustainable ways, and by creating new jobs in a clean economy, the Biden administration can indeed make America great.

What makes this plan different from MAGA is the recognition that America can’t be great if the rest of the world isn’t great as well. Climate change, like COVID-19, doesn’t care about borders or national pride. The Trumps of this world can deny the impact of these existential crises as much as they like, but their nationalist philosophies will ultimately die out because they are simply incapable of adapting to global realities.

The bottom line: either MAGA and its foreign counterparts die out, or that’s what will happen to the human race.

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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