The MAGA movement changed its strategy after January 6th (date of the attack on the Capitol in 2021, N. da R.), trying to take control of the Republican Party from the bottom up. The book “Finish what we started” follows the right’s long march through America’s political institutions.

O movimento Make America Great Again (MAGA – Make America Great Again, N. da R.) around Donald Trump has proven much more successful in capturing both party institutions and support mainstream than its Tea Party predecessor and the “political revolution” of Bernie Sanders. Why? That depends on who answers the question.

The reporter from Washington PostIsaac Arnsdorf, attempts to partially explain MAGA’s recent success in “Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy. Arnsdorf’s book differs greatly from commentary on Trump in that it focuses directly on the organizational machinations and ideas of the broader stratum that gravitates around him.

“Finish What We Started” follows a variety of MAGA figures, most often at a lower level, trying to understand what is happening in American politics and intervene to influence it. The main focus here is “constituency strategy.” It’s a post-2020 plan to take administrative control of local Republican Party branches, and then continue the process upwards. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the 2024 election is won by Trump, no matter what happens on the day.

Arnsdorf keeps his editorial opinions to a minimum. He explains at the beginning that he chose to focus on relatively minor MAGA leaders.”because they are representative of thousands, perhaps millions like them, but also because they were exceptional in some way.“. Those looking for gossip about Trump’s inner circle will be disappointed: the book is mostly a bottom-up view of a changed party.

Arnsdorf’s book serves as a fine complement to “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution” from Ryan Grim (2023) or “Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump” by Edward-Isaac Dovere (2021). All three focus on interactions between political newcomers and party bureaucracies. The importance of these meetings is that they have the power to expand or close off certain broader political possibilities.

All Power to Electoral Districts

The precinct strategy was devised by a Wisconsin insurance lawyer named Dan Schultz. It’s simple enough: stack the electoral districts, elect MAGA presidents, control the administrative apparatus, purge any non-adherents, and then refuse to recognize victories by non-MAGA candidates.

Schultz’s origin story for the plan involves being bullied at the military academy and interrogating KGB agents while working in Army Intelligence. Schultz claims, dubiously, that at a meeting of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps – a neo-Nazi group that terrorized people on the US-Mexico border – a young man stood up and declared that the real power in America lies with the Republican Party District Committee Chairs.

Steve Bannon met Schultz in 2013, when the lawyer had begun writing for the Breitbart (Breitbart News, far-right website, N. da R.). But it was only after 2021, when Bannon started promoting it on War Room (podcast de Steve Bannon, N. da R.), that Schultz’s content began to go viral online. Disillusioned MAGA supporters, resentful of their embarrassment after January 6, were open to new ideas. The constituency strategy offered a good opportunity for everyone involved to avoid embarrassment, feel productive, and engage in a little “bloodshed.”

The congressional district strategy has gained traction across America. It quickly becomes a carnivalesque suburban Cultural Revolution. Sixty-year-old MAGA Red Guards denounce longtime precinct presidents as traitors. They go on accusatory rants using every definition in the dictionary to get a conviction, purging RINOs (Republican In Name Only – Republicans In Name Only, N. da R.) with barely disguised libidinal pleasure. Even nursing homes become unlikely locations for show trials.

Those who have and those who have not

The book “Finish what we started” allows a variety of ardent MAGA supporters to explain their views on the causes of contemporary polarization and what should be done about it. But this is anticlimactic: the majority expresses little more than vague fears and suspicions, and enthusiasm for the constituency strategy.

Bannon is the only genuinely famous MAGA figure who stands out, and he outlines the only theory developed (partially stolen from Bernie Sanders supporter Thomas Frank). Bannon argues that the consequences of the 2008 global financial crisis impoverished the working class. “The Haves”, like the Koch brothers (billionaires who are notable for financing right-wing and far-right politicians, media and NGOs, N. da R.), were able for a time to use culture war issues to manipulate the “Have Nots” into electoral action, which actually made the situation worse, but this trick has now stopped working.

But calling any of the MAGA camp organizers working class is a stretch. Each secondary character has started a strange business in the course of their activism.

Bannon explains that the Republicans are now really two parties in one: an elite party of big corporate interests and a party of working class and social interests. These interests are irreconcilable. MAGA, according to Bannon, is the majority of the working class uniting en masse in its natural place against the pro-trade liberalization billionaires.

This is a generously forced recap: Arnsdorf notes that Bannon’s vision includes mystical ideas about recurring historical epochs, nonsense about clash of civilizations, and bits of pop psychology focused on the mass movements of the 1950s.

Bannon’s “analysis” appears on the surface to be a structural explanation rooted in social antagonisms. This is intentional. Bannon delights in shocking his fellow conservatives by calling himself a Leninist, and he is familiar enough with key terms to imitate a class analysis. This is a pretty transparent ploy: he fully admits that he finds a layer of former Sanders supporters recruitable to the MAGA movement.

Arnsdorf’s approach in “Finishing What We Started” is largely to let his subjects speak for themselves. This could be problematic, especially if everyone was as skilled as Bannon. It would simply be foolish to take these self-assessments literally.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast inadvertently debunks the narrative of Bannon’s MAGA rise. The sketches here are certainly of people who see themselves as the common man—or at least on his side. But calling any of them working class is a stretch. Each secondary character has started a strange (purposely somewhat shady) business in the course of their activism. They are not exactly the gravediggers of capitalism trying to break the chains that bind them. They’re more like funeral home owners offering discounts if you close the deal today.

These isolated lawyers, real estate agents, financial advisors, flag t-shirt sellers, event planners, and advertising executives seem genuinely excited by the human connection involved in their experiences in the MAGA movement. But they are absolutely not experiencing their political awakening as a workers’ revolt. And why would they do that? They are all general managers or proud owners of small and medium-sized businesses.

The constant discussion about how they will be thrown into concentration camps makes more sense the more you know about them. While they may not explain it exactly like that, theirs is a Taftian worldview (refers to US President William Howard Taft, who governed from 1909 to 1913*, N. da R.) where freedom clearly means your unfettered prerogative as business owners to do whatever you want. They see literally anything else as totalitarian.

The Unknown Future Approaches

As the November election draws ever closer, political commentators are scrambling to make predictions about what a second term for Donald Trump would look like. Some try to read the signs of Trump’s disjointed speeches. Others comment on Trump’s search for a vice president, a search he conducts in the style of his old TV show “Apprentice.” Even more, they look to Trump’s new, supposedly professional courtiers for clues as to what moves the current and future MAGA king might make.

Arnsdorf tried something different: a narrative-based sociological study of organizational strategy. Certainly, there are many memorable passages. One of the book’s main characters declares that although he doesn’t need the stress and would rather be at home watching Yellowstone, he would never give up on politics. Even when it means long nights in his windowless office at the Cobb GOP headquarters, with his signed Marjorie Taylor Greene sign and his poster showing, in spider web form, the connections between Karl Marx and Barack Obama, titled “THE AGENDA THAT DISASSEMBLE AMERICA.”

Unfortunately, the book’s sociological focus and title (Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Turf War to End Democracy) are a little at odds. The precinct strategy was supposed to be a springboard to elect Trump and then “finish what we started“. But most of those involved in this story don’t even speculate about what Trump might do once elected. The title with its dark phrase seems rather poor.

Bannon offers the clearest suggestion as to what the phrase might mean: “Economic nationalism… the second term will be ten times more aggressive in implementing policies than the first.” If this just means more tariffs aimed at increasing profits and quick wins for Trump’s friends in select US sectors, then the daily efforts of some of the people featured here may take on a somewhat sad dimension.

On the other hand, these “lumpenburg infants” spend a lot of time trying to outdo each other in business, while simultaneously undertaking their organizing efforts. Characters from the book will disappear during the action, only to appear later declaring that they have given up on politics because their comrades cheated them for money. Perhaps Bannon is partly right: in Trump’s great coup, traders have found their natural home.

Source: Jacobin website (with the exception of Editor’s Notes – N. da R.)

Translation from English made with the help of an online translator.

* William Howard Taft supposedly defended strict limits on the exercise of the presidency of the republic. With this excuse, for example, he did not appoint black people to senior positions in the public service, where this could “cause tension in certain parts of the country”.


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