The MAGA Agenda: Neo-Know-Nothings

Like most Spirited Reasoners, I have spent much of the past six years trying to figure out what it is that MAGA voters want. Despite the daily presence of Donald Trump in the news cycle, this is a much more difficult process than it seems. The problem, I think, is that what MAGA supporters say often contradicts what they do.

For example, the MAGA crowd that invaded the Capitol on January 6, 2021, seemed to be screaming for justice (“stop the steal”), yet that same mob ignored the rulings of our judicial branch of government in dozens of state and federal courts, all of which agreed that no steal had occurred.

Some MAGA supporters carried so-called “thin blue line” flags, demonstrated their support for police, yet these same folks had no trouble ignoring the lawful orders issued by Capitol police officers. Some MAGA supporters battled against the police when push came to shove. Some carried American flags, which ought to symbolize support for our United States, yet others carried Confederate battle flags and still others sported neo-Nazi and Q-Anon regalia, indicating their disdain for our American system of government.

Nor do traditional frameworks—such as Liberal vs. Conservative—explain much when applied to the MAGA phenomenon. Courageous conservatives like Rep. Liz Cheney exemplify this conundrum. If the MAGA movement is all about being conservative, why the vilification of honest officials with lifelong conservative credentials?

The one characteristic that unifies, and perhaps explains, the MAGA mindset is not conservatism but rather xenophobia. Looking back through American history, we discover a similar movement that flourished during the 1850s. A political movement arose, first as a secret society, then as a political force called the Know-Nothing Party. What scared Know-Nothings was the increasing immigration of people from the Roman Catholic regions of Europe. Many white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) began to fear that if such immigration persisted, our nation would lose its democratic character and become controlled by the Pope. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_Nothing ).

Fast-forward to 2016. Perhaps the most unifying chant of the MAGA crowd during that election season was “Build That Wall.” Many white, working-class Americans were afraid that if immigration from Central and South America persisted, our nation would lose its WASP-dominant character. It is no surprise, then, that both the Know Nothing Party and the MAGA Party of 2016 included large numbers of white supremacists.

The Know-Nothing Party vanished in part because of the onset of the Civil War. Spirited Reasoners can only hope and pray that the xenophobic passions of our neo-Know-Nothings, i. e., the MAGA Party, can be allayed without another civil war.