MAGA is a testable hypothesis

December 13, 2022 4:54 am

A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump wears an oversize “Make America Great Again Hat” as he waits for the start of a “Keep America Great” rally at Southern New Hampshire University Arena on Feb. 10, 2020 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Drew Angerer | Getty Images)

It’s been a decade or more since the neologism “MAGA” (or, “Make America Great Again”) entered the language.  We should have known that it would become powerful.  It was “hot” and yet not. 

It could ignite a fever in the head on whose red baseball cap it was embroidered, but still have ambiguous meanings.  As Walter Lippmann had noted a century earlier, some things induce “an intensification of feeling and a degradation of significance.”  Lots of heat; not much light.

With the mid-term campaigns of 2022 – plus a lot of other stuff – in view, some of the ambiguity has cleared. 

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on abortion rights and gun laws.  The antisemitism, racism, and sexism that stew in social media and elsewhere.  A political polarization unseen since the 1860s when Americans fought their as-yet-only civil war.  The chattering classes wonder where the politicos go now.  Will a MAGA-dominated House and Supreme Court stymie a Democratic White House and Senate?  Or vice versa?

As the ambiguity clears, these become four of the things that MAGA has always meant:

One, the autocrat is seductive.  Once upon a time it mattered that an officeholder was (a) a competent leader who (b) led where you might follow.  This autocrat ignores competency:  No one cares any longer about whether he can do the job.  And he’s uninterested in “where you might follow.”  Your moral compass isn’t his; he probably doesn’t even have one.  Your self-interest is to him uninteresting.  You are simply a moth drawn to his flame.  (You’ll have noticed, by the way, that he’s always male)

Two, the United States is Christian and white.  Once upon a time American coins bore the phrase E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one).  Should they still?  Once upon a time America was a nation of immigrants.  A native, the saying went, was a person who’d gotten off the boat before you did.  No longer true.  MAGA does not approve.  Now it’s a nation that worries about “the Great Replacement,” a them-vs.-us place where racism is chronic and antisemitism is on the rise and otherness is dangerous.

Three, elections are either won by MAGA or stolen by you-know-who.  To maximize the MAGA odds, “election reform” (also known as “voter suppression schemes”) make voting by you-know-who more difficult, and gerrymandering (usually raced-based) makes you-know-who’s vote count for less.  And, of course, if neither voter suppression nor gerrymandering carry the day, there is election denial. 

“Stop the steal,” though faring poorly just now, is still kicking (see Arizona).

Four, lies are true; facts are suspicious.  They have to be.  Like the fairy-tale emperor, the autocrat wears no actual clothes.  His empire isn’t really a white, Christian monolith; it’s more like what used to be called a “melting pot.”  And the “steal” needn’t be “stopped” because there is no “steal.”  So what MAGAheads call “alternative reality” needs to be concocted to make the ludicrous sound credible and what’s true look false.  The rest is red meat: Guns are good and abortions are bad; immigrants are dangerous, seal the borders; people who don’t vote MAGA probably shouldn’t vote at all.

Has the MAGA fever broken?  We’ll see. 

On one hand, several MAGA politicians have fallen (Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Kari Lake in Arizona, and most recently, Herschel Walker in Georgia).  On the other, we’re warned of a fresh outbreak in the House of Representatives in January.  And, speaking of Washington, these are awkward times for MAGAheads:  The White House and the Senate are still in Democratic hands, and who knows whether the MAGA House can find a suitable Speaker.  (Marjorie Taylor Greene anyone?)

Beyond these currently anxious times in MAGAland, it’s difficult to know whether – if MAGA ever arrives – it’ll have been worth the effort, worth the wait. 

Fortunately, MAGA is a testable hypothesis.  And the test is underway.  Enter Hungary.  Enter its autocrat, Viktor Orbán. 

MAGAheads saw a glimpse – although apparently not the promise – when Orbán addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas last August.  (You’re unfamiliar with CPAC?  A list of other conference speakers may help:  Sean Hannity and Steve Bannon; Texas governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz; Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia) and Lauren Boebert (Colorado), and Representative wannabe Sarah Palin (Alaska); Arizona’s gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake.  You get the gist.)

Seductive autocrat?  At the CPAC Orbán went full monty. 

He showed the cheering crowd what scholars have called “an energetic, ruthless and talented” prime minister who “fell in love with freedom but ended up enthralled with his own absolute power.”  CPAC was in thrall:  With what was said, of course, but also with the seduction.

Christian and white?  Orbán boasts of Hungary’s Judeo-Christian heritage – oh, strike the Judeo – and decries the “mixed-race” societies that immigration is fueling all around him.  A self-proclaimed atheist until the 1980s, Orbán now praises Hungary as a “Christian Democracy” purer than the “godless cosmos, rainbow families, migration and open societies” that surround it. 

Judeo-?  Orbán expelled George Soros – who, paradoxically, is a native Hungarian. And Orban banished Soros’ Central European University from Budapest to Vienna. 


“We were the first ones in Europe who said no to illegal migration and stopped the invasion of illegal migrants….  To stop illegal migration, we actually built that wall.”

Stop the steal?  In last April’s election Orbán’s political party, Fidesz, won 54% of the vote, the opposition United for Hungary 35%.  The lopsided win preserved Fidesz’s supermajority in parliament.  How did it happen?  Gerrymandering helped.  So did “voter tourism,” which allows voters to register outside their home districts.  (Think Florida man votes in Georgia election.)  So did a media echo chamber in which public broadcasters are controlled by Fidesz and large independent news outlets are owned by Orbán’s cronies.  Or a complicated electoral system that allows political parties to designate 93 of the country’s 199 parliamentarians.  It’s powerful medicine, particularly when you consider how Fidesz discourages multi-party politics:  In April, Socialists, Greens, centrists, fiscal hawks, and Christian conservatives united – unsuccessfully – behind Orbán’s opponent.  And because Fidesz controls public television, and its allies dominate private media, voters are inundated with coverage that favors Orbán. 

Opposition parties can’t pay for political advertising because it is illegal, but the public channels regularly broadcast “public service” announcements that favor the Orbán agenda.

You’ll be reminded of Jim Marchant, last month’s loser in Nevada’s elections. 

“When I’m secretary of state of Nevada, we’re gonna fix it,” he had threatened.  And, he’d continued, when a like-mind “coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected, we’re gonna fix the whole country, and President Trump is gonna be president again in 2024.” 

He was channeling Fidesz.  If you like Orbán’s Hungary, you’d love Marchant’s America.

Princeton University’s Kim Lane Scheppele sums it up:  In Dallas “Orban simply played the culture wars cards he has always played, leaning into his anti-immigration campaign, his ‘family values’ campaign against gender fluidity and gay rights, and his law and order campaign.  He expected cheers for those positions – and he got them.”

Will Orbán Make Hungary Great Again?  It’s too soon to tell.  Clearly, though, Make Hungary Great Again is racing ahead of MAGA.  American MAGAheads might want to spend a year or two in Hungary, testing the hypothesis.  Just last month the conservative National Review published a “Conservative Émigré’s Guide to Hungary.”  One-way airfares from major Montana airports to Budapest are six hundred dollars and change. 

Why wait?

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Bruce Lohof
Bruce Lohof

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he divides his time between Red Lodge and Vienna.