The impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump has shown he was right when he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes.
There’s a similar sense of disbelief now, that a president could foment a riot at the Capitol to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power, and yet his party remains so reluctant to hold him to account.
As one stunned reader wrote me this past week: “I’m beginning to think the mob could have succeeded in hanging Mike Pence, and that wouldn’t have made any difference. Republicans would still find a way to stick with their Trump.”
Christopher Parker, for one, isn’t the least bit surprised.
“It may all seem unbelievable,” he says, “but it’s also entirely predictable.”
Parker is a political science professor at the University of Washington, who, by sheer luck he says, was in the field engaged in a large social science survey of the MAGA movement when the Capitol riot erupted Jan. 6.
MAGA stands for “Make America Great Again,” the slogan popularized by Trump during his 2016 campaign. It came to be shorthand for the “Trump base” — a group of Americans with unusual enthusiasm for backing the former president and his causes.
Parker, along with Rachel Blum, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, surveyed about 1,900 self-identified MAGA stalwarts in late December, to try to better understand their political attitudes. This wasn’t a poll, but rather an in-depth survey of a group — the study participants were found based on their MAGA activity on social media.
Once the Capitol riot happened, a subset of the group was re-interviewed specifically about that event. That questioning wrapped up about two weeks ago.
The findings make it crystal clear how and why so many Republicans could end up looking the other way, even at an anti-democratic insurrection that killed five people. It’s because to the MAGA movement, there’s an alternate universe where none of it really happened.
“They don’t think their side had much of anything to do with it,” Parker says.
Incredibly, more than 80 percent of the MAGA survey respondents say the Capitol riot was the fault not of the GOP, and definitely not of Trump, but of … antifa.
Nearly the entire group — 98 percent — also said they agree with Trump’s unproven claims that the election was stolen.
“It stands to reason, in their world, that if the riot is not Trump’s fault and it’s antifa’s fault, then they don’t believe Trump deserves any punishment or criticism for what happened,” Parker said. “It’s a way to rationalize what happened, a way to say, ‘That wasn’t us. It was them.’ “
That’s an astounding level of delusion. Parker said polling suggests MAGA makes up at least half of all Republican party voters. On cue, a new national poll released Feb. 11, the American Perspectives survey of 2,016 adults, found that half of GOP voters nationwide agreed with the statement that, “Antifa, the anti-fascist activist group, was mostly responsible for the violence that happened in the riots at the U.S. Capitol.”
I asked Parker: Is this a cult?
“I don’t know about that; I study political movements,” he said. “But MAGA is definitely a clear and present danger to American democracy.”
Parker said MAGA is “extremely politically organized and mobilized,” and so has an outsized influence on GOP elected officials even beyond its large numbers. His survey found they overwhelmingly believe voting should be made harder, not easier, and that they overwhelmingly support norm-breaking measures such as overturning the election and the idea of Trump serving as president beyond the constitutionally mandated two-term limit.
“They see Trump as the last thing standing between them and a fundamentally changed world,” Parker said. “They see him as more than a president, he’s a protector and guardian of a culture,” a fundamentally white, Christian culture.
“They want to go backward in time. This is one way they are very different than establishment conservatives.”
You can see why, then, a Republican senator might pretzel into twisted logic to find any way to let Trump off the hook. And also why the only Republicans censured by the party are the ones who have crossed Trump, such as Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera-Beutler.
I mean, the party’s core voter base thinks it was all the fault of antifa!
“One of our major parties is essentially captured by, or captive to, this group,” Parker said. “There’s going to be a hangover from this for a long time, long after Trump.”
Parker, who wrote a book on the tea party movement called “Change They Can’t Believe in,” was one of the few people in America who correctly called, more than a year in advance, that Trump would win the 2016 election. He was also about the only one who predicted what would fuel Trump’s win — not the economy, but anxiety about racial and cultural change.
He still doesn’t think it’s sinking in, even after an insurrection.
“People aren’t getting how serious this is, how much of an ongoing threat it is to democracy. You people in the press are still acting surprised by it all — when are you going to get it?”
Guilty. Count me among those who are sitting here, gobsmacked. Not necessarily that Trump would try to overturn an election — I knew he was narcissistic enough for that. But that his party would then simply look the other way, not because of facts or merit or logic, but out of delusions and cultlike idolatry.
I don’t know if I thought we were better than this as a country. But I’m guilty of hoping we were.