WASHINGTON — According to President Biden, “MAGA Republicans” are a growing danger to American democracy and an extremist faction of a once-principled political party, a radical movement with unpopular, unworkable ideas.
There is only one question: Who are they, exactly?
MAGA, of course, stands for Make America Great Again, the slogan that powered Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. And although Trump is seemingly preparing for a third White House run, Biden has said that the term encompasses more than just Trump but an entire movement that, as he put it during a rally in late August for Democratic candidates, wants “to go backwards, full of anger, violence, hate and division.”
But as “MAGA Republicans” become ever more prominent in the president’s lexicon with the approach of the congressional midterms, the White House has faced persistent questions about exactly who Biden is talking about.
“I respect conservative Republicans,” Biden said in Maryland. “I don’t respect these MAGA Republicans.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has named Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene of Georgia and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, as well as Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as adherents of MAGA Republicanism. But she and others, including the president, have outlined what they see as a much broader coalition, one that showed its true colors during the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The Trump supporters who tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election were “not representative of all Republicans,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week. But since the majority of Republicans do believe the presidential election was fraudulent, and that Trump bears no responsibility for Jan. 6, the MAGA faction appears to be significant in size.
Republicans are furious at what they see as the president’s wholesale smear — at odds, they point out, with his campaign promise of reconciliation. "Sounds like a president who has concluded his party’s only path to success in November is with his predecessor on the ballot, even if it means casting aside all his campaign promises of ‘unity,” Republican strategist Colin Reed told Yahoo News in an email. “He’s running a fear campaign around the previous occupant of the Oval Office.”
The president’s supporters argue that he is only pointing out where Trump has taken the Republican Party. “Folks want us, want people to show that there is a clear contrast in the election between where Democrats are and Republicans have been,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., told the Associated Press this week.
Biden first began to use the phrase in earnest last spring, as the Supreme Court prepared – according to a draft opinion of a case originating in Mississippi – to overrule the 50-year old Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Speaking shortly before the final decision was issued, Biden derided “the MAGA crowd” as “the most extreme political organization that's existed in recent American history.”
Gay marriage and contraception were also in peril. “This is about a lot more than abortion,” Biden warned.
The president’s most trusted pollsters had settled on the MAGA label as a potent, pithy attack against Republicans at a time when voters seemed otherwise unenthusiastic about the Democratic Party. The branding was “incredibly effective,” a close Biden adviser, Celinda Lake, told Yahoo News in May.
But while the president can campaign for candidates and engage in overtly political activities, he cannot escape scrutiny for doing so. That scrutiny has become especially intense after last week’s speech in Philadelphia, in which he lamented the eclipse of “mainstream Republicans,” of the kind he used to work with in the U.S. Senate.
Just how real is the distinction between MAGA and non-MAGA Republicans? Of the 10 House members from the GOP who voted to impeach Trump, only two managed to fend off primary challenges from the right. Republican leadership in the House has rejected the congressional Jan. 6 investigation as a partisan spectacle; neither of the two Republicans on the panel, Reps. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., will be in the House come next January.
In the Senate, moderate Republicans have shown limited willingness to work with the president. When he first came into office, none voted for his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, but Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio later helped broker a major infrastructure deal. Portman and Susan Collins of Maine were also the lone Republicans in the upper chamber to vote for Steve Dettelbach, Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The FBI’s execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago last month to recover sensitive government documents from Trump further complicated alliances. Even some committed Trumpists tempered their criticism of the Department of Justice, a potential sign that the party is eager for new leadership.
Biden is apparently intent on making sure that if new leaders do emerge, they are immediately tainted with the MAGA brand. But he has also conflated the Democrats’ political challenges with the broader discourse about American democracy. That tactic was especially apparent in last Thursday's primetime address in Philadelphia, during which Biden referenced “MAGA” 13 times. MAGA had been elevated by the president to a threat on American democracy itself, which seemed to argue in favor of defining MAGA as accurately as possible.
But the president’s definition of the movement is inherently contradictory. In his telling, it is both a fringe movement and also the prevailing Republican ideology of the day, a cult of personality that represents an overarching ideological project of enormous consequence.
“Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology,” Biden said in Philadelphia. At the same time, he argued that this committed minority had captured the entire GOP. “There is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”
The following day, Biden assured reporters that he did not mean to malign all Republicans. “I don't consider any Trump supporter a threat to the country," he said, although he said he did condemn anyone who condoned the violence of Jan. 6, 2021.
But the questions continued, especially since the White House continued to be coy about who exactly the MAGA Republicans are. Earlier this week, Jean-Pierre alluded to Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s controversial economic plan, which has been rejected by many of his fellow Republicans.
On Wednesday, a reporter asked whether Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, could be counted as part of the MAGA crowd. Although McConnell is known to dislike Trump personally, few did more than he did to advance Trump's agenda.
“I’m not going to go into specific names or people from here,” she said, although she had singled out the likes of Taylor-Greene and DeSantis.
The evasions may be part of a political strategy. By leaving the “MAGA Republican” label open to interpretation, the White House all but ensures that debate over the label will persist, potentially normalizing the very argument about political extremism that Biden has been seeking to make.
“Is there really a non-MAGA wing of the Republican Party?,” wondered a CNN headline earlier this week. For the White House, the persistence of that question could be just as important as arriving at an answer.