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MAGA Is Here to Stay
Wishful thinking on Tucker and Trump
It’s a genuine shock that Fox has dumped Tucker Carlson. Few television hosts, in the last 30 years at least, have ever enjoyed such influence. For a time, Carlson was talked about as a viable candidate for president, and few talking heads have ever been able to tap into the fears and resentments of a political base. Donald Trump remade the Republican Party and Carlson remade himself, evolving rapidly from a conventional neoconservative to a nativist populist and isolationist, Trump’s erudite ego—or perhaps his id. His downfall, an outcome of the Dominion lawsuit, is an enormous blow to Fox, which will have to scramble to replace the most-watched show on cable television. Some Trump voters could desert Fox, especially if Carlson heads to Newsmax or goes independent. Carlson is big enough to compete with anyone.
For some liberals, Carlson’s humiliation—he didn’t know the Murdoch dynasty was ending his career at Fox—is evidence that MAGA, the cultist presence in the Republican Party, is on the decline. Greg Sargent, the influential opinion writer at the Washington Post, has been making this point for some time. Sargent, speaking for a certain number of liberals and staunch Democrats, believes the 2022 midterms, along with the damage of the Dominion lawsuit and the savagery of Jan. 6, demonstrates that the Trump wing of the Republican Party is diminished.
Sargent and I had a polite back and forth on Twitter; I plainly do not agree with him. I do not agree because he’s engaging in wishful thinking. Every point he makes has a simple and powerful rebuttal: for the third consecutive presidential cycle, Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Trump, barring death—certainly not another indictment—is going to be the Republican candidate for president against Joe Biden. He leads comfortably in every national poll and in pivotal early states. There’s this idea that voters behave like pundits and will seek to punish Trump for elevating lousy candidates in the 2022 midterms—alienating and peculiar nominees like Dr. Oz, Kari Lake, Blake Masters, and Doug Mastriano. When all of these Trump Republicans fell to conventional Democrats, there was talk that Trump himself would pay a penalty and MAGA, in a post-Roe world, would have to retreat. If your argument is that MAGA candidates will struggle to win general elections, you’d be correct, and that may be the basis of Sargent’s thinking. Trump, obviously, has never won a popular vote.
But a fervent Trump supporter need not beat every Democrat. For one, with rare exceptions, even institutional Republicans are strongly aligned with Trump at this juncture. Is Steve Daines, the Montana senator and chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, a MAGA Republican? Not, perhaps, by Sargent’s definition, but Daines just endorsed Trump’s 2024 campaign. Trump has transcended his insurgent roots. MAGA is the Republican Party, and the Republican Party is one of only two major parties in the wealthiest nation on Earth. In 2024, Republicans are strong favorites to retake the Senate, and they’re probably going to carry West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio, even if Biden wins again. Trump’s grip on the Republican Party will not loosen until he’s dead. In 10 or 20 years, perhaps, a pundit like Sargent can write convincingly on the death of MAGA. Time wounds all heels. Until then, it’s Trump’s party.
Ron DeSantis’ ascent (and descent) is further evidence of this. DeSantis was a backbencher congressman who became governor after Trump endorsed him in the Republican primary. DeSantis gained popularity as a culture warrior in the Trump mold. For a time, it looked like DeSantis could offer what Republican elites have long pined for: Trumpism without Trump. DeSantis’ great success came from aping Trump. And unlike the former reality TV star, DeSantis appeared to be a serious policy thinker and political operator, far more like Richard Nixon than a Trumpian carnival barker. DeSantis has since been undone by Trump, lacerated (ironically) for his past fiscal conservatism, and the Florida governor’s downfall seems to be that he lacks the charisma to keep up with Trump.
A boring observation here is that Trump, Carlson, and Fox are each quite durable. Fox can survive losing Carlson, just as it survived Megyn Kelly’s collapse several years ago. A new demagogue can replace Carlson; elderly Republicans are not going to stop watching Fox News on weekday evenings. Carlson himself is a big enough brand to be successful somewhere else. If he doesn’t join another network, he can exist as a major internet star like Joe Rogan. He may even be able to stay wealthy. And Trump, even if he never becomes president again, will have left his lasting mark on the Republican Party. DeSantis’ statement on Ukraine—his newfound isolationism—is proof enough that MAGA has won. Any Republican who truly longs for power today must pay tribute to Trump himself and his elastic beliefs. If MAGA is “weaker” than expected—I’m not quite sure what more can be expected than a complete takeover of a political party—it has seeped deeply into the American political firmament. Bush, Romney, and McCain Republicans are no more. That’s been apparent now for anyone paying attention.