Inside Democracy’s MAGA-Led Suicide Attempt

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In February 2021, a lawyer named Dan Schultz showed up as a guest on The War Room With Steve Bannon to promote a political strategy he’d first learned about in seventh-grade civics. Local party precincts, the bottom rung of the Republican party structure, he argued, was where all the action was. Sounding a little breathless, he explained that if War Room listeners wanted to take over the Republican party, the place to do it was at the precinct level, by nominating themselves to be precinct committee chair-people.

It was a fundamentally democratic, workaday notion. Almost a little boring. But it hit a nerve with listeners who were already sold on the Big Lie that the 2020 election had been stolen. Not by Democrats—that they were crooked was a given—but by Republicans too lily-livered to take a stand for Trump’s rightful victory. The party needed a MAGA takeover and it needed one fast.

In Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy, Isaac Arnsdorf tells the unnerving story of how the Republican party transformed itself so effectively and so quickly. In a swift, convincing 204 pages that are much more entertaining than they ought to be, Arnsdorf positions the Schultz’s strategy as a key way Republicans did it. Along the way, Arnsdorf, a reporter at The Washington Post, introduces readers to a handful of true believers in the MAGA project, and—with a fairness they in no way deserve—plots the course of their psychologies from January 6, 2021 to present as they sign up in droves to volunteer their time at the lowest rung of the Republican party. (We also meet a few old school Republicans who are baffled by the GOP’s evolution.)

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When the book showed up, I admit that I groaned. What could be more depressing than The Ground War to End Democracy? But read it I did because I am a good little seventh-grade civics student. Since then, I’ve forced it on everyone I know who's struggling to make sense of how MAGA spread so far so fast. It’s a book that resolves the apparent contradictions at the heart of MAGA Republicanism, and it's—I can’t believe I’m writing this about a book about the end of democracy—actually pretty funny. Arnsdorf and I talked by phone when the book came out. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Esquire: There's a central irony to your account here: that the effort to elect a guy who wants to end democracy itself looks quite little-D democratic. How does that work?

Isaac Arnsdorf: That's the most challenging part about it conceptually—counterintuitively. Historically, this has actually more often been the case: democracy commits suicide at the hands of its own elected leaders, rather than at the hands of some kind of military coup. The core question of the book is: why would people choose that? Why would people of their own free will choose, through a democratic process, an undemocratic outcome?

This was specifically the solution that Steve Bannon offered up to the MAGA movement in the aftermath of January 6th: the idea being—and there's a lot of truth to this—that the reason Trump failed on January 6th was because of a few uncooperative Republicans. So, the answer that he offered to Trump supporters who were struggling to process that defeat was that what they needed to do was take over the party and purify the party and get rid of everyone like that so that wouldn't happen in the future.

They called it "the precinct strategy". It's an idea of taking over the party organization. People are familiar with the Republican National Committee, but that's the top of a pyramid that goes all the way down a ladder to the state and districts and counties, and the lowest level is the precincts.

How do rank-and-file Republican party members who are signing up to be precinct committee chair-people square their professed love and protectiveness of democracy with such an authoritarian candidate in Trump?

I think the most common way that I hear it is in terms of feeling like democracy was lost when the 2020 election was “stolen.” Obviously, that's based on a falsehood, but something that is genuinely believed for a lot of people.

I often hear it articulated as, “Well, America was never supposed to be a democracy, it's supposed to be a republic.” Those terms are not especially useful. You have to push hard to find out what people mean by that. What I think they mean is a feeling of who has power and who is represented, and a sense that participants in the [MAGA] movement feel that they are supposed to have some kind of power regardless of the electoral outcome.

That's really deeply rooted on the American right. Looking all the way back to the rise of the modern conservative movement with Barry Goldwater, it's just a starting premise that America is a conservative country and any election outcome that is inconsistent with that is therefore illegitimate. There's a continuity from that fundamental conception of America as a conservative country coming all the way up through the attempt to delegitimize Obama through birtherism and finally, ultimately, the attempt to delegitimize Biden through the stolen election myth.

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You set two people up in the book up in contrast with each other: Kathy Petsas, an old school Republican, and Salleigh Grubbs, a MAGA Republican. How did you choose them and what do they represent to you?

You're right, they're foils. Salleigh represents this new wave of MAGA party activists inspired by the stolen election myth to become more active in party politics and make the party a MAGA institution. Kathy, on the other hand calls herself an "OG Republican." She literally grew up in the party, was raised licking envelopes and she was a page on the floor of the 1980 convention. She puts a John McCain sign out on her lawn every year on his birthday. She represents the old guard that's been chased out and is now stranded by the two-party system. The MAGA party doesn't want her and she's not a Democrat.

In order to tell a story about something that was happening with a lot of regular people who were not headline names, it was a challenge of: who to focus on? The reality is that over the course of years of reporting, I talked to a lot of people in different places and Kathy and Salleigh both stood out in their own ways for how they epitomized these two blocs in the party, but also how they individually had a lot of personality and were open with me and willing to engage with me about what their experiences were.

So many people in the book are small-time activists like them, inspired very recently to become involved in the Republican Party. Do you think that any of them will become household names? Will we soon all know who Salleigh Grubbs is? Speaker of the House Salleigh Grubbs...

There are times that I worried about that. That Salleigh was going to get too famous before the book came out and her story wasn't going to feel new anymore. That happens in politics. People stick around a long time and turn up in funny places. But part of what's hard about a book about non-famous people is appreciating the individuality and specificity of the characters and not extrapolating too far. But also, they do have to stand for something bigger. That was part of what I'm trying to do here—both being respectful of their own individual lives and stories but also what larger findings we can draw from them.

Bannon was a helpful guide in that respect. He provides that conceptual framework based on how he thinks about motivating people and forming the movement. We talked a lot about the philosophers and the thinkers who shaped him. You can kind of see him applying that and then you can see that working on the people in his audience.

Did you find his enthusiasm for the precinct strategy genuine, or did you see it as a sort of like, cynical, just the best way to achieve the ends he desires?

Bannon talks about a lot of things at any given moment, most of which turn out to be completely futile. The challenge is knowing which is which at any given moment, and I'm not sure that he knows either. The precinct strategy ended up being one that caught on and you could see him seizing on that momentum. There were any number of other things that he would be very excited about at one point and then it would kind of fizzle out and you would never hear about it again.

So you think there was a little luck to it?

It doesn't mean that he didn't believe in it at the outset, it's just that he stuck with it because it started showing some return.

Is there anything about that effort that, on some level, as an American, you admire—regardless of your feelings on MAGA?

I think you're right that it's distinctly American. There's a long history of American politics that is not super democratic with a small-D. Back to that original, core question: the only answer that was ever satisfying to me for how MAGA could spread so far, so fast, and how the Republican party could radicalize against democracy itself in broad daylight and in such a short period—is that it picks up on something very deeply rooted in American political culture. And that what we call MAGA today has basically always been around in some form and just lacked a champion with the resources and charisma and talent, honestly, of Trump.

How do you think it would have gone for the Tea Party if Trump had latched onto that?

That's a great counterfactual because, if you remember, Trump was the guy on birtherism. It's not like Trump wasn't involved in the Tea Party. So that supports the argument of the book about tactical operations really mattering. The Tea Party was all about setting up these outside groups, it was like the “Whatever County Tea Party,” not the “Republican Party.” And actually, the guy who came up with the precinct strategy, this guy in Arizona named Dan Schultz was always going around to those Tea Party meetings and saying, Guys, why are you reinventing the wheel with these outside groups? Knock it off. You should be going to Republican party meetings because that's where the power is.

You’re saying that the party structure helped MAGA succeed in a way that the Tea Party couldn’t make work? Even though it did have this charismatic rising star in Trump?

Exactly. And obviously the Tea Party helped changed Republican politicians leading up to Trump, and it helped Trump get to where he got in the primary. You could still argue that there wouldn't be MAGA without the Tea Party coming first, but the point is that MAGA is proving more durable than the Tea Party, and a big part of that is not just Trump himself, but the way that MAGA has gotten organized through the institution of the party.

Ballot chasing—is that a term our readers should be prepared to hear a lot more?

It's funny, it means completely different things to Democrats and to Republicans. It is going to be a really important story of this election: how Republicans are trying to take advantage of the same methods of voting that Trump continues to insist without evidence are fraudulent. And Republicans are going around telling their voters that they need to vote by mail even though voting by mail is how elections are stolen.

They really talk about voting by mail the way that some on the left talk about dark money.

Yeah. The RNC insists that they can believe both things at the same time, and you hear a lot of Republicans who say, "absolutely I'm not going to vote by mail." They recognize that that is a problem they created for themselves in 2020 and 2022, but they can't get out of it by admitting they were lying so, they have to get out of it in these other more complicated ways. That's a real challenge that they have. And so is all the focus and attention that they put into monitoring voting, into poll watching. Which is both a genuine search for catching things that they think are wrong as much as it is trying to convince Trump supporters to trust the system—that if they get involved in the system and watch the system then they'll be more likely to turn out and vote and have confidence in the outcome.

That’s a tough needle to thread, but they seem to be doing it successfully.

Well, they're trying.

It struck me how unconcerned so much of the action in the book is with the Democrats. There's a great quote towards the end, where Steve Bannon's talking about Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, and says, "Our audience does not hate these people, they don't think they're Americans. But they hate the RINOs [Republicans In Name Only]." They're so worried about RINOs, they're so worried about McCain Republicans—less than Joe Biden. Can you talk about that?

I think that comes from what we were talking about who's to blame for the defeat of January 6. If you situate that squarely on the uncooperative Republicans, then you understand why they're really the obstacle.

It's almost like the Democrats trying to steal the election is a given. It's like not even worth mentioning. The real problem is the stab in the back from the Republicans who knew better and let them get away with it. That's why the focus is there. And ultimately the strategy for Bannon is: well, if you've got a two-party system and you can completely capture one of the parties, then that's more important that what the other party is up to because at that point you're going to get some kind of power eventually.

How do you evaluate the risk of the Republican party splitting into two? Or do you think it's more likely that it will transform wholesale into the MAGA party?

I think that transformation is what has happened. We've always had a two-party system, we're going to continue to have a two-party system. It's so legally and operationally entrenched that there really is no way around it. But the parties are always changing and the coalitions constituencies and candidates are always evolving.

For the foreseeable future we have a MAGA party and a Democratic party, which is the outcome that Bannon wants. It's going to be a product of leadership by politicians and change through organized political action—through campaigns and events and persuasion—that’s going to lead to how those parties win or lose.

Will MAGA outlive Trump?

Yeah, I think that that was the purpose of putting the movement into the institution of the party. First of all, we're nowhere close to being post-Trump right now.

[Both laugh nervously.]

I think that the people who have, already, for eight years now, been hoping for the fever to break, are probably going to continue to be disappointed. I talked to Democrats and Republicans who get excited about this being a very decisive election one way or the other, and I'm pretty skeptical of that. I think that we continue to have close elections, and I think we're going to continue in that kind of disequilibrium-equilibrium rather than getting some kind of cathartic release.

There's this received wisdom I hear all the time that this is the most important election of our lifetime. Do you agree with that?

That's a different question. It can also be true that every election is the most important because it's cumulative. The book has to have a beginning, middle, and end, but history doesn't, and there will never be a final, decisive end of the story of American politics.

Did reporting this book change your views on how democracy works—or fails to—in America?

I think I was struggling with January 6th as the beginning rather than culmination of something. So, as much as I said that it only made sense in continuity with a long history of this anti-democratic streak in American political culture, it also was a really hard break. Once unthinkable things happen, they are no longer unthinkable or impossible, so it really does mark a dangerous new phase that I don't think you can unwind quickly.

History may not have an end, but Trump clearly does have an end point in mind. "Finish what we started" is a quote from him. What does "finish" look like from the MAGA perspective?

It means vindicating the defeat of January 6th and redeeming what they view as the stolen election. That's the revenge that they're talking about, but Trump has also been very explicit about how he wants to exercise power in a second term.

My reporting has been that he wants to exercise presidential authority in a much more centralized way and a much more muscular way. The people who were acting as internal restraints in the White House and executive branch are not going to be invited back. When he says things like he said the first time about wanting to investigate and prosecute his critics or wanting to deploy the military against public demonstrations, he means it.


Isaac Arnsdorf's Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy is out now from Little, Brown.

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