Opinion: The lasting threat is not the 'next Trump,' but the MAGA base

One of multiple pro-Trump signs on the yard of a New Castle, Penn. home near Jami Colich's office.
The Republican Party has really changed ... (Melanie Mason / Los Angeles Times)
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The state-by-state MAGA takeover of the Republican Party machinery, underway since 2021, will make it easier for the "next Trump" to emerge. But what will actually propel such a figure into the White House is the transformation of the GOP base.

The increasingly reactionary views of grassroots Republicans virtually guarantee that the movement will maintain its dominant influence on the party for the foreseeable future.

A yard sign I saw in rural Pennsylvania during the 2020 presidential campaign tells the story. Planted in front of a house was a homemade poster with the words “RONALD REAGAN IS A LOSER.” President Reagan’s face was crossed out with an X, with Donald Trump’s smiling face next to it. Presumably this was a Trump supporter, but why attack Reagan? The 40th president was beloved by Republicans, not on the ballot, long dead and certainly not a threat to Trump. The last assumption is where I was wrong.

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Trump fixated on his predecessors and so have his supporters.

“You go around Pennsylvania and you see Trump signs everywhere,” he once tweeted, quoting a supporter. ”The Donald Trump situation is bigger than the Reagan Revolution. Donald Trump has inspired us.”

On another occasion: “94% Approval Rating in the Republican Party, an all time high. Ronald Reagan was 87%. Thank you!”

And again: “Wow, highest Poll Numbers in the history of the Republican Party. That includes Honest Abe Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. There must be something wrong, please recheck that poll!”

To be seen as powerful enough to restore the country to what it was, Trump requires that others see him as equal to, or greater than, those who came before him. I used to think such comparisons were a farcical insecurity. Now I believe Donald Trump was understating the comparison. In truth, there is no comparison. He created a cult unlike any of his predecessors, inspiring throngs of supporters to create deeply personal — sometimes spiritual — connections with his movement.

Tribalism is as strong as it’s ever been within the Republican Party. Whether or not Trump remains the tribal leader, the power of group loyalty has radicalized the base. Tens of millions of people now believe conspiracy theories that are provably false, a reality that will shape the American political system in unknowable ways for many years to come.

In the summer of 2022, former Republican congressman Reid Ribble did a test. He was a founder of the Tea Party movement, though he was disillusioned by Trump. Speaking to a group of several hundred churchgoers in Wisconsin, he decided to poll the congregation.

“How many of you believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump?” Ribble asked.

A sea of hands went up. It was almost the entire room. Ribble disguised his shock by shifting to a second question, which he hoped would cause most of the hands to go down.

“And how many of you believe Donald Trump is still the rightful president of the United States?”

Some hands dropped, but roughly half the room kept their arms in the air. It was worse than he had realized.

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“Populism — in almost all of its historical iterations — tends toward authoritarianism,” Ribble told me. The test with the congregation reminded him of another dark period in history: pre-Nazi Germany. In the 1920s, Adolf Hitler rose to power on a Big Lie. He alleged that Germany had been on the path to victory in World War I, but its leaders surrendered prematurely. Victory was seized from Germans by corrupt politicians, Hitler said. The people had been “stabbed in the back.”

In reality, the German military had been defeated and the country had no hope of winning the war; nevertheless, millions believed Hitler’s lie amid the harsh conditions of postwar life, from political gridlock to inflation. Anxious Germans welcomed the rise of a disruptor who could upend the institutions they believed had failed them, paving the way for Nazism. “He created a whole class of victims,” Ribble said, “and then he told them he would vanquish the villain.”

Ribble worries Trump’s lies have created an opening for another dangerous leader to rise — or for Trump’s return to the Oval Office. The untruths have created an angry and restless electorate.

In poll after poll, a majority of Republican voters say that Joe Biden was not the winner of the 2020 election. As one of the officials appointed by the Trump White House to oversee election security during his administration, I can confirm (once again) that this is entirely false. The 2020 election was the most secure in modern history. Yet such attestations have failed.

In the aftermath of the Trump presidency, GOP-dominated legislatures in more than 30 states have put forward or passed measures to make it easier to interfere in the vote in the GOP’s favor, teeing up the possibility of legal war in future elections.

This isn’t the only falsehood reshaping the system.

An Economist/YouGov survey last year found that half of American Republicans now believe in core QAnon concepts, such as the assertion that a single group of people “secretly . . . rule the world” and that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.”

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GOP leaders have fanned the flames of these theories. The No. 3 House Republican, Elise Stefanik, referred to Democrats as “pedo grifters” in 2022, and the party has backed candidates who were open QAnon believers.

Likewise, millions of Republicans subscribe to the Trump-fueled Great Replacement Theory. The conspiracy alleges that the Democratic Party is attempting to “replace the current electorate” of white Americans with “Third World” voters, as former Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed. A gunman cited this race-baiting theory in a manifesto before murdering nearly a dozen black Americans in a New York supermarket in 2022, not to mention the mass shooter who killed nearly two dozen people in an El Paso Walmart in 2019, echoing Trump’s words about an “invasion” at the U.S. southern border. An AP/NORC poll found nearly half of Republicans believed in the theory.

It would be willful delusion to think these conspiracy theories won’t have lasting repercussions. These highly motivated voters are hungry for MAGA candidates who share their views. And such views will not change overnight. The next Trump will have to feed this beast to win, which means keeping the base radicalized on a steady diet of conspiracy theories about existential threats to their way of life.

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“There’s a soft totalitarianism coming into play,” said Michael Steele, who spent two years leading the GOP as chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Modern-day conservatism meant lower taxes, less government, free markets. What we are witnessing now is a deconstruction of that. I think the rational side is losing, if not having already lost.”

We’ve only seen the beginning of Trumpism. The rational faction of the GOP has been put down by the radical one and is no longer a check on the system. The disgraced ex-president may return to power. Meanwhile, the conditions are right for the next Trump to emerge. Worse still for our democracy, when he or she enters the White House, the rest of democracy’s guardrails will be weaker than ever.

Miles Taylor is a former chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration. This article is an adapted excerpt from his book “Blowback: A Warning to Save Democracy from the Next Trump,” which will be published July 18.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.