MAGA Is an Extreme Aberration

All movements adjust their tactics over time. The president’s most extreme supporters have concluded that violence is useful.

A pro-Trump supporter at the Capitol riot on January 6
REUTERS / Leah Millis

About the author: Joan Donovan is the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

The moment at which the “Make America great again” movement became completely unmoored from the democratic process arrived at around 1 p.m. on January 6, when Congress was about to start certifying the 2020 electoral vote and, in doing so, seal President Donald Trump’s defeat. On a stage near the White House, the president was an hour into a rambling speech. Supervising the electoral-vote count would be Vice President Mike Pence’s job, and Trump had called upon him about 10 times to intervene. “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” Trump had said. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he went on to tell the crowd.

Some of Trump’s supporters had begun trudging their way down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Others had gone straight there, skipping his speech entirely. At 1 p.m., members of MAGA-friendly groups, including the Proud Boys, were already waiting outside, some equipped with military-style gear. In a span of about 10 minutes, Pence issued a three-page statement saying that he would not use his role—typically a ceremonial one—to overturn the election. Congress began the count. And Trump explicitly told his followers, “We’re going to the Capitol … We’re going to try and give [Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”

Trump supporters soon overwhelmed the Capitol. Wave after wave of so-called patriots smashed into police, eventually overcoming defenses and entering the building shortly after 2 p.m. For several hours, some protesters wedged themselves against thin police lines, while others pillaged the offices of members of Congress. Why were so few police officers stationed at the Capitol, when the president and his supporters for weeks had been signaling their desire to stop the certification? At best, security forces had underestimated the kind of event the many networked factions of Trump’s MAGA coalition had planned. But, especially after January 6, a MAGA event is not a normal protest.

Most Americans have a sense of what a protest is—supporters of a cause gather near an important landmark to give speeches, wave signs, and march. Such events, which are generally expected to be nonviolent, are often the most grassroots way of seeking social change. In reality, not all protests are peaceful. If they get out of control, police form a line to counter the protesters, sometimes with piercing brutality.

The recent history of MAGA events, culminating in the “Stop the Steal” campaign to overturn the 2020 election, is an extreme aberration. Far from a grassroots movement to right an evident injustice, Stop the Steal is a coordinated disinformation campaign that brings together an all-star cast of Trump’s most loyal supporters. Far from giving voice to the powerless, it is a last-ditch effort to disenfranchise millions for the sake of illegally reinstalling a defeated president of the United States. And disinformation was only the first step. Having lost at the polls, in the courts, and in state legislative chambers, the MAGA movement is trying to get its way through more and more brazen violence and intimidation.

Scholars of social movements often look closely at protesters’ past tactical choices to get a sense of how groups may behave in the future. If a tactic has some relative success, it will spread quickly from city to city through media networks, both traditional and social. Protesters tend to return to the same repertoire of action until the tactics no longer seem to work. What sociologists call tactical innovation occurs only when movements suffer some kind of defeat and must adapt to survive. Innovation can refer to the adoption of new communication technologies or the selection of different protest venues.

For the Occupy Wall Street movement (in which I participated), camping in parks gave way to distributed protests against banks, after a massive surge of arrests. The organizers seeking justice for Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer, began with rallies and vigils and turned to highway shutdowns following Zimmerman’s acquittal on criminal charges.

Groups resort to outright violence for a variety of reasons, sociologists say, but one reason is that they see in it a political opportunity. When institutional means for social change are closed off, violence can be strategic. In hindsight, MAGA’s tactics over the past year show a disturbing escalation. Statehouse protests against public-health measures prompted by the coronavirus pandemic led not only to physical altercations, but also to a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Since Trump lost the election, his supporters have tried out a range of protest tactics. The most recent innovation, on January 6, was an overwhelming show of violence—which didn’t succeed in overturning the count, but briefly sent Pence and Congress into hiding. Now, as Trump’s followers promise an “armed march on Capitol Hill & all state capitols” over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, the FBI and other agencies will have to hustle for intelligence on upcoming events, even as they are still tracking down and arresting the people who breached the Capitol. Far from concluding that the Capitol attack was a step too far, MAGA organizers may instead think that their intimidation campaign hasn’t gone far enough.

The disinformation and intimidation have worsened in tandem. Although Trump had been impugning the election’s credibility for months in advance, only after November 3 did members of pro-MAGA social-media groups begin showing up at the places where poll workers were counting votes, chanting “Stop the count” and, later, “Stop the steal.” Banging on glass and keeping watch for days, Trump’s supporters were unsuccessful at disrupting the vote tallies, but the movement had gained momentum.

On November 5, Facebook removed one of the first “Stop the Steal” groups, which had grown to 350,000 members—but only after the platform’s own algorithms “drove 100 new people to join [that] group every 10 seconds,” according to research from Ryerson University. The hashtag trended on Twitter and directed YouTube users to a huge corpus of pro-Trump content. MAGA’s leading online influencers also had a ground game, organizing sporadic rallies in state capitals that built real-world connections among their social-media fans.

Meanwhile, the top legal experts in MAGA world—figures such as Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood—filed dozens of voter-fraud cases that had zero hope of succeeding on their merits. This was performative litigation. Its failure across multiple states offered “proof” that the legal system had failed the president. The lawyers coupled the litigation with testimony in state legislatures, where they made wild claims about zombie voters and double counts and Dominion Voting Systems machines with Communist vote-flipping algorithms. The claims, though absurd, created a grand narrative that ostensibly explained Joe Biden’s decisive win.

Their false claims about election fraud were amplified on the incredibly popular YouTube channels run by Steve Bannon, Steven Crowder, and Tim Pool, and on the alternative cable networks Newsmax and One America News. But they didn’t change the results. As all legal and institutional options were exhausted, a new, more militant approach was emerging for this growing coalition.

On December 12, the Proud Boys, a national network of far-right extremists, led a running riot through downtown Washington, D.C., during which four people were stabbed and countless others assaulted. The night closed as the Proud Boys stole a Black Lives Matter banner from a local Black church and torched it as cameras rolled. A week later, Trump promoted the planned electoral-vote demonstration with a tweet that will go down in history: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” It was the culmination of a coordinated effort that connected online activism to grassroots militia groups, QAnon followers, and other far-right groups. He wasn’t just summoning his followers on a whim.

Perhaps though, nothing was as shocking as the New Year’s Day posts from Wood, who fantasized that Trump would arrest Pence and sentence him to death.

A screenshot of a tweet from Lin Wood.
A January 1 tweet by Lin Wood. Wood has since been banned from Twitter.

The violent fantasies of certain leading MAGA figures aren’t an embarrassment to the movement; they’re part of its recruitment campaign.

No one should assume that Trump will recede into history on January 20. For the next few years, governors, district attorneys, and police should expect the worst if Trump tries to lead a rally in their jurisdiction, given the potential for violence and escalation. Mainstream Republicans, be warned: This is not your base. Failure to assess the real threat posed by MAGA is what led to the Capitol insurrection, and those seeking to keep Trump in office illegally should not be afforded another opportunity to innovate.

The failure of the Capitol Police and other agencies to anticipate last week’s events also highlights law enforcement’s failure to innovate in countering white-supremacist and violent extremists. These groups organize on open platforms that have little operational security. They brag endlessly about their plans, their guns, and whom they will murder. If journalists, internet archivists, anti-racism activists, academic researchers, and even Amazon’s cloud-services unit are able to identify neo-Nazis posting online, what is preventing law enforcement from doing the same? This is not a rhetorical question—especially given evidence of some officers’ lenient treatment of Capitol rioters.

Internet platforms have finally begun to excise groups and individual accounts of MAGA influencers, including Trump himself, who spread disinformation and incite violence. Twitter removed more than 70,000 QAnon accounts. Mainstream platforms do not want to be organization points for large-scale attacks. Minor platforms, such as Parler and DLive, have been more willing to let such activity continue unfettered, but Parler lost its ability to use Amazon’s web-hosting services and is no longer online.

The scale of the account and content removals on major platforms has thwarted the most-extreme MAGA supporters’ ability to rally one another. However, platforms’ enforcement measures have lacked consistency in the recent past, even as MAGA factions grew more violent. In the coming months, disinformation will remain everybody’s problem. Only a whole-of-society approach can prevent the factions responsible for the January 6 attack from organizing online to cause future havoc offline.