The Nihilism of MAGA World

The president said something frightening and true.

Donald Trump raises a fist, a crowd of supporters holding "save America!" signs stand behind him.
Donald Trump speaking at a rally in support of Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz on September 3 (Ed Jones / AFP / Getty)

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Joe Biden’s “Soul of the Nation” address got at a cold and disquieting truth: The MAGA movement cannot be placated, reasoned with, or politically accommodated in any way. There is nothing its adherents want—and nothing anyone can give them—beyond chaos and political destruction.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Soul Sickness

Joe Biden’s address to the American people last week was, as I wrote at the time, necessary and right. The staging was bizarre, and the speech had some of the hallmarks of a group product that hadn’t been subjected to a final spackle-and-smooth by a chief writer. But Biden got one big thing right, and that one thing explains why Donald Trump and the MAGA World apologists are reacting with such fury. The president outed them as anti-American nihilists:

They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country … MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.

This, as Biden pointed out, is what makes the MAGA movement so dangerous. It has no functional compass and no set of actual preferences beyond a generalized resentment, a basket of gripes and grudges against others who the Trumpists think are looking down upon them or living better lives than they are. It is a movement composed of people who are economically comfortable and middle-class, who enjoy a relatively high standard of living, and yet who seethe with a sense that they have been done dirt, screwed over, betrayed—and they are determined to get revenge.

Biden broke with tradition by saying what presidents are never supposed to say: He admitted that he was finally giving up on trying to accommodate a group of Americans, because he understands that they do not want to be accommodated. I know that some of my friends and colleagues believe that Biden, as president, must continue to reach out to MAGA voters because they are our neighbors and our fellow citizens. (The former GOP operative and my fellow Never Trumper Tim Miller made this point just this morning.) My instinct is to agree with them. But how do we reach those voters? These citizens do not want a discussion or a compromise. They don’t even want to “win,” in any traditional political sense of that word. They want to vent anger over their lives—their personal problems, their haunted sense of inferiority, and their fears about social status—on other Americans, as vehemently as possible, even to the point of violence.

How do any of us, and especially the president, engage with such a movement, when every discussion includes the belief that the only legitimate outcomes are ones in which the MAGA choice wins? Such an insistence is not civic or democratic in any way, and it is not amenable to resolution through the democratic process.

This, by the way, is why it was a mistake for Biden to raise issues such as abortion and privacy in his speech. Yes, the opportunists who will ride into political office on the bed of a pickup flying MAGA flags will attack these rights, but that is incidental to their real interest, which is power and the spoils it brings. Issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and contraception are really just hot buttons meant to rile up the voters. (MAGA World, as a movement, seems to have a kind of tabloid-television-style obsession with sex, which makes sense, as it is led by a tabloid star who literally bragged about the size of his penis on a GOP debate stage.)

For Biden even to mention something like abortion undermined the more important part of his speech, which is that MAGA is a movement that doesn’t believe in anything but violence, chaos, and power. Right-wing pundits have seized on that part of his speech because it was the only thing they could argue with; they know that trying to describe MAGA and Trumpism with any consistency is pointless. Smaller government? More democracy? Power to “We the People”? Good luck with that: Trump just endorsed a GOP candidate for governor, Geoff Diehl in Massachusetts, by telling a crowd that Diehl will “rule your state with an iron fist, and he’ll do what has to be done.”

As a native son of the Commonwealth, I have no concerns that the Bay State is going to elect someone on Donald Trump’s say-so. But Trump’s authoritarian blather makes Biden’s point. The MAGA movement isn’t interested in politics, or policies, or compromises. It is interested in destruction and seeing others made as miserable as its followers are. MAGA is a movement of people who seem to be, in so many ways, deeply and profoundly unhappy, and suffering from an emptiness and anger deep in their spirit. There is no political solution for that. All Joe Biden did was finally say this obvious truth out loud.


Today’s News
  1. Newly declassified American intelligence reveals that Russia, hampered by sanctions, is buying artillery shells and rockets from North Korea.
  2. Yesterday, Canadian police found the dead body of one of the suspects in Sunday’s mass stabbing spree on an Indigenous reserve in the province of Saskatchewan, in which 10 people were killed. Police are still searching for a second suspect.
  3. The e-cigarette maker Juul tentatively agreed to pay $438.5 million to nearly three dozen states in a settlement over its role in teenage vaping.


Evening Read
Val Demings
(Bill Clark / Getty)

The Val Demings Gamble

By Adam Harris

On a hot D.C. Wednesday in the middle of July, an 11-foot statue honoring Mary McLeod Bethune—carved out of marble extracted from the same Tuscan quarry that Michelangelo used for his David—stood draped in a black cloak in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. A group of distinguished guests had gathered to honor Bethune, the prominent educator and civil-rights activist who founded a college for Black students in Daytona Beach, Florida, and later served as an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She is now the first Black American to have a state statue in the hall.

The group, which included several members of Florida’s congressional delegation, smiled as cameras flashed. Two of those present, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Val Demings, are opponents in the race for Rubio’s Senate seat—a race that could secure the Democrats’ control of the Senate.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
A group of characters sitting regally and staring at the camera in "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power"
Characters from Amazon's "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power." (Ben Rothstein / Prime Video)

Read. Daisy Lafarge’s new novel, Paul, makes it impossible to separate the art from the artist.

Watch. Catch up on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power before the third episode airs on Amazon Prime this weekend. Our critic writes that the first two episodes felt like he’d “barely begun an appetizer course”—suggesting that the best of the show may still be ahead.

Play our daily crossword.


Before I came to The Atlantic, I taught for 25 years in the U.S. Naval War College, a graduate school for military officers, and my time as part of the Navy family coincided with the Fat Leonard imbroglio, the worst black eye for the service since Tailhook in 1991 and the most severe corruption scandal ever to hit the modern Navy. In a movie script that would be too off-the-wall even for Hollywood, a defense contractor named Leonard Francis, known affectionately to his clientele as “Fat Leonard,” plied Navy officers with money, sex, food, and booze in order to steer Navy business his way. Francis pled guilty in 2015 and was released from detention for health issues in 2018.

This reality show has an epilogue: On Sunday, Francis cut his home-detention bracelet off his leg, and he is now on the lam. (I wish I could take credit for saying that “Fat Leonard is at large,” but my Atlantic colleague Nick Catucci thought of it first.) Amazingly, a guy with international connections at the center of a gigantic corruption case turned out to be a flight risk. More to come.


I’ll add more reminders on this in the coming weeks, but The Atlantic will hold its annual festival September 21–23, which you can attend in person or virtually. Join me at our Ideas Stage on September 21! You can register here.

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.