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'The MAGA Movement': Expert on white nationalism weighs in on D.C. protest crowd

CU-Boulder professor analyzes the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021
Electoral College Protests
Posted at 11:19 AM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 13:19:59-05

Five people are confirmed dead as a result of the “Stop the Steal” riots at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

In order to gain a better understanding of the people in the crowd, Denver7 spoke with Dr. Benjamin Teitelbaum, an assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is an expert on white nationalism. His most recently published work on the topic is 2020’s War for Eternity: The Return for Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right.

How would you define the crowd that you saw on television at the Capitol?

We don’t have a great name for it yet, but I think the best thing that I’ve heard is the "MAGA movement." It includes remnants of the Tea Party movement, newly-recruited Trump enthusiasts, and a small branch of militant activists, as well as people that would formerly have identified with the alt-right.

They’re not all the same thing. They don’t all have the same policies or visions. But this is very much part of their identity. They’re not Republicans first and foremost. They’re Trump supporters first and foremost. When I say MAGA movement, that’s what I’m referring to.

Could you get into the demographics of each of those cross-sections: The Tea Partiers, the ardent Trump supporters, and then the militant portion?

Virtually all of them have less higher education. And they’re rural. Those are some of the strongest predictors. In the past, whiteness has been a powerful predictor, and it still is, if not quite as strong as it used to be.

Not being a part of an educated, urban section of society is a strong marker for belonging here, too.

It’s predominantly male. I would say that the activist section of this is also younger than Trump voters at large. The people that are going out in the streets can skew, in some cases, very young. Certainly the individuals that we saw inside of the Capitol were all young, with a few exceptions.

As you look beyond those markers, there have always been some interesting observations to be made about their proximity to more ethnically diverse areas of society. We’ve known this was especially clear in 2016. A powerful predictor for sympathy for Trump was living close to, but not inside, areas of ethnic diversity. So whites living near to, but not next to, more racial and ethnic diversity. Some people call that the halo effect.

How did the militant portion of the crowd become involved in, or interested in, politics?

We don’t know a lot about this because there isn’t one single organization. There are a lot of smaller organizations out there.

People have talked about the Proud Boys. There are other organizations. But that does not actually get to the heart of who these people were. The young man in the horned headdress who’s been getting so much attention and took these iconic pictures of himself inside the Congressional chambers doesn't seem to have belonged to any group. He was just known informally in this protest world as a charismatic figure, and a supporter of Donald Trump.

To be able to distinguish different types of activists inside the Trump world is something we have a lot more work to do. We know that a lot of them were not involved in politics ahead of time. This is part of the reason for troubles in polling Trump support. The distinction between likely and registered voters, which has traditionally been more of an issue for Democrats, is now an issue for Trump voters, because you have so many people who have not been participating in the past.

Is this a fringe movement?

It’s a minority, but it’s a large minority in American politics.

I think that we’re going to see with this MAGA movement, as we did with the alt-right movement after Charlottesville, its firm core will show itself all of the sudden. Everybody on the periphery who’d been moving between factions is going to be pulling away from it.

We’ll see how big it is. It’s big, but it’s still a minority.

What will we see moving forward? Will the events of January 6 become more common, or was this a last gasp?

As a named movement, identified with Donald Trump, I think its political significance is going to fundamentally and forever change and weaken. I don’t think it disappears, per se. But I think people openly identifying and branding themselves as supporters of Donald Trump will nourish each other, and keep themselves alive as a sort of nostalgic social movement.

Perhaps they will be a large enough constituency that coalition-building Republicans will have to play to their interests a little bit. I do not think that they’re going to be players who will vie for leadership positions in the Republican national party. No.

Having said that, it is important for everyone to understand the ideological innovation President Trump brought in 2016. Namely, the innovation of combining social conservatism, nationalism, borders and xenophobia with more left-leaning economic politics. In other words, a sort of anti-Libertarian strain of the Republican, that would frame itself as a sort of “workers’ Republican party.”

A great number of activists in the party, including leading youth activists, are convinced that model will win. And if they find a way to get a Presidential candidate who adopts it, pursues it, perhaps with even more ideological devotion and consistency than Trump, they think they will rule for a generation. They think that the Democrats do not have an answer for that. And I think they could be right. That’s what some indications from Europe give us, as we look at it in a comparative perspective.

The Make America Great Again movement is gonna be limited. But there is absolutely a possibility that the political ideals of Trump live on and become quite powerful in the Republican party.

How prevalent is the MAGA movement in Colorado? And how prevalent is the militant sub-section?

We see it in the voting patterns. Certainly, Lauren Boebert in western Colorado is one of the more ideologically doctrinaire icons for that cause. This is famously the Congresswoman who endorses the QAnon conspiracy.

We have a polarized state. We have a state that’s transitioned from being red, to purple, to now, I think, firmly blue. But we haven’t done that collectively. That’s not true across the state. It’s not true in our rural regions in the east, and certainly not in the conservative west of Colorado. There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for Trump there.

Because of the politics of the electoral college, we haven’t gotten the attention for Trump that other states have. But there’s clearly a deep wellspring of support for him that would support a candidate that’s on the fringe edge of the MAGA movement.

Can you explain how these groups are able to organize?

Well, it’s thanks to the internet. The ability for online social media to allow us to form communities that do not share the same geographic location makes it so much easier for a political cause to coalesce and create echo chambers among themselves.

Do you feel like the events of January 6 could have been stopped?

Yes. There’s plenty of indication, even just online chatter that’s available to anyone. You really don’t need an expert like myself to be able to wander on Twitter or 4Chan or any of these online social media sites and see the alarmism and preparations for some spectacular demonstration or riot. It was all being planned by people who were planning to go to this.

It’s also important to realize that at the moment when this was happening, you have a crowd of that size, with that much force, and with the political tensions, the political unrest and dissatisfaction, I’m not sure that it would’ve been a good idea for more live ammunition to be fired into the crowd. There could’ve been a calculation somewhere that the potential for something on the order of civil war at some small scale was a possibility, and that some degree of restraint was necessary in order to keep order elsewhere.

I’m still shocked that there weren’t greater precautions taken.

Will we ever see another riot like this?

I don’t think that we’re going to see a crowd that size manifest again on behalf of Donald Trump.

What we’ve seen in the hours and days since Wednesday has been a fracturing of that movement, at least its outer edges. We’ve seen enough Republican establishment figures pushing back against this in ways they never have before. And we’re starting to see some infighting about whether the President lied to his followers about the possibility of achieving something through the rioting.