Caution doesn’t make us safe: A review of PRA’s report on the MAGA movement

Matthew N Lyons


Million MAGA March Rally at Freedom Plaza, Washington DC, 14 November 2020

The January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol represented a watershed for the U.S. far right. For the first time in U.S. history, a sitting president and a major section of his party rejected the results of a presidential election, and thousands of his followers tried to overturn those results by force. January 6 blasted a hole in the wall between those rightist forces that accept the legitimacy of the existing political system and those that reject it, as tens of millions of previously system-loyal Americans embraced claims that the voting process was invalid. But after the attack it wasn’t immediately clear what course U.S. rightists would follow or how effective they would be, as leading Republicans such as Mitch McConnell initially denounced the Capitol invasion, groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers faced internal conflicts, and the Biden administration began arresting and filing charges against hundreds of January 6 attackers.

To understand how post-January 6 rightist initiatives have unfolded and what kind of dangers they pose today, a good place to start is “Capitol Offenses: January 6th 2021 & The Ongoing Insurrection,” a January 2022 report from Political Research Associates. Written by Steven Gardiner and Tarso Luís Ramos (PRA’s research director and executive director, respectively), “Capitol Offenses” offers a very helpful overview and analysis of U.S. right forces, strategy, and threats one year after Donald Trump left office. The report also grapples with important questions about how leftists and liberals should respond to these threats, and about the relationship between anti-rightist activism and work for systemic social change. All of this is in keeping with (and builds on) PRA’s longtime role as an organization that provides some of the best information and analysis available on the U.S. right and its relationship with systems of oppression and exploitation.

At the same time, “Capitol Offenses” also suffers from some serious limitations in both its analytic framework and especially its strategic approach. Just as I appreciate the insights that Steven and Tarso offer, the effort to put my criticisms into words has helped clarify my own thinking. I don’t claim to have the last word on anything, but my aim here is to explore both the strengths and weaknesses of the PRA report in a comradely spirit so as to move the discussion forward.

An ongoing coup attempt

“Capitol Offenses” argues—accurately, I believe—that in the wake of January 6, the United States faces an ongoing, powerful effort by “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) forces to impose an authoritarian system predicated on racial and religious oppression. Many of the key points of this argument can be summarized as follows:

  • Although many Republican leaders, including some Trump loyalists, were initially appalled by the Capitol invasion, since then “the MAGA coalition of White nationalists, Christian nationalists, libertarian opportunists, and laissez-faire deregulators has held together, and even consolidated.”
  • In this coalition, ethnonationalism is a central driving force, whose influence and intensity were boosted by four years of Trump administration policies and rhetoric. The Great Replacement myth that white people are being deliberately turned into a minority has moved from the neonazi fringe to mainstream discourse in only slightly sanitized form. The Christian right, once pragmatic allies of Trump, “is increasingly caught in [ethnonationalism’s] gravitational pull.”
  • “[T]he activated base for authoritarian measures to implement minority rule has grown substantially,” as indicated by polls showing increases in expressions of supremacist beliefs and high numbers of people who believe the 2020 election was stolen and/or advocate political violence.
  • MAGA forces now represent the dominant faction of the Republican Party and have “hardened into an authoritarian bloc, pursuing a strategy predicated on the conclusion that they (did not and) cannot win a free and fair election.”
  • Since Trump left office, the heart of MAGA activism has shifted from Washington, DC to state and local levels, including legislatures, courts, and the cultural sphere.
  • MAGA forces are spearheading a “slow-motion coup”—i.e., a process by which Republicans operating at the state level “are using legislative maneuvering to consolidate one-party control, restrict the electorate, and establish the mechanisms for minority rule at the national level.” These efforts include voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, and imposing partisan control over the counting of ballots.
  • Alongside election-rigging efforts, MAGA forces have also intensified a “culture war” centered on opposition to abortion rights, transgender people, teaching about systemic racism in public schools, and COVID public health measures.
  • MAGA campaigns legitimize political violence and may fuel an upsurge of physical attacks on oppressed communities and political opponents.

“In the wake of January 6, the United States faces an
ongoing, powerful effort by MAGA forces to impose an authoritarian
system predicated on racial and religious oppression.

I am generally in agreement with these points, and I believe that together they represent a compelling portrait of a deeply dangerous political situation. This portrait provides helpful context for addressing local or specific struggles, whether school board meeting battles over supposed Critical Race Theory or street confrontations with violent far right groups. As a secondary point, I also appreciate that the report refers to the rightist movement as MAGA rather than Trumpist, because this depersonalizes the threat and implicitly notes that the movement transcends Trump’s involvement and may outlive him. 

MAGA fascism?

Steven and Tarso’s argument also sheds helpful light on the question of the MAGA movement’s relationship with fascism, a question that many of us have grappled with since Trump’s presidential candidacy took off in 2015. “Capitol Offenses” mostly uses the less loaded term “authoritarianism” to describe the right-wing threat, but in a couple of places (including the report’s closing sentence) the authors make clear that they consider this threat to be fascist, although they don’t spell out just what they mean by this term. My own take on this issue has evolved as the political situation has changed. For several years I maintained that the Trump campaign and administration increased the threat of fascism but were not in themselves fully fascist, because they lacked key elements: (a) rejection of the existing political system, (b) an independent organizational base, and (c) an effort to remake society according to an ideological vision. But in the wake of January 6 I argued that Trump had embraced the first two of these elements and thus “Trumpism might not represent full-blown fascism yet, but it is rushing in that direction.”

“Capitol Offenses” speaks directly to these issues. The report argues that the MAGA movement’s slow-motion coup, with its political and culture wars wings, represents an attempt to establish both “a new kind of state” and “a new nation”—i.e., to transform both the political system and the social order in significant ways—while the movement’s takeover of the Republican Party has effectively provided it with an independent political base. These comments are quite brief and would need to be spelled out more fully, but I think they offer a helpful framework for further discussion. 

“The MAGA movement’s slow-motion coup, with its political and culture wars wings, represents an attempt to establish both ‘a new kind of state’ and ‘a new nation.’”

In these ways, “Capitol Offenses” represents an important and valuable contribution that can help us make sense of the current U.S. political situation and plot a course forward. But precisely because of the political dangers the report outlines so well, it’s critical that we also address what I believe are significant limitations or weaknesses in the report. These problems can be grouped into two broad areas—the report’s analysis of the U.S. right and, above all, the strategic framework the authors advocate—and I’ll discuss each of these in turn.

A “three-sided struggle”

One of the things I appreciate about PRA is that it rejects the poisonous “anti-extremism” and “anti-hate” models of analysis and criticizes their role in supporting the growth of state repression against the left. This stands in sharp contrast to more centrist organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League (the latter of which has not only advocated but actively conducted surveillance against leftist groups). Far more than the SPLC or the ADL, PRA has addressed ways that oppressive and exploitative hierarchies are central to U.S. society and are the soil from which supremacist right-wing politics grows.

In “Capitol Offenses,” Steven Gardiner and Tarso Ramos build on this base to argue that we should see right-wing politics as part of a “three-sided struggle”:

“Social justice campaigners must contend with both the dominant institutions, which for the most part are trying to maintain the status quo, and the social and political forces trying to make the society less inclusive, less democratic, and less just. This social movement Right is also in contest with both justice movements and with dominant institutions that they regard as insufficiently aligned with their priorities.”

A three-sided struggle model, they argue, also “helps us to understand the social movement Right as made up of overlapping factions,” rather than treat it as a monolith, as people on the left too often do.

This argument shares with Three Way Fight the view that far right forces are connected with systems of oppression but also politically autonomous and not simply tools of established elites, and Steven and Tarso include a link to the Three Way Fight website in their discussion of three-sided struggle. But there are important differences. Their explanation of a three-sided struggle makes it sound like the far right simply wants a stronger version of existing hierarchies and that its disagreement with dominant institutions is just a matter of degree. There’s no clear discussion of the far right’s oppositional character: the way it draws on rebelliousness as well as fear or anger at losing privilege, its desire to overthrow established elites, overturn established systems, and force a qualitative break with the status quo. “Capitol Offenses” also doesn’t mention any of the ways that far rightists promote distorted versions of leftist politics, such as opposition to war and U.S. military interventionism.

Consistent with this limitation, “Capitol Offenses” says little or nothing about those elements that most clearly embody the far right’s oppositional side: underground paramilitary groups such as Atomwaffen Division and The Base, the boogaloo bois’ physical attacks on and killings of police, Tucker Carlson’s opposition to military interventionism, and the remnants of the alt-right that have repudiated Donald Trump for selling out to the conservative establishment. These elements are currently much smaller or more limited than the MAGA-led initiatives that are the report’s focus, but resentment of elites and the political establishment—including the conservative establishment—played a major role in fueling Trump’s rise. Rebellious anger represents a side of far right politics that asserts itself over and over, and it would be strategically dangerous for us to ignore it. More on this below. 

Trump protest, Federal Plaza to Trump Tower, Chicago, IL, 19 November 2016

Far right racial politics

Expanding on Steven and Tarso’s own point that we should avoid treating the right as a monolith, I believe the racial politics of the U.S. far right are more complex than what “Capitol Offenses” presents. While I agree that the drive to establish white minority rule (i.e., disenfranchise people of color) is ideologically dominant within the MAGA coalition and the U.S. right more generally, there are important cross currents that we also need to understand if we want to combat these forces effectively.

Multiracial organizing is a reality in significant sectors of the U.S. far right, as many scholars and researchers—and PRA itself—have documented. This includes not only relatively small groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. As I reported last year, the massive New Apostolic Reformation movement not only welcomes people of all ethnicities in substantial numbers; an important section of the movement actively urges its members to “combat racism.” Like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, NAR is squarely part of the MAGA coalition. Such far right multiracial organizing does not generally combat white nationalism but coexists and interacts with it in complex ways. There are also distinctive rightist formations active within specific communities of color that may play an increasingly significant role within the larger U.S. right, such as Hindu nationalism within the Indian American community and the misogynistic “Men’s Rights Asians” subculture among Asian American men.

It’s possible that these ideological cross currents on race will end up being stifled under the drive to Make America White Again. But they could also help force a readjustment of the MAGA movement’s vision of a “new type of nation”—either by negotiating a kind of multicultural acceptance for politically loyal people of color, or by shifting the color line itself, for example by redefining some Asian and/or Latinx Americans as white. The boundaries around whiteness have changed before, most recently in the early/mid twentieth century, when southern and eastern European ethnic groups moved from a racially ambiguous outsider status into full white identity. Bringing more ethnic groups into the white racial construct could happen again, particularly if it helps keep whites as a majority in the United States. (I believe Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White, predicted such a development some thirty years ago, but I can’t find the reference.)

In any case, while these considerations don’t negate Steven and Tarso’s argument that the MAGA coalition is driving to reassert white political and social control, they do call for us to view MAGA racism in more complex political and historical terms.

A “block and build” strategy

While I see some gaps in how “Capitol Offenses” analyzes right-wing politics, my biggest concerns are with the report’s strategic pronouncements. Because we face both an unjust social order and a rightist drive to impose authoritarianism, Steven and Tarso call for a “block and build” strategy, which juggles “the twin priorities of blocking the further consolidation of power by racial and religious authoritarians, and building a governing coalition capable of delivering a just, multiracial democracy.” Both struggles, they argue, are constrained by the left’s weakness—”progressives cannot currently accomplish either [priority] by themselves”—thus coalition partners are needed, “not all of whom can be expected…to align with emergent visions and agendas for a just society.” The two approaches are interconnected (“Block and build will sometimes be in tension, but neither can succeed without the other”) but also sequential: “We cannot win a just society without first defeating ethnonationalist authoritarianism.” In other words, blocking the right is the immediate priority, while achieving “a just multiracial democracy” is for the long haul.

In broad terms, the block and build approach sounds similar to the double-sided strategy I’ve long advocated: broad coalitions to combat the far right, coupled with radical initiatives that target established systems of oppression and exploitation. But in the “Capitol Offenses” version, radical politics all but disappears. Addressed primarily to “progressives,” the report never mentions the radical left and never mentions revolutionary change as an issue even for discussion. The authors repeatedly acknowledge the need for systemic “transformation” but imply that it can only be accomplished through gradual reform of existing institutions. It’s quite true that the U.S. lacks a strong, well-organized radical movement at this time. But before dismissing the possibility of dramatic liberatory social change in the near term, we should remember that less than two years ago the U.S. experienced its most massive radical upsurge in half a century, an event that “Capitol Offenses” doesn’t mention. 

“Coalitions have an important role in antifascist work, but they need to be based on respect for diverse politics and diverse tactical approaches.”

Because of these silences, it’s concerning that “Capitol Offenses” calls for a broad “united front against racial and religious authoritarianism” without explaining what this means or what the terms of unity should be. These questions are key because calls for anti-rightist and anti-fascist unity have repeatedly been used to silence and isolate leftists and protect the status quo. Coalitions have an important role in antifascist work, but they need to be based on respect for diverse politics and diverse tactical approaches. Too often, leftists have been told to give up our organizational autonomy and public voices in the name of unity and the questionable assumption that radical politics would alienate more people than it would attract.

I’m also disheartened by the ways that “Capitol Offenses” promotes dangerous illusions about the existing state and political order. Although they warn that “we cannot police our way out” of the right-wing threat and we should “resist the cycle of further securitization and racialized policing,” Steven and Tarso assert that “The FBI, Justice Department, DHS, and local police should do their jobs—responding to crimes and acting quickly in response to credible threats….” But the “jobs” of these agencies can’t be disentangled from the violent defense of capitalism and racial oppression. That is their job.

On a related note, the PRA report criticizes the Biden administration and Democratic Party for presenting a “weak hand (and, on some significant matters, weak will)” with regard to the right-wing authoritarian threat and the need for a united front to oppose it. Calling the Democratic Party “weak” is like calling a multinational corporation “greedy”: it targets subjective behavior while ignoring the structural reality that underlies it. The Democratic Party was created by Andrew Jackson and his followers as a vehicle to mobilize popular support for white supremacist capitalism, and although the party’s ideology and policies have changed dramatically over the generations, its core mission—its structural role in U.S. society—has remained the same. Since the late 1970s, the party has functioned largely to coopt “progressive” constituencies into supporting kinder, gentler versions of neoliberal policies (or in the case of the Biden administration, Trumpist policies with regard to China, trade, and immigration). The Democratic Party also bears a major part of the responsibility for the growth of the repressive state apparatus over the past half century, a process that helped pave the way for today’s right-wing authoritarian threat. If you’re going to advocate a united front with Democratic Party-related forces it’s crucial to be clear about these realities, but “Capitol Offenses” is silent about them.

“Capitol Offenses” closes with a warning that we face a choice between defending American democracy, despite its profoundly undemocratic flaws, and handing power over to fascists. I agree with Steven and Tarso that the current U.S. political system encompasses deeply important pluralistic space that has been won through generations of struggle and that should be defended against the authoritarian right, although it’s confusing and self-contradictory to call the current system democracy. But pluralistic space can’t be defended by looking to the police to do their jobs or urging the Democratic Party to stop being weak. Its defense, in the face of these institutions, calls for independent, militant activism that challenges entrenched power. The militant activism I’m talking about doesn’t mean “letting democracy burn,” as Steven and Tarso suggest. Rather, it takes inspiration, for example, from the mutual aid organizing that the people of Minneapolis practiced as part of the George Floyd uprising—outside of and against the existing state. 

“Pluralistic space can’t be defended by looking to the police to do their jobs or urging the Democratic Party to stop being weak. Its defense calls for independent, militant activism that challenges entrenched power.”

A strategy that subordinates radical change to defense of the existing political order poses several dangers that “Capitol Offenses” doesn’t consider. One danger is that the strategy weakens the left and sets us up for increased persecution, as we can expect from the Biden administration’s use of “anti-extremism” ideology to further growth of the national security state. But another danger is that by positioning leftists as defenders of the status quo, the strategy cuts us off from the millions of people in the U.S. who feel beaten down and disenfranchised and are rightly disillusioned with the conventional political choices available to them. To take this a step further, if leftists defer our radical aims for the sake of unity against the right, it helps far rightists present themselves as the only real oppositional force and thereby potentially gain support from some sectors of the population who might otherwise be won to liberatory politics. This is one reason why it’s so important for us to recognize the insurgent, oppositional theme in far right politics. 

If it seems far-fetched to envision the far right capturing popular support that might otherwise be won to a militantly oppositional left, consider that right now a Democratic president is saying he will “respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs” if Russia invades Ukraine, and some of the loudest voices warning against the threat of war are right-wing anti-interventionists such as Tucker Carlson and Tulsi Gabbard. Whether the flashpoint is Ukraine or someplace else, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Joe Biden takes the U.S. into military conflict with a foreign autocrat (as he helped to do in 2003 against Iraq, with disastrous results). If leftists and liberals muffle their protest for the sake of unity against the right, it’s MAGA forces that will benefit.

“If leftists defer our radical aims for the sake of
unity against the right, it helps far rightists present themselves as
the only real oppositional force.


Steven Gardiner and Tarso Ramos’s report on the MAGA movement’s drive for power is an important warning to antifascists and everyone who wants to keep the United States from taking a quantum leap in authoritarianism and oppression. I appreciate the clarity of their analytic insights and I share their sense of urgency, their recognition that the stakes are high. But I disagree with their conclusion that defending the existing political order now is the safer and more responsible choice, and that anything else means letting fascism win. The strategy they advocate poses serious risks they don’t address, including increased repression against the left and increased support for the far right from people who are angry at the current system, some of whom might otherwise be won to liberatory politics. In my view, to defend pluralistic political space and combat authoritarianism we need to challenge not only the political right but also the many ways people are disenfranchised and disempowered right now, and we need to develop initiatives that are independent of the state and independent of the Democratic Party. I don’t claim that this approach is easy or that we should be particularly optimistic about the prospects for success. But I do think it’s the best option we have. 

Thanks to Xtn for helpful comments and suggestions.

Photo credits

1. Photo by Elvert Barnes from Silver Spring MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Photo by Ben Alexander from United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Comment