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[Martin Schram] The making of Trump's MAGA base

By Korea Herald

Published : June 7, 2023 - 05:31

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Today we will be exploring why Donald Trump’s little-understood MAGA Republican base has seemed so stunningly shatterproof -- despite being pounded by nonstop news revelations of potential prosecutions, more unsavory conduct and eruptions that sound unpatriotic to outsiders’ ears.

Now this: The 2024 presidential campaign attacks are just getting started. Former Trump endorsers are now campaigning against him in the 2024 presidential primaries. No one knows what to expect. And there are things we need to know.

But first, whether you are or are not a MAGA Republican, visualize the scene when “Make America Great Again” famously became a thing in our presidential campaign politics: Oh -- and don’t start by remembering that long glide down the Trump Tower escalator. Keep rewinding -- all the way back to Sept. 1, 1980.

Now you are seeing that iconic made-for-TV scene: Ronald Reagan, wearing a white shirt, tieless, two top buttons open, is starting his fall 1980 campaign. He is standing behind a long, wide table draped with huge, horizontal red, white and blue stripes. A perfect breeze is blowing his perfect dark hair -- and unfurling two huge American flags at stage right. Between Reagan and the flags is his guest of honor -- the Statue of Liberty. Here’s how Reagan ended his speech:

“Let us pledge to each other, with this Great Lady looking on, that we can -- and so help us God, we will -- Make America Great Again.”

By the end of the campaign, Reagan had made the MAGA phrase his own. So why do Trump and his base think it is all about them? Because in July 2015, Trump made the phrase his own -- big time. He trademarked it.

Coincidentally, that same month, I realized the significance -- and political potential -- of Trump’s huge, super-loyal rally crowds that became known for their red baseball caps, with white letters: “MAGA.” Frankly, I had a tip. I knew a kid who had seen something just like it, way back in 1968, covering his first presidential campaign for Newsday.

In September 1968, the race between Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon, I went to the rallies in northern states of the third-party candidate, Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace. I saw huge numbers of blue-collar workers leave factories (where their unions endorsed Humphrey), to go to Wallace rallies and cheer enthusiastically.

Why? I spent days talking to Wallace’s blue-collar rally-goers. I asked them one question: If we had talked way back in January, who would you have told me you liked for president? They mentioned one name more than any other: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the liberal integrationist senator from New York, who was assassinated in June.

Those voters saw no inconsistency in first liking RFK, later liking Wallace. Why? “They were the only ones really talking to people like me.” They felt the others were elitist snobs who looked down at folks like them.

Those 1968 Kennedy/Wallace-minded folks seemed much like the folks I saw in 2015, wearing MAGA hats and feeling Trump was really talking to them. They bonded with Trump. Never mind that all the pols, press and late-night TV comics were treating Trump as a national punchline. Well, I didn’t. In July 2015, a year and three months before the election, I wrote a column explaining what I just told you. Trump was amassing a base of true-believers. I ended by telling readers not to be surprised if on Election Night 2016, they discover that “America’s fed-up, mad-as-hell voters just chose your next president.”

So now I must tell you that Trump’s MAGA base still seems bonded with Trump. When Trump tells them he is being victimized, unfairly attacked, persecuted by enemies who want to prosecute him -- well, they feel they are also being victimized, attacked, persecuted and damn-sure disrespected.

That’s why Republicans who attack their man Trump in the 2024 primaries cannot expect to ever get the votes of the MAGA Republicans. No wonder the Republican polls haven’t really changed so far.

We have no idea how all that might change if Trump ends up on trial during the 2024 campaign. We have never seen anything quite like this. Not even in the movies.

But on Election Night 2024, there may be many places where we will finally hear someone -- maybe your neighbor, maybe you -- following the infamous instructions of the strung-out, truth-telling TV anchor in the 1976 movie “Network,” when he told his viewers:

“I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’”

We’re a long way from knowing how our movie ends.

Martin Schram

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)