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Trump holding up a sign

Surveying the terrain and scratching the surface 

Increasingly, Republicans endorse “the Trump Agenda” — including some who had criticized Donald Trump for his election Big Lie and role in the January 6 insurrection. It is noteworthy and revealing that no one articulates a clear, coherent position for Make America Great Again (MAGA) or America First. One preview briefly emerged in the form of an America First Caucus party platform, from Marjorie Taylor Greene and other radical right-wing congressional Republicans. It was quickly repudiated and withdrawn in the face of withering condemnation for its commitment to white, Anglo-Saxon supremacy, among other failings and falsehoods. 

Trumpism lacks a legislative agenda. That is almost a point of pride. It consists far more of opposition and grievances than endorsements or supportive positions. The Affordable Care Act was never repealed or replaced. The oft-promised “Infrastructure Week” never arrived. In the absence of a statement of principles and policies, paralleling the lack of a party platform in Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, we are left to reconstruct it from statements and silences, actions and inactions.  

Digging deeper and sifting the evidence

Attacking institutions and the Constitution 

America First is an active danger to the conduct, faith, values, and institutions of American democracy and the U.S. Constitution. Self-described as conservative, it rejects both conservatism and liberalism as we have understood them historically. It ignores traditional conservative Republican principles that respect facts, debate, tolerance, and limited government. The Trump Agenda is never “political,” but its opposition and critics are always “politically motivated.” All opposition is demonized collectively and equally as radical socialist or Marxist regardless of the misapplication of those amorphous labels. Trumpists reject Republican critics as “RINOs.” 

Strengthening the presidency, weakening the executive branch 

Trump’s unprecedented and often illegal interference with government agencies also damaged the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, and State, among others. His corruption of authority promoted subservience to the Chief Executive. Trump frequently appointed acting, unconfirmed political leaders, who were susceptible to executive interference. They were often incompetent and inexperienced, refusing to follow recommendations of professional staff and ignoring the law. Several permanent cabinet secretaries were accused of ethics violations and some of illegal activities.  

Isolating America 

America First contradictorily stands for a weaker United States internationally in economy, security, reputation, trustworthiness, and influence. Isolationism benefits no one. Trump himself proudly claims economic advancement. His presidency is best known for its 2017 tax reduction that overwhelmingly favored the wealthy and large corporations, and failed to stimulate economic growth. Corporate gains fueled stock buy-backs, off-shore investments, and rising market shares, not expansion of business.  

Weakening the economy 

Much-touted tariffs and other trade policies failed to benefit consumers, corporations, or farmers. Instead they led to mounting deficits and swelling national debt. They boosted Chinese economic growth as its economy grew faster; American imports rose, increasing the trade imbalance. America First resulted in the U.S. falling behind. American competitiveness did not advance.  

Rampant deregulation damaged the environment but did not stimulate job creation or economic growth. The loss of manufacturing jobs accelerated. Restrictions on immigration contributed to labor force shortages for both highly trained and unskilled workers. They did not protect “American jobs or workers.” Claiming to be “the party of American workers,” Trumpism appeals primarily to white, non-union, non-urban workers. Yet, it opposes policies that would benefit most workers including the Biden administration’s American Rescue and American Jobs Plans. It is aggressively anti-union. 

Similarly, policies touted to advance minorities, such as improvement zones, reinforce segregation. Trumpists oppose equity in housing, employment, education, public safety, and justice. America First reframes equity as “anti-white racism.” 

Overall, America First benefitted the wealthy, large corporations, and high tech, despite mounting Republican complaints about the latter two groups — about “cancel culture,” censorship, and other allegations. Yes, the economy grew, with the advantage of the momentum inherited from the Obama administration. But the rate of growth slowed; overall growth was very unequal, benefitting the stock market far more than average workers, racial and ethnic minorities, and women. This held true for income, wealth, and employment.  

Fostering national insecurity 

National security suffered under Trump’s efforts to reduce U.S. commitments and his active neglect of international alliances and multinational cooperation. Alienating traditional allies did not make the U.S. stronger. Trump’s affinity for autocrats, especially Vladimir Putin, is well-documented. Russia faced no consequences for election interference, cyber warfare, alleged bounties on American soldiers, poisoning of Alexei Navalny, civil rights violations, and more. China was not the only other winner; North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs increased as bluster replaced diplomacy.  

Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, on false grounds, damaged efforts at a unified response to climate change. Trump denied that documented phenomenon, as well as other established science. His inadequate response to the Covid pandemic is a tragic reminder of that. Cumulatively, America First measurably weakened the U.S.’s international standing and influence. 

Unearthing an anti-social agenda 

Restricting rights 

By statements and actions, Trumpism endorses racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments, and anti-Asian American hate. It fuels endless grievances, resentment, and polarizing divisiveness. America First is rooted in a politics of fear, loathing, and hysterical opposition.  

Without explanation or evidence, the Trump administration radically restricted immigration, banned Muslim travelers, criminally separated families, treated migrant children inhumanely, and deported residents illegally.  

Similarly, right-wing Republican Trump supporters continue to attack reproductive rights and the civil rights of LGBTQ citizens and Indigenous Peoples, especially at the state level. They vilify and even violently attack the free speech of peaceful protesters and the First Amendment rights of the legitimate press, one of Trump’s favorite targets. Trump and his allies condemn the media as the “enemy of the people,” their reporting as “fake news.” We are still learning about Trump’s illegal deployment of the Department of Justice and FBI toward these ends. In sharp contrast, the speech of Trump, his allies, and his supporters is staunchly defended against false claims of “canceling” or censorship. Concerns about Big Tech overreach and their free speech are highly selective. So too is the endorsement of law and order and support for law enforcement. Blue lives sometimes matter. 

America First is not committed to democracy. It frequently contradicts itself on constitutional matters. Its acceptance of Equal Protection, First Amendment, and voting rights is inconsistent. Trump’s distortions of the 2020 presidential election unleashed a national campaign to suppress voting rights, especially of urban minorities.  Trumpism rejects majority rule. Of course, Trump never won a majority of votes in his two elections. 

Support for the Second Amendment and “religious liberty” far exceeds the letter of the law and the judicial record. But the First Amendment does not receive equal protection. Today’s hot-button issue — the well-funded, highly organized, national campaign to “ban” critical race theory and teaching about race — is anti-democratic. It is ignorant of these subjects, a vile attack on education, teachers, children, and documented history — the very basis of national identity and common understanding.  

Assaulting truth 

America First consistently assaults truth, facts, objectivity, transparency, accountability, and honesty. (The Washington Post documented more than 35,000 lies from Trump alone.) It advocates “alternative facts” and “alternative realities.” This strategy rejects logic, common sense, assessment, and fact-checking. Public opinion, which never supported Trump and America First, counts for little. Bipartisanship, compromise, debate, and negotiation are never goals or practices. Neither is taking responsibility for actions.  

On one hand, the anti-social Trump Agenda rejects documented history. Trump attempted to replace it with a highly selective, incomplete, and inaccurate alternative. He tried to substitute his notorious 1776 Commission on “patriotic education,” a distorted version of the national past, for well-documented curricula like the 1619 Project. The continuing attempt to ban racial sensitivity training and the condemnation of “critical race theory” are parallels, rooted in fear of the truth. An effort to block modern architecture and mandate neo-classical design for federal buildings remains one of the sillier examples. 

Rejecting science 

On the other hand, the assault on science and denial of public health is a more immediate and deadly element of the anti-social Agenda. Rejecting science, expertise, empirical data, established institutions, and recognized authority — the “deep state” — is another plank in the unwritten platform. Trump’s personal contempt for science punctuated his rhetoric and characterized his policies, exemplified by the EPA’s unscientific and sometimes illegal deregulations. 

The greatest damage came with the pandemic, which fully exposed the Agenda and its consequences. Trump hid compelling evidence of the virus, then denied its severity. He refused to accept responsibility, then recklessly interfered with HHS, CDC, and FDA. His lying and obstruction contradicted any effort at a coherent federal response. Inexplicably, medical authorities succumbed to political will, violating their professional oaths. Without evidence, Trump proposed ingesting bleach and endorsed taking hydroxychloroquine. He blamed China and the WHO for his failures. Trump simultaneously claimed absolute federal authority but held the states — without adequate guidance or resources — responsible for public health actions. The result: more than half a million lives lost along with massive disinformation and deep social and political divisions. 

Promoting cruelty, inciting violence 

America First is also committed to cruelty and violence. Beyond verbal incriminations, it embraces the resumption of the federal death penalty after a lengthy hiatus; law enforcement agencies’ violence against peaceful protesters, especially people of color; and family separation and inhumane treatment of immigrant children. It accepts attacks against Asian Americans and refuses to condemn white supremacists. It fails to endorse international human rights campaigns or ban animal abuse (due to failed or rejected regulatory efforts in various federal agencies). 

Gun violence becomes the accepted “fair price” for an expansive view of Second Amendment rights. Trump regularly sanctions his supporters’ violent responses to those with whom he disagrees, including the media and protesters. 

Exposing more layers 

Endorsing the Big Lie 

Overshadowing these characteristics is Trump’s Big Lie: denial of the truth about the 2020 presidential election, which led to the January 6 insurrection and deadly attack on Congress. Trump and his allies continue to challenge access to voting across the country, dismissing the testimony and evidence of knowledgeable parties. These include the Director of Cybersecurity; the Attorney General; secretaries of state, governors, and local elections officials; and state and federal judges, including the Supreme Court. They threaten the fair results of popular voting at the national and state levels with calls for state, congressional, and judicial overruling of the electorate. Claims of protecting “election security” or “election integrity” substitute for evidence of irregularities. They are also racist dog-whistles. America First denies reality, propagates radical disinformation on social media and allied right-wing media, and foments dangerous extremism and violence.  

Cancelling culture 

America First is obsessed with an incoherent phenomenon that it calls “cancel culture.” Rich in contradiction and hypocrisy, condemning “cancel culture” inadequately stands in for policy. It pretends to replace politics, economics, and socio-cultural issues with a distracting and blurring pivot to “culture.” “Cancelling” refers to any criticisms, actions, or opinions with which adherents disagree. It is boundless, ranging from an odd obsession with Dr. Seuss’ publisher removing six books from print (within their legal rights) and a brief removal of “Mr.” from the Potato Head doll, to publishers ending contracts (within their rights). 

“Cancelling” also comprises the legitimate actions of both public and private organizations, including Major League Baseball’s moving its All Star game away from Atlanta in response to Georgia’s restrictive new voting law or the statements of private corporations on civil rights and voting legislation. These actions are purposefully confused with unconstitutional censorship. For reasons that are not clear, the Trump Agenda’s own efforts to restrict women’s or LGBTQ rights, limit voting access, “ban” basic parts of historical and legal education, or penalize corporations for public statements are not viewed as “cancelling.” That is consistent with Trumpism. 

Limiting communication 

America First’s approach to communication and governance links all these components. Both are minimalist and depend on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, rather than coherent expression, arguments, or cogent explanations. Soundbites, punchlines, slogans, and dog-whistles are the lingua franca. Trump himself is a product of Facebook, his principal source of fund-raising, and Twitter — his favorite means of communication until he was banned following the insurrection. Failure to communicate responsibly parallels refusal to govern responsibly.  

Hitting bottom 

Trumping America First 

The final element is a defining question: Can there be a Trump Agenda or America First without Donald J. Trump? The Agenda is rooted in a cult of personality that cannot be cloned or closely imitated. It is based in near-total obedience, unquestioned fealty, even defacement and humiliation to one charismatic figure who brooks no dissent. Rep. Liz Cheney is only the most prominent of many victims, whose conservative credentials fail to compensate for her honesty on some crucial issues. Such components are emblematic of autocracy, not democracy. 

The politicians competing to replace Trump as the leader of the Republican Party or candidate for the 2024 presidential nomination lack his affinities, charisma, or aplomb, for better or for worse. Unlike Trump, they will have to run on their documented records and face a measure of accountability. That may well spell the end of the Trump Agenda, albeit with lasting damage to our democracy, polity, society, and culture. That is the MAGA legacy. 

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Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history.