The Republican Party appears to be at war with itself, split between ex-president Donald Trump’s supporters and establishment Republicans. Consider what happened to Rep. Liz Cheney after she voted to impeach Trump, and Sen. Bill Cassidy when he voted to convict him: Both suffered the wrath of the pro-Trump wings of the party. Is the apparent fissure in the GOP real or imagined?

For answers, we studied the opinions of supporters of the “Make America Great Again” movement. The MAGA movement, often viewed as a divisive force in American politics, includes roughly half of Republican primary voters. Its adherents are Trump’s most committed supporters. Fear of electoral reprisal from the MAGA “base” helps explain why so few Republicans dare cross Trump, even after the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.

Our panel study examines the characteristics of MAGA supporters, their beliefs, and what motivates them. We find that at least half of MAGA supporters tend to be White, Christian, male, over 65 years of age, retired, and earn at least $50,000 a year. Further, roughly one-third have at least a college degree. Our data suggests their commitment to Trump is unshakable, motivated by the perception of a threat to their status as the culturally dominant group.

How we did our research

Our panel study tracked the political opinions of MAGA supporters in two waves between Dec. 24 and Jan. 28. We recruited participants by running an ad for the survey on Facebook from Dec. 24 to 31 that targeted users interested in “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). The ad was shown to Facebook users in every state, proportional to population. This approach resulted in the successful recruitment of 1,431 MAGA supporters from all 50 states who completed the first wave of the survey. Out of these respondents, 702 indicated their willingness to participate in a second wave. When emailed invitations to take the second survey, conducted between Jan. 13 and Jan. 28, 295 responded.

MAGA supporters are politically vocal, racially biased, and believe conspiracy theories

Our respondents are committed to making their views known. For example, at least 50 percent of these MAGA supporters have been politically active — signing petitions, contacting their representatives, participating in boycotts or donating to campaigns. Beyond that, roughly 45 percent report they’ve attended political meetings, 35 percent attended rallies, and 30 percent volunteered for campaigns.

Further, MAGA supporters overwhelmingly believe Trump’s election misinformation, as well as other conspiracy theories. Nearly 100 percent of MAGA supporters believe Trump’s claims that the election was stolen, and 70 percent support Trump remaining in office beyond the allowed two terms. Their distrust extends to other areas as well. They overwhelmingly agree, in proportions of 80 percent or higher, with statements suggesting that unknown elites control America and with conspiracy theories about covid-19.

MAGA supporters are also biased against Blacks, immigrants and women. They fully accept Trump’s rhetoric on these groups, downplay any obstacles faced by Black Americans, view immigration as a threat to U.S. laws and culture and agree women are seeking special favors, or worse, are trying to control men.

MAGA supporters are motivated by what’s called ‘status threat’

What explains MAGA supporters’ commitment to Trump and his conspiratorial and racist views? The answer is “status threat,” or the belief that one’s way of life or status is undermined by social and cultural change. As we’ve shown elsewhere, those who are attracted to reactionary movements like MAGA are often motivated by anxiety about possible cultural dispossession — seeing their social and cultural dominance eclipsed by other groups.

That White Christian men feel under siege is nothing new. We need only look at the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, the John Birch Society of the 1960s, and the tea party of the Obama years to see how often a slice of this demographic slides into bigotry. Perhaps this explains MAGA movement’s close association with racism, sexism and nativism. What’s more, more than half are middle class by income, earning over $50,000 a year; almost a third graduated college, making them middle class by that educational standard. Moreover, MAGA’s demography reflects the profile of people who invaded the Capitol in January.

MAGA supporters see Trump as their protector, the barrier between themselves and communities of color, feminists, and immigrants from what Trump called “shithole” countries, whom they perceive as threats. Perhaps this explains why they refuse to accept the election results. This may also be the reason only 4 percent of them thought Trump should have been impeached.

MAGA nation’s loyalty to Trump and commitment to a Trump-led GOP makes it hard for the Republican Party to break away from the former president. Since the 2016 presidential election, this group’s commitment to the GOP is hard to deny. In Trump’s initial run for office in 2016, roughly 90 percent of MAGA supporters voted for him. In the 2018 midterm and since, MAGA voted for Republican candidates without exception. Although Trump lost in 2020, MAGA supporters’ political commitment suggests he had coattails, narrowing Democrats’ advantage in the House.

What this means for the Republican Party

Understanding why MAGA, also known as the Republican base, supports Trump, reveals why the GOP can’t break away from him: They are intensely loyal to Trump, motivated by status threat, and convert their anxiety and commitment into votes. If any Republican tries to do disavow Trump, they will face a primary challenge. Even those sure they would survive such a primary know that their political ambitions will need Trump’s blessing.

For now, the party will remain in the hands of Trump and his acolytes. That’s likely to increase polarization, with Trump supporters’ passion for the former president matched only by his opponents’ revulsion. And MAGA supporters’ willingness to reject facts that do not reflect well on their leader is likely to continue to destabilize U.S. democracy.

Christopher Sebastian Parker (@blackbruin) is professor of political science at the University of Washington, co-author of “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America” (Princeton University Press, 2013) and author of “Fighting for Democracy: Black Veterans and the Struggle Against White Supremacy in the Postwar South” (Princeton University Press, 2009).

Rachel M. Blum (@blumrm) is an assistant professor in the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center and the department of political science at the University of Oklahoma, and author of “How the Tea Party Captured the GOP: Insurgent Factions in American Politics” (University of Chicago Press, 2020).