The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans and Democrats have split over whether to support multiethnic democracy, our research shows

Trump activated what we call a ‘MAGA faction,’ motivated by animus toward marginalized groups

A supporter holds up a hat during former US president Donald Trump's “Save America” rally at the Georgia National Fairgrounds on Sept. 25, 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

As the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol approaches, it’s clear that the ever-increasing gap between the Republican and Democratic parties includes different views about the nature of U.S. democracy and core American values.

Our recent research finds that this divergence grows in no small part from a particular group of Americans whose politics are predominantly driven by hatred toward marginalized minority groups. These individuals – whom we call the “MAGA faction” – may be relatively few in number, but hold ideals that are antithetical to multiethnic democracy.

The parties have split over multiethnic democracy

A democratic system of government ideally affords all citizens equal representation and protection, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, income, gender, or other areas of difference. That has not always been the case in U.S. history, which has included official and unofficial prejudice, hatred and violence toward non-White, non-Christian citizens, manifested in such ways as Jim Crow laws and the Chinese Exclusion Act, racial profiling, and anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes. While civil rights legislation and court decisions reduced some discrimination in recent decades, U.S. society continues fiercely debating whether to strive toward guaranteeing equal protection under the law and voting rights for all Americans.

That debate now divides the United States’ two major parties. The Democratic Party tends to push for further advances in the pursuit of racial and gender equality. The Republican Party tends to resist such change, sometimes even leaning toward a past when White, Christian men stood unquestioningly at the top of the American social hierarchy. The phrase “Make America Great Again” invokes that time in a tacit endorsement of democratic backsliding.

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Animus in the U.S. electorate

In our research, we found that Donald Trump’s politics activated and attracted the MAGA faction – a group that had not been securely attached to any particular party.

We used data from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group survey, which interviewed the same Americans repeatedly between 2011 and 2018, and continues to do so. This publicly available data acts somewhat like a time machine, allowing us to identify the common characteristics of Trump supporters before Trump announced his candidacy. We found about 30 percent of Americans surveyed in 2011 reported feelings of animosity towards African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. These individuals make up our MAGA faction. Members of the MAGA faction were approximately 25 percent more supportive of Trump in 2018 than everyone else in the survey, even after taking into account many other factors, including partisanship.

This relationship between hatred and political support does not exist for other Republican leaders. We found that 2011 animosity toward these groups did not predict later approval of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, or the Republican Party. Only Trump was linked to bias.

No Trump-like figure emerged among Democrats. Rather, pre-existing animus towards these four groups consistently predicted less support for prominent figures in the Democratic Party. Nor did we find that disliking Whites or Christians – groups associated particularly with the Republican Party — in 2011 predicted higher support for Democratic leaders. Trump was unique.

Our findings reveal that Trump did not himself create this animosity; he merely harnessed it and benefited from it politically. But democracy in an increasingly multicultural society can be threatened when a faction of citizens motivated by animosity towards marginalized groups are particularly influential within a political party. As you can see in the figure below, nearly half of Republican Party identifiers also belong to this MAGA faction.

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However, our research does not suggest that all Trump voters, or all Republicans, harbor animosity toward marginalized groups. In fact, we find evidence of animus toward marginalized groups everywhere, in both parties and among political independents, across the ideological spectrum, and among non-Whites and non-Christians.

Our key finding is that, regardless of one’s party identification, greater animus toward African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, or the LGBTQ community predicted substantially greater support for Trump.

What is the MAGA faction’s likely future?

Our research does suggest that, as long as this MAGA faction exists, politicians may be tempted to appeal to it, hoping to repeat Trump’s success. In fact, using inflammatory and divisive appeals would be a rational campaign strategy, since they can animate independent voters who dislike these groups. Other rank-and-file members of the party can willfully ignore such rhetoric in the name of partisan loyalty, however destructive and venomous it may be.

The result is a winning candidate whose platform is rooted in, or at the very least attracts, intolerance of marginalized groups – and then rewards that animus, as Trump did with his Muslim ban and Southern border wall, and as Republican state legislatures are doing with attempts to restrict access to the vote, ban schools from teaching about the history of racial bias, and so on.

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What is the MAGA faction’s future? We see evidence of animus across all age groups; in 2011, we found that included a little over 20 percent of citizens ages 30 and under. This faction remains available for future politicians to court, and will likely influence U.S. elections for years to come.

But identifying this MAGA faction as both separate from and related to partisan politics can help us better understand the real conflict. When a small, intolerant faction of citizens wields disproportionate influence over nationwide governance, democracy erodes. Avoiding discussion about this group only protects its power.

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Lilliana Mason (@LilyMasonPhD) is SNF Agora Institute Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Julie Wronski (@julie_wronski) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi.

John V. Kane (@UptonOrwell) is an assistant professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.