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Biden sees a new threat: ‘Ultra MAGA’ Republicans

The president has taken to using the term to warn of Republican extremism. Some Trump followers have embraced it.

Supporters listen to former president Donald Trump speak at a “Save America Rally” in Conroe, Tex., in January, his first big MAGA rally in Texas since 2019. (Michael Stravato/For The Washington Post)
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Last Wednesday, during a speech on the economy, President Biden coined a new phrase — “ultra MAGA.”

“Let me tell you about this ultra MAGA agenda,” Biden said, using former president Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan — “Make America Great Again” — as a pejorative. “It’s extreme, as most MAGA things are.”

Then, in the subsequent days, Biden and his team continued to hammer Republicans in aggressive terms, attacking them as “MAGA” and “ultra MAGA.” Biden even dismissed his predecessor at one point as “the great MAGA king.”

It took scant time for Republicans to gleefully seize on the moniker as their own, triumphantly elevating it as a brand worthy of celebration. “I am ultra MAGA, and I’m proud of it,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the No. 3 House Republican, after a reporter Wednesday noted that she was “being called ultra MAGA.”

The same day, Trump’s Save America super PAC sent out a fundraising email featuring a $45 T-shirt bearing the image of Trump as Superman — a Trump “T” stretched across his chest rather than Superman’s iconic “S” — flying below the banner of “SUPERMAGA” in a red-and-yellow comic book font.

“Did you hear what Joe Biden called us? He said we were an EXTREME POLITICAL ORGANIZATION. He said we were ULTRA MAGA,” read the email pitch. “Well … If loving your Country and wanting to put AMERICA FIRST makes you ULTRA MAGA, then yes. WE ARE ULTRA MAGA.”

And Wednesday night, Trump also blasted out a meme featuring himself as Aragorn — a selfless hero of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — complete with the caption, “The Return of the Great MAGA King.”

“This is something that admits the power and influence of the MAGA movement and President Trump’s strength over the party, and for some reason Biden thinks that’s an insult,” said Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich. “I don’t understand what he’s trying to achieve, especially given that right about now, whether you’re a mother trying to feed your child who needs formula or someone trying to fill up your car, ultra MAGA sounds pretty good.”

Trump himself “absolutely loved” the great MAGA king meme and has privately mocked Biden and his fellow Democrats as bad branders who do not understand the art of marketing, said a person briefed on his thinking, speaking anonymously to share private details.

Trump and his fellow Republicans’ embrace of “ultra MAGA” reflects the former president’s skill at co-opting would-be insults or even random phrases. In 2016, for instance, when Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic nominee for president, said that half of Trump supporters belonged in what she termed a “basket of deplorables,” Trump and his base quickly embraced the term, turning it into a rallying cry.

More recently, in October, a “F--- Joe Biden!” chant broke out at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway while an NBC reporter was interviewing NASCAR driver Brandon Brown live on air. Hearing the cry, the reporter said, “You can hear the chants from the crowd — ‘Let’s go Brandon!’” The exchange quickly went viral, with Trump supporters re-appropriating the chant — “Let’s go Brandon!" — to convey anti-Biden animosity.

“You can’t fake grass roots support, and there is a real ecosystem of Trump supporters,” said Cliff Sims, who was a senior administration official under Trump. “Part of the power of the online movement for Trump is they’re just having a great time, they’re making fun of people, they’re trolling, they’re creating funny memes to get a laugh or get retweets.”

Asked what the administration makes of Trump supporters co-opting a phrase that Biden intended as pejorative, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that if these Republicans “are embracing their opposition to a woman’s right to make choices about her own health care, if they’re embracing a plan that will raise taxes on 75 million Americans, if they’re embracing the importance of fighting Mickey Mouse over virtually any other issue, I guess that’s their platform.”

“Good for them,” Psaki concluded. “We’re happy to have a debate about that.”

Biden’s attempt to appropriate the “MAGA” brand as a political attack was hardly accidental. It arose from a six-month research project to find the best way to target Republicans, helmed by Biden adviser Anita Dunn and by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal group.

The polling and focus group research by Hart Research and the Global Strategy Group found that “MAGA” was already viewed negatively by voters — more negatively than other phrases like “Trump Republicans.”

In battleground areas, more than twice as many voters said they would be less likely to vote for someone called a “MAGA Republican” than would be more likely. The research also found that the description tapped into the broad agreement among voters that the Republican Party had become more extreme and power-hungry in recent years.

“All of that extremism gets captured in that brand,” said Navin Nayak, president and executive director of CAP Action Fund. “We are not trying to create a new word. This is how they define themselves.”

Nayak also said “MAGA” is a versatile epithet, allowing Biden and the Democrats to convey the same message whether they are talking about the economy, climate change or abortion.

Psaki on Tuesday described “ultra MAGA” as “the president’s phrase,” saying Biden personally added “a little ‘ultra’ to it — give it a little extra pop.”

Biden has repeatedly tied the term to Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who in February released a controversial 11-point policy plan. Its proposals include taxing many Americans who currently pay no taxes, as well as “sunsetting” all federal laws every five years, apparently including those authorizing Medicare and Social Security.

Biden-Scott feud turns personal

Although Scott’s plan been disavowed by some Republican leaders, Biden regularly describes it as the “MAGA agenda” of the “MAGA Republicans.” Since the Republican leadership has not offered any other plan, the White House argues, the public platform of its Senate campaign chief is fair game.

“I call it the 'ultra-MAGA’ plan — Make America Great Again plan,” Biden said Wednesday, speaking to electrical workers in Chicago.

Other Democrats have followed Biden’s lead in pushing the phrase. On Thursday, the Twitter account for the Senate Democrats shared a story about a Republican lawmaker in Idaho pushing to remove exceptions for rape and incest to the state’s abortion ban, writing, “No exceptions for rape or incest. This is what MAGA Republicans support.”

Biden’s decision to dub Republicans as “ultra MAGA” — like another new Biden quip, “This is not your father’s Republican Party — represents a turnabout from his campaign persona. He ran as a unifier, promising that under a Biden administration Republicans would have an “epiphany” and bipartisanship would return to Washington.

Instead, partisan vitriol has continued to consume the nation’s capital, a reality Biden seems to acknowledge with his “ultra MAGA” descriptor — a wing of the Republican Party that he described as “petty,” “mean-spirited,” “extreme” and “beyond the pale” at a fundraiser in Chicago Wednesday night.

Asked how Biden’s recent rhetoric aligns with his desire to be a bipartisan healer, Psaki said “the president’s view is you can do both” — work with Republicans on shared priorities while spotlighting what he views as destructive policies or behavior.

“He’s also not going to stand by and not call out what he sees as ultra MAGA behavior, ultra MAGA policies that are out of the mainstream of the country and are not in the interest of the American people,” Psaki said.

Not everyone is convinced Biden has stumbled upon a political winner, however. Sims, the former Trump adviser, warned that Democrats may have more trouble than they realize taking a Trump slogan and turning it into an insult.

“It’s stunning how out-of-touch Biden and his folks are about how to brand this stuff when they’re taking the most iconic, successful political slogan of all time and trying to turn it into something derogatory,” Sims said. “I mean, who doesn’t want to make America great again?”