Opinion | MAGA Is Based on Fear, Not Grounded in Reality

A few days ago, Kristi Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota — a MAGA hard-liner sometimes mentioned as a potential running mate for Donald Trump — warned that President Biden is “remaking” America, turning us into Europe. My first thought was: So he’s going to raise our life expectancy by five or six years? In context, however, it was clear that Noem believes, or expects her audience to believe, that Europe is a scene of havoc wrought by hordes of immigrants.

As it happens, I spent a fair bit of time walking around various European cities last year, and none of them was a hellscape. Yes, broadly speaking, Europe has been having problems dealing with migrants, and immigration has become a hot political issue. And yes, Europe’s economic recovery has lagged that of the United States. But visions of a continent devastated by immigration are a fantasy.

Yet such fantasies are now the common currency of politics on the American right. Remember the days when pundits solemnly declared that Trumpism was caused by “economic anxiety”? Well, despite a booming economy, there’s still plenty of justified anxiety out there, reflecting many people’s real struggles: America is still a nation riddled with inequality, insecurity and injustice. But the anxiety driving MAGA isn’t driven by reality. It is, instead, driven by dystopian visions unrelated to real experience.

That is, at this point, Republican political strategy depends largely on frightening voters who are personally doing relatively well, not just according to official statistics but also by their own accounts, by telling them that terrible things are happening to other people.

This is most obvious when it comes to the U.S. economy, which had a very good — indeed, almost miraculously good — 2023. Economic growth not only defied widespread predictions of an imminent recession, it also hugely exceeded expectations; inflation has plunged and is more or less where the Federal Reserve wants it to be. And people are feeling it in their own lives: 63 percent of Americans say that their financial situation is good or very good.

Yet out on the stump a few days ago, Nikki Haley declared that “we’ve got an economy in shambles and inflation that’s out of control.” And it’s likely that the Republicans who heard her believed her. According to YouGov, almost 72 percent of Republicans say that our 3-2 economy — roughly 3 percent growth and 2 percent inflation — is getting worse, while only a little over 6 percent say that it’s getting better.

Again, this negative verdict doesn’t reflect personal experience. In December, YouGov asked Americans to evaluate 2023 in general. Republicans said it was awful for the nation, with 76 percent saying the year was bad or terrible. Strange to say, however, 69 percent of Republicans — close to the same number — said that the year was OK, good or great for them personally.

Now, that last survey wasn’t specifically limited to the state of the economy, and presumably also reflected things like perceptions about crime. But crime declined significantly in 2023, which in a rational world would have added to the good economy in fostering a sense that things are improving.

But the world — especially MAGAworld — isn’t rational. And it’s a longstanding observation that Americans tend to say that national crime is rising even when it’s falling, and even when they concede that it’s falling where they live.

Again, these misperceptions are strongly associated with partisanship, with a startling willingness of Republicans to believe things that aren’t true.

Falsely believing that Europe is a continent on the brink of ruin is one thing (although millions of Americans visit Europe, and so get the chance to see for themselves, each year). It’s much harder to excuse the belief that New York — one of the safest big cities in America — is some kind of urban wasteland. After all, estimates say that more than 50 million Americans visited the Big Apple last year, and a lot of people who haven’t visited New York know someone who has visited or who, like yours truly, actually lives here. Yet only 22 percent of Republicans say that the city is safe to visit or live in.

The trashing of New York raises the question of the extent to which MAGA supporters are willing to disregard the evidence of their own eyes. People buy gas all the time; when Trump says “gasoline prices are now $5, $6, $7 and even $8 a gallon,” around twice the price plainly displayed on big signs all around the country, do his followers believe him?

And then of course there’s the Covid pandemic, wherein the MAGA politicization of vaccines appears to have contributed to higher death rates among Republicans.

What does this say about the future of America? It can’t be good. A large segment of our body politic has in effect joined a cult of personality whose beliefs are nearly impervious to reality.

So how did this happen to us? The truth is that I don’t know. But you can’t talk seriously about the state of America without acknowledging the pervasiveness of the fear-based MAGA worldview.

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