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MAGA’s Revanchist Roots: A Tale of Tropes

Signs that MAGA is enmeshed in post-Vietnam War culture begin with its namesake. Make America Great Again is an adoption of Ronald Reagan’s assertion that it was “Morning in America Again,” - the country was moving on from its Vietnam War nightmare.

Image by visuals // CounterPunch,

A year out from the 2024 presidential election, a New York Times/Siena poll showed the Republican former President Donald Trump leading the incumbent Democrat Joe Biden in five of six swing states – this, despite Trump having skipped two televised Republican Party debates and facing 4 criminal indictments.[1]

Trump’s defiance of political gravity has spawned a genre of Trump-studies, most focused on his character and the personalities of his devotees: The title of New York Times’s Maggie Haberman’s book Confidence Man is coda for her attribution of Trumpism to the perverse magnetism of his arrested development; Robert Draper’s Weapons of Mass Delusion follows suit, psychologizing his followers’ plunge “into a Trumpian cult of compulsive disassembling and conspiracy mongering.”

These books’ spotlight on persons and personalities were powered by Nicole Hemmer’s earlier book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. It was the Rush Limbaughs and Pat Buchanans, she said, who had marshalled the power of talk-radio to untether the GOP from mainstream public opinion and realign it with “partisan punditry and political entertainment.” The 1990s, said New York Magazine writer Gabriel Debenedetti in his October 9, 2022 review of Hemmer’s book for The New York Times, agreed that the 1990s is where responsibility for today’s political turns will be found.

Commenting on Trump’s tenacity, Carlos Lozada in “How the House of Trump Was Built” (New York Times Dec 28, 2022), cautioned against “versions of history that place a singular individual at their center.” Also known as “great men” theories of history, his caveat would apply to media influencers like Limbaugh and Buchanan and Trump himself.

Still, in explaining Trump’s late 2023 lead over Biden in her Times column, “What Voters Want that Trump Seems to Have,” Michelle Cottle could do no better than contrast the candidates’ personal qualities. Voter upset with inflation, crime, and the surge of migrants would be a factor, she acknowledged, but on Election Day it would be Trump’s “stiff-arm” of the “doddering and frail” Biden that made the difference.

The danger in personalizing politics in that way is its presumption that a change of political actors will change the script – that Trump’s departure from the scene will alter the national. political trajectory. It won’t. But why? If Trump’s perverse charisma and the persuasiveness of media influencers does not explain his grip on voters, what then?

Think horses not zebras. It’s a common phrase in the literature on medical culture: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. A play on the principle known as Occam’s Razor, the saying captures the idea that the obvious diagnosis for an ailment is often better than something more erudite; applied here to the questions about Trump’s enduring popularity, it points to the tropes of the Trump movement themselves as clues: if “Vietnam” isn’t the answer to the implicit question in the movement’s moniker, Make America Great Again —when and where did America lose its greatness? —the zebras are obscuring the horses. And the other Trumpian tropes? The Deep State, and Americans Left Behind? They, too, trace back to the war in Vietnam and the revanchist political culture spawned by its loss.

Make America Great Again

Worries that social and political weakness on the home front had robbed the military of victory in Vietnam metastasized in the post-war years into suspicions that untoward and even subversive activism was to blame. The public’s return to personal and political priorities set aside during the war allowed the lost-war angst to go unnoticed as it quietly pooled into a font of resentment tapped into by nationalist and militarist movements decades later.[2]

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Signs that MAGA is enmeshed in post-Vietnam War culture begin with its namesake. Make America Great Again is an adoption of Ronald Reagan’s assertion that it was “Morning in America Again,” that the country was moving on from its Vietnam War nightmare.

Vietnam as the point of departure for Reagan’s new day is evinced in his 1980 declaration of the war as “a noble cause,” his hoisting the POW-MIA flag over the White House in 1982, and his proclamation of May 7, 1985, as Vietnam Veteran Recognition Day. In the wake of the 1978 Iranian hostage crisis and the day after watching Rambo: First Blood Part II, a hot mic caught him saying, “Boy, after seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do the next time this happens.”

From Reagan, the thread of American preoccupation with Vietnam is continuous, running through President George H.W. Bush’s declaration that we had, “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome” in the Persian Gulf war of 1990-91, to Barack Obama’s 2012 allusion to the anti-war movement’s responsibility for the loss in Vietnam, to Donald Trump’s insinuation that U.S. pilots like John McCain shot down over Vietnam signaled mission failure, not heroics.[3]

But if Reagan was about moving on in a new day, MAGA is distinguished by its “back to the future” thrust. It’s followers would have us return to a prelapsarian Edenic way of life that it believes was lost along with the war in Vietnam. They would have us restoring institutional forms that made America great in the first place, as they see it, one of those being traditional forms of marriage and family.

By their reading, the urbanization of life in the post-World War II years had broken the father-son bonds characteristic of rural work. With fathers pulled into factory and office work, boys were raised by moms in an effeminizing home environment. The specter of “momism,” as historian Elaine May wrote about it in Fortress America, averred that America had sent a generation of sissified boys off to fight the war in Vietnam; not up to the task, these softies were also receptive to pacificist appeals often voiced by women.[4]

The adoption of female attire by young men in the 1960s and 1970s—peace symbols worn as necklaces, bellbottom pants worn with blousy tops, and long hair— signaled their identification with feminine culture and rejection, specifically, of the military “high and tight.” By the late 1960s, home-front countercultural styles had made their way to Vietnam where they became a flipped finger to military authority by unruly troops.[5]

Women had indeed played major roles in the antiwar movement. Women Strike for Peace initiated outreach to the Vietnamese people, sending representatives to Hanoi in 1965; scores of activists and celebrities followed in their footsteps in the coming years. But the climate of fault-finding that followed the loss of the war demeaned and even vilified women’s work for peace. Actress Jane Fonda who had gone to Hanoi in 1972 and met with imprisoned U.S. POWs was likened to the apocryphal Tokyo Rose of World War II notoriety, both figures invoking a litany of female perfidy beginning with the biblical Delila. Duplicity and stealth were staple tactics in those stories: Delila emasculating Sampson while he slept; Fonda presenting herself as a Hollywood seductress until unmasking as an anti-war warrior woman. In 2005 edition of the Comcast news show “It’s Your Call with Lynn Doyle,” Mary Jane McManus, the wife of ex-POW Kevin McManus, was asked by the moderator whom she blamed for the U.S. defeat. It was forces at home, she said, who conspired to turn victory into defeat: the media, politicians, and Jane Fonda.[6]

The Deep State
[Trump] is the battering ram that God is using
to bring down the Deep State of Babylon.
Charles Pace, Pastor
Mt. Carmel Church, Waco Texas.

The loss of the war in Vietnam was such a turning point for Americans because of the disparity in the powers brought to the war, respectively, by the United States and Vietnam. How could this small, underdeveloped country of outgunned peasants have defeated the most powerful military force on earth?

The answer embraced by pro-military conservatives was that the United States had not lost to the Vietnamese. Rather, it was civilian fifth columnists at home who had tied one hand behind the back of the military: liberals in Congress had refused to fund tactics that could have won the war, and communists, socialists and campus radicals had opposed the war with tactics that demoralized American forces and given aid and comfort to the enemy.

In 1971, a 234-page treatise “The Viet Cong Front in the United States” was read into the Congressional Record of the 92nd Congress by California Congressman John Schmitz. Schmitz was a member of the John Birch Society and a coauthor of that document that exaggerated the roles of the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party in antiwar organizations such as The Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.[7]

In shortform, the loss of the war was laid at the feet of traitors. The real enemy was in the halls of ivy and inside the Washington Beltway. Birchers repeated McCarthyite canards that communists had infiltrated the government, the hardcore version of the deep state myth that MAGA would promote 50 years later.[8]

Intellectuals: A State Within the State.

Belief in a deep state harkens to a state within the state, a governmental apparatus with an unacknowledged existence lurking beneath the surface of formal power. Evoking conspiracist thoughts, it imagines mysterious powers that control the cultural and political lives of workaday folks.

The “deep state” phrase triggers paranoia about educated elites in government, colleges and universities, news organizations, and Hollywood. Inaccessible to most people, these settings exist in many minds only through their representations in film, literature, and news reports. Hollywood, of course, gins its own fantasies—about itself. And there is a special mystic about colleges and universities—“What goes on there?” When the Nixon administration came down on the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, Vice President Spiro Agnew named the enemy: “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”[9]

Intellectuals. The bugaboo that there are people who work with ideas, and use those ideas against the rest of us, is as pernicious as it is old. Dating from the aftermath of the French Revolution, suspicions about what had inspired the rebels and who (or what?) was responsible for their ideas conjured haints of mysterious forces at work to undo the religious and civil order.[10]

The illusiveness of ideas and those who have them was fodder for conspiracy theories that were, wrote psychologist Nisha Krishnan in “The Illuminati Conspiracy Theory,” inherently anti-Semitic. Modern antisemitism was hyped with ancient blood libel folklore—that Jews killed Christian children for their blood for use in rituals—and the myth that Jews killed Christ. Jews were scapegoated in the 1890s Dreyfus Affair for France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian war, and, later, Germany’s defeat in World War I.[11]

The European iterations of Jewish wartime perfidy had their American counterparts. Jews were rumored to have financed the 1910 Mexican Revolution that restricted U.S. access to oil there. And with the U.S. war in Vietnam going badly, Richard Nixon blamed Jews in the New York media for the release of the Pentagon Papers revealing Government lying about the war in Vietnam—that “damn Jew [Times editor Max] Frankel,” the President once ranted. The President once referred to his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, as “my Jew boy.”[12]

The antisemitism sweeping the nation in the 2020s—more antisemitic incidents in 2021 than any time in 40 years, according to the anti-defamation league—is hard to separate from Donald Trump’s call-out of Jewish philanthropist George Soros. It was Soros money, claimed Trump, that backed the attorney general who went after him for the Stormy Daniels hush-money case. Trump’s broadside attacks on the news media and coastal elites strum antisemitic chords in his listener’s ears; his embrace of the Q Anon network that traffics a pedophilia conspiracy, echo the antisemitic blood libel fantasy in MAGA imaginations.[13]

Just as MAGA’s obsessions with intellectual sedition and pedophilia animate the imaginations of a deep state, so too does its objection to Critical Race Theory come with a subplot: CRT was conceived at elite university levels and then imposed on public schools. “Higher education is the problem,” Cornell law professor and CRT critic William Jacobson told Fox News on 2021. And if intellectual elites are persons of interest, Jews are suspects. Posting on BitChute in 2021, white supremacist Vincent James Foxx wrote, “. . . it’s almost always Jewish Americans who are pushing [CRT]. . . . the white people funding these sorts of ideas and pushing this sort of rhetoric are always Jews.”

Americans Left Behind

The controversies over critical race theory touch deep nerves in conservative America. In the 1960s and 1970s, millions of white Americans resenting the imposition of court authority to integrate their children’s schools fled to the suburbs. In the same years, school consolidations closed thousands of schools across the heartland putting children on buses to neighboring towns. Teachers who themselves had gone through 12 grades in those schools, and still lived in town, were set adrift. The schools were the economic lifeblood of farm towns in the rural Midwest and when they closed, so did the local grocery stores, barbershops, and gas stations.

What school closings left standing was easy pickings for other changes emanating from powers increasingly far removed from the grassroots. The Interstate highway system broke local and regional commercial ties while opening two-lane America to 18-wheeler supply chains. The concentration of agricultural capital consolidated farmland, foreclosing hundreds of thousands of family farms. “Get big or get out,” said Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butts – thousands of farmers sold their tractors and dairy herds and got out.

The generation that bore those losses is aging away but the discouragement, frustration, and distrust of government etched in family stories and boarded-up towns endures. Middle America had been abandoned, discarded by Washington.

Phrases such as “forgotten Americans” and “Americans left behind” have personal connotations in coastal suburbs and the fly-over states. Still restive when the war in Vietnam ended and the POWs held in Hanoi came home, the phrases caught new wind. The Nixon administration had kept the war going, promising that our POWs would not be abandoned. The return of POWs in February and March of 1973 were trophies seemingly validating Nixon’s commitment.

POWs Left Behind.

But did they all come home? Speculation soon began that some American prisoners were still held by the communists. Hardcore rightists, angry that the peace accords ending the war short of a clearcut victory, fed rumors that unnamed parties in the Washington had dealt POWs to the Soviets in return for post-war favors.[14]

The POW/MIA flag that flew over the Reagan White House had the caption “You are Not Forgotten.” The words were a perfect contranym because the National League of Families made up of wives of ex-POWs had conceived and produced the flag in the last years of the war to accuse the government and seemingly disinterested public having done just that—forgotten the POWs and men missing in action. [15]

With the war ten years gone when Reagan ran the flag up, and with no credible evidence that there were any missing POWs to be forgotten, the flag and its slogan became a kind of political prosthetic adopted by a growing rightwing movement claiming a “forgotten” America as its constituency. Legislation mandating its flying beneath the national flag over federal buildings and then government buildings in many states passed in the succeeding decades imbuing it with what British writer Michael Billig called “banal nationalism,” a surrogate kind of nationalism that is more felt than thought—an empty vessel that MAGA could fill.[16]

From Rambo to Waco and Back.

Public receptivity to the abandoned-POW narrative led to a Hollywood genre of POW-rescue films of which Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) is the classic. Rambo, the character, may have been based the real-life Bo Gritz, a highly decorated Green Beret veteran of Vietnam. In 1978 he was approached by Ross Perot to resign from the military and lead a mission to Southeast Asia to do what the government refused to: rescue POWs still held there. Gritz took the assignment. In a month-long operation launched from Thailand into Laos, his men, deep into communist controlled territory, received word that their mission had been betrayed. Under attack by the communist Pathet Lao, they fought their way out without any POWs.

The experience confirmed for Gritz that the government was conspiring to keep the fact of abandoned POWs a secret from the American people and actually sabotage efforts like his to get them out – the ultimate Washington betrayal story that would be supercharged with events unfolding in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, the later resounding forward 30 years in Trump’s campaign for the 2024 presidential election.

Perot ran for President in 1992 with ex-POW James Stockdale as his running mate. Gritz’s war hero character garnered him a Sunday supplement Parade magazine cover portrait as the “American Warrior.” His alignment with POW conspiracism put him in league with the John Birch Society’s deep-state fantasies and the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke with whom he ran on the 1988 presidential ticket of the antisemitic Populous Party.

Gritz’s persona fused right-wing emotions left over from the war in Vietnam with domestic issues around gun rights, income tax, and Jewish furtiveness when he involved himself in an August 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. There, Randy Weaver had ensconced his family off the power grid, homeschooling, stockpiling weapons, and avoiding taxes. When the FBI and U.S. marshals, attempted to arrest him, a gun fight ensued, killing one marshal and two of Weaver’s children. Gritz had known Weaver as a Green Beret and suspected the raid was a government effort to assassinate Weaver because of what he knew about POWs left behind in Vietnam.

If there were any holes in the tapestry of right-wing imagination that unified unsettled sentiments of Vietnam and constitutional rights, the holes were filled in Waco when on February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided a religious center called Mount Carmel. The center was occupied by the Branch Davidians, a Seventh-Day Adventist offshoot that believed in the end of the world as prophesied in the Bible’s book of Revelation. Shots were fired killing four agents and six Davidians. Led by David Koresh who cut a Randy Weaver figure, the Davidians and BATF dug in.

On April 19 M-60 tanks outfitted with wrecking booms rolled up to the compound and began smashing the roof and walls. Gas canisters were discharged into the building. A fire started that quickly consumed the building killing seventy-nine people including twenty-five children. The fire set off an explosion with a mushroom-like fireball that network newscasts turned into an icon of apocalypse.

MAGA Closes the Circle

For many Americans, the trail from paranoia about communists in college classrooms in the 1960s and government betrayal of the military mission in Vietnam, through Republican Party revving lost-war anguish for political gain in the 1980s, and on to the anti-government movements of the new century might seem a long and discontinuous path through unrelated events. But Donald Trump’s return to Waco in March of 2023 confirms that the mindset of MAGA followers sees it all as a piece.

Choosing Waco for his first campaign stop for the 2024 election campaign was “on the nose” said the Atlantic Magazine before recounting the details of the 1992 government raid on Mr. Carmel church. “For those who have been wronged and betrayed,” declared Trump, “I am your retribution.” Pastor Charles Pace’s connection of MAGA’s retribution themes with the religious dimensions of Deep State imaginings (see the epigram above) fits with a revanchist narrative of the movement’s origins.[17]

But Bonnie Honig’s “Rambo Politics from Reagan to Trump” in the January 7, 2020 Boston Review takes an even deeper dive. Trump’s instinct for “retributive payback,” she avers, lies in what she calls “a fantasy of poetic justice” linking to “Trump as Rambo, the Vietnam veteran and symbol of masculinity . . . who avenges American humiliation.”

Honig avoids the simplicity of a Great Man kind of explanation, writing that Trump’s desire to Ramboize himself “is not merely a matter of personal vanity” because the Ramboesque narrative is “a fundamental part of the Republican Party’s cultural politics.”

Contra the attribution of MAGA’s rise to Trump’s personal magnetism or the influence of media figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan, then, an explanation with deeper historical roots uncovers the resemblance between the Republican Party retributive campaign themes and those that flared in interwar Europe.

Germany’s defeat in World War I registered as a humiliating loss of racial and national pride with enough Germans that the Nazi’s promise to avenge the losses was irresistible. The campaign of retribution that followed alleged the war had been lost to betrayal at home. Leftists, ethnic minorities, Jews, and homosexuals, all thought to be stains on Arian greatness were targeted.


When Donald Trump’s ultra-rightest Make American Great Again (MAGA) movement ignited racist and authoritarian sentiments in the late twenty teens, efforts to explain its popularity focused on recent and superficial news and entertainment trends, leaving unaddressed the cancer left by the lost war in Vietnam. Continued inattention to the fountainhead of Trumpism cradled in the war’s wake portends a post-Trump life for the MAGA movement.

But warning against the dangers of revanchism is not enough. MAGA offers an alternative to the economic insecurity, political corrosion, and cultural degradation that weighs heavily on Americans across the ideological spectrum. But MAGA’s exit from the dismaying present would take us out the back door of history to societal norms that preexisted the modern era, ways of life dominated by loyalties to figures with religious and martial authority.

The failure of the left to imagine a front door out of the country’s end-of-empire anomie is complicit in the appeal of Trumpist nihilism. A left vision is needed, one that rejects both MAGA’s apocalyptic impulse and the liberal establishment’s campaigns to shore up its global perimeters (read Ukraine) while narcotizing its minions with the spoils of empire (read consumer capitalism) and the narcissism of identity politics.

The sketch of a front door is emerging in recent works such as Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger, sections of which rethink the usefulness of the very notion of the modern nation state and reassess the value of statelessness; with imperialism driven by capitalism’s imperative to grow, the minds daring to imagine planned degrowth (the July-August 2023 Monthly Review) model the kind of big thinking we need more of; Michael Klare recasts the demilitarization of the economy as a climate change issue charting, thereby, a course for the alliances of environmental, peace, tax-payers, and some faith groups (Michael Klare, “Say Goodbye to The Planet Earth” at The national chauvinism that is baked into U.S. imperial culture can be muted by making a second language a requirement for high school graduation – a reform that corporate leaders with global interests could easily get behind.

Baby steps? Perhaps. But the political, cultural, and economic adjustment to a post-empire world is going to be epical, a many-decades-long transition out of modernism’s dead end and into a future made from the conditions it bequeathed. We had best get started.


1. Susan Page, et al. “Poll shows Biden, Trump tied at 37%.” Associated Press Worcester Telegram & Gazette October 24, 2023. See also: CNN Poll: GOP voters’ broad support for Trump holds, with less than half seriously worried criminal charges will harm his 2024 chances | CNN Politics

2. Susan Faludi. 1991. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. New York: Crown. 

3Obama takes sides in the ‘spitting on vets’ debate – Los Angeles Times ( See the story on the Trump-McCainexchange: 

4. Elaine May. 2017. Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy. New York: Basic Books. 

5. David Cortwright. 1975. Soldiers in Revolt. New York: Anchor. 

6. Jerry Lembcke. 2010. Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 

7. John G. Schmitz. 1971. The Viet Cong Front in The United States of America. Belmont, MA: Western Islands Press. 

8Opinion | Trump Has a Master Plan for Destroying the ‘Deep State’ – The New York Times (

9. Rick Perlstein. 2008. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and The Fracturing of America. New York: Scribner. 

10. Umberto Eco. 2011. The Prague Cemetery. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York. 

11. Kirshman, Nisha. 2019. “The Illuminati Conspiracy Theory. The Ohio State University. (The Illuminati Conspiracy Theory | The Psychology of Extraordinary Beliefs (

12. Greg Grandin, “The Republicans Who Want to Invade Mexico.” New York Times, November 1, 2023; William M. Welch and Barbara Slavin, “Henry Kissinger dies at 100,” USA Today, December 1, 2023. 

13Antisemitic and Anti-Muslim Hate Speech Surges Across the Internet – The New York Times (

14. Disgruntlement with the terms ending the war in Vietnam are summarized in the New York Times November 39, 2023 obituary for Henry Kissinger who was instrumental in shaping those terms: Henry Kissinger, Who Shaped U.S. Cold War History, Dies at 100 – The New York Times (

15. H. Bruce Franklin. 1992. M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America. Lawrence Hill Books: Brooklyn, NY; Tom Wilber and Jerry Lembcke. 2021. Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today. Monthly Review Press: New York. 

16. Michael Billig. 1995. Banal Nationalism. SAGE: New York. As a cultural trope, “left behind” was supercharged by the Left Behind book series authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (Tyndale House, 1995-2007). Christian fundamentalists propelled its apocalyptic tale drawn from the Book of Revelation to chart-topping sales, with three volumes reaching the New York Times best-seller lists. 

17At rally in Waco, Trump vows to destroy the ‘deep state’ (

[Jerry Lembcke is the author of nine books including The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU Press, 1998), Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal (UMass Press, 2010), and Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (Monthly Review Press, 2021. His The Cult of the Victim Veteran: MAGA Fantasies in Lost-War America came out with Routledge in July 2023. Jerry’s opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has been a guest on several NPR programs including On the Media.]