Trumpism Is a Small Business Owner’s Revolt
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Author: Chris Dite
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Review of Finish What We Started: The Maga Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy by Isaac Arnsdorf (Little, Brown and Company, 2024)

The Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement around Donald Trump has proven far more successful at capturing both party institutions and mainstream support than both its Tea Party predecessor and Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution.” Why? That depends on who you ask.

Washington Post reporter Isaac Arnsdorf attempts to partially explain MAGA’s recent success in Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy. Arnsdorf’s book differs from much of the commentary on Trump in that it focuses squarely on the organizational machinations and ideas of the wider layer that gravitates to him.

Finish What We Started follows a range of mostly low-level MAGA figures as they try to make sense of what is happening in American politics and intervene to influence it. The key focus here is the “precinct strategy.” It’s a post-2020 blueprint to seize administrative control of local Republican party branches, then continue the process upward. The end goal is to make sure the 2024 election is won by Trump, no matter what happens on the day.

Arnsdorf keeps his editorializing to a minimum. He explains at the outset that he chose to focus on relatively minor MAGA leaders “both because they are representative of thousands, maybe millions more like them, but also because they were in some ways exceptional.” Those looking for gossip about Trump’s inner circle will be disappointed: this is mostly a view of a changed party from the bottom up.

Arnsdorf’s book serves as a nice companion piece to Ryan Grim’s The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution (2023) or Edward-Isaac Dovere’s Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump (2021). All three center on the interactions between political newcomers and party bureaucracies. The significance of these encounters is that they have the power to further or foreclose certain broader political possibilities.

All Power to the Precincts

The precinct strategy was dreamed up by an insurance lawyer from Wisconsin named Dan Schultz. It’s pretty simple: stack the precincts, get MAGA chairs elected, control the administrative apparatus, purge anyone unsupportive, then refuse to acknowledge wins for non-MAGA candidates.

Schultz’s origin story for the plan involves being hazed in military academy and interrogating KGB agents while working in Army Intelligence. Schultz dubiously claims that at a meeting of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps —  a neo-Nazi group terrorizing people at the US-Mexico border — a young man got up and declared that the real power in America lies with the Republican Party Precinct Committee chairs.

Steve Bannon stumbled upon him in 2013 and Schultz began writing for Breitbart. But it wasn’t until 2021, after Bannon began promoting him on War Room, that Schultz’s content began to go viral online. Disillusioned MAGA supporters, smarting from their embarrassment after January 6, were open to new ideas. The precinct strategy offered a nice avenue for all involved to avoid embarrassment, feel productive, and engage in a bit of bloodletting.

The precinct strategy took off across America. It quickly becomes a carnivalesque suburban Cultural Revolution. Sexagenarian MAGA-red guards denounce long-standing precinct chairs as traitors. They begin prosecutory speeches with Merriam-Webster definitions of words like “endorse,” purging RINOs (Republican In Name Only) real and perceived with barely concealed libidinal delight. Even old folks’ homes become unlikely show trial venues.

Haves and Have-Nots

Finish What We Started lets a range of MAGA diehards explain their take on the causes of contemporary polarization and what is to be done about it. But this is anticlimactic: most express little more than vague fears and suspicions, and enthusiasm for the precinct strategy.

Bannon is the one genuinely famous MAGA figure who features prominently, and he outlines the only developed theory (stolen in part from Bernie Sanders supporter Thomas Frank). Bannon argues that the fallout from 2008’s global financial crisis immiserated the working class. “Haves” like the Koch brothers were for a time able to use culture war issues to manipulate the “have-nots” into electoral action that actually worsened the situation, but this trick has now stopped working.

Bannon explains that the Republicans are now really two parties in one: an elite party of big corporate interests and a working-class party of social interests. These interests are irreconcilable. MAGA, according to Bannon, is the working-class majority cohering en masse in their natural place against the pro-trade liberalization billionaires.

This is a generously focused recap: Arnsdorf also notes that Bannon’s take includes mystical ideas about recurring historical epochs, clash of civilizations nonsense, and snippets from 1950s mass movement-focused pop psychology.

Bannon’s “analysis” reads superficially like a structural explanation rooted in social antagonisms. This is intentional. Bannon delights in shocking fellow conservatives by calling himself a Leninist and is familiar enough with key terms to ape a class analysis. This is a fairly transparent ploy: he fully admits here that he thinks a layer of former Sanders supporters are recruitable to the MAGA movement.

Death (Spiral) of a (Used Car) Salesman

Arnsdorf’s approach in Finish What We Started is to largely let his subjects speak for themselves. This could be problematic, particularly if they were all as smooth as Bannon. It would simply be foolish to take such self-assessments at face value.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast inadvertently pokes holes in Bannon’s account of the MAGA ascendancy. The sketches here are certainly of people who see themselves as the little guy — or at least on his side. But to call any of them working-class is a stretch. Every second character has started a weird business (of somewhat unclear purpose) in the course of their activism. These aren’t exactly the gravediggers of capitalism trying to break their chains. They’re more like funeral home owners offering discounts if you sign up today.

These isolated lawyers, real estate brokers, financial advisors, flag-shirt salesmen, event planners, and ad executives do seem genuinely buoyed by the human connection involved in their MAGA movement experiences. But they are absolutely not experiencing their political awakening as a worker’s revolt. And why would they? They’re all either general managers or proud owners of small- to medium-sized businesses.

Their pretty constant discussion of how they’re going to be thrown in concentration camps makes more sense the more you get to know them. While they may not explain it exactly like this, theirs is a Taftian worldview in which freedom clearly means their own unrestricted prerogative as business owners to do as they please. They see literally anything else as totalitarian.

The Unknown Future Rolls Toward Us

As the November election draws ever closer, political pundits are falling over themselves to make predictions about what a second Donald Trump presidency might look like. Some attempt to read the tea leaves of Trump’s rambling speeches. Others commentate Trump’s Apprentice-esque search for a vice president. Still more search among Trump’s new, allegedly professionalized courtiers for clues as to what moves the once and future MAGA king might make.

Arnsdorf has tried something different: a narrative-based sociological study of an organizational strategy. There are certainly lots of memorable vignettes. One of Finish What You Started’s main characters declares that, while she doesn’t need the stress and would rather be home watching Yellowstone,

she was never giving up on politics. Even when it meant long nights in her windowless office at the Cobb GOP headquarters, with her signed Marjorie Taylor Greene yard sign and her poster mapping out the spiderweb connections between Karl Marx and Barack Obama, titled the AGENDA GRINDING AMERICA DOWN.

Unfortunately, the sociological focus and the title are slightly at odds. The precinct strategy is supposed to be a stepping stone to getting Trump elected and then “finishing what we started.” But most of the players involved in this story never even speculate about what Trump might do when elected. Giving his ominous phrase the title spot feels a little cheap.

Bannon offers the clearest suggestion about what the phrase might mean: “Economic nationalism . . . the second term is going to be ten-X more aggressive on the implementation of policy than the first.” If this just means more tariffs designed to shore up profits and quick wins for Trump’s buddies in select US industries, then the day-in and day-out efforts of some of the people featured here could take on a slightly sad dimension.

Then again, these “infantrymen of the lumpenbourgeoisie” do spend an awful lot of time trying to swindle each other on the side of their organizing efforts. Characters in Finish What You Started will disappear mid-action, only to appear later and say they’ve dropped out of politics because their comrades scammed them out of money. Perhaps Bannon is partly right: in Trump’s big grift, the shopkeepers have found their natural home.


Chris Dite is a teacher and union member.

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