How MAGA Hijacked the Conservative Movement

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Tina Nguyen has enjoyed—well, sometimes enjoyed; often, endured—a front-row seat to the evolution of the MAGA movement. During her college years, Nguyen took the conservative movement’s scholarships and grants to work in and then document the Tea Party, which spiraled into Donald Trump’s visions of how he would Make America Great Again. Nguyen’s own half-joking identity as a “cheerful nihilist” morphed as she built her own professional name without so much reliance on conservative dollars. The pluck she once felt as a challenge-it-all student at Claremont McKenna College—a battleground in our current culture wars—began to feel less fun and more fundamentalist. 

The discovery that her journalism mentor was using his network of former students to seed white supremacy into mainstream and center-right newsrooms finally crushed her faith in the cause. It also helped her move into more mainstream, less political writing, picking up a nomination for a James Beard Foundation Award for food blogging in 2014 as she took a break from the political fight. But the story was too good, and she returned to covering politics for some of the best brands in journalism.

This week marks the publication of Nguyen’s first book, The MAGA Diaries, an insider’s account of how she evolved from a child of immigrants drawn to the opportunities presented by the conservative machinery’s pipeline of scholarships into a skeptic of the choices offered to not just young people but also voters. I chatted by phone with the Puck News correspondent about her moorless political identity, her worries about a mismatched two-party system, and her hopes that conservatives might wrestle power away from the powerful MAGA movement.

Asked how she describes herself these days, she laughs. It’s a question she gets a lot on this book tour, she says. Finally, she takes a stab at it: “a quasi-libertarian, circa a much more innocent time in the country, before I realized that people have interests in power and sometimes they will go to great lengths to take those ideals and twist them in their own directions.” She goes on without missing a beat: “I wish I had a political ideology that I could slot myself into neatly in this environment. I’m just way too aware of the structure of the thing in order to say I feel comfortable being in this camp versus this camp.” That sounds like a whole lot of Americans, especially Republicans who this week seemed to send the MAGA Master himself coasting toward a third nomination in eight years.

The conversation has been edited and condensed.

TIME: Congratulations. This is a fun, if disturbing, read. I appreciate that you make a distinction from the start: there’s MAGA; there’s the conservative movement; and then there are Republicans. That nuance doesn’t always come through in coverage. Why do you think they get lumped together so often?

Nguyen: As someone who came from conservative journalism and leapt right into being a mainstream journalist at an absurdly high level, I think people who end up in mainstream journalism don’t come from a background where the distinctions between various genuses of conservatives are made evident. They’ll have family members who are Republicans, but they don’t know people who’ve entered professional conservatism, who have thought about the reasons that they are not voting for Democrats or progressives. Democrats are just, like: ‘Yeah, let’s do a lot of things with government using the tools that have been established over centuries and centuries, and use that to move society forward.’ Republicans, conservatives, MAGA types all share the same: ‘We do not like the way that government is run, and let’s fix it.’

The issue of how they want to fix it is where you start seeing the distinction between Republicans, conservatives, and MAGA. Republicans use government to execute policies that they believe will result in conservative outcomes. Conservatives, starting with Reagan, actually adopted the conservative movement as their own. A lot of these were not his ideas.

He was like Trump that way.

Exactly. Reagan and the conservative movement he spearheaded were: ‘Let’s get rid of government altogether. Reduce the role that it has in people’s lives, cut back on the powers of agencies.’

MAGA is: ‘Screw this, we’re burning it all down. We don’t care how, we don’t care how destructive it is.’ It’s degrees of execution and destructive qualities that are the splits between the two.

You were there at the early days of MAGA. Could you imagine, or did you appreciate, what was being created then and the consequences that were coming? You write very openly about discovering a journalism mentor being a driving force behind a white supremacist email list, Morning Hate

I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people who entered conservatism around the Tea Party era enjoyed the idea of the frumpy, fussy old Republican Party being left in the past. They saw a genuine moment to take the ideas of limited government, individual choice, personal liberty forward. That was certainly why I gravitated towards it. 

But in that environment, there were a lot of actors who realized they could use the structure of the conservative movement to plant ideas inside the bloodstream and spread them even further. I would say [John] Elliott [,a former director of the journalism program at the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies and the Charlemagne Institute,] was one really terrifying example. I wasn’t aware of it until all this news came out. A lot of people who came through that program weren’t aware of it, but he didn’t need all of us to get white nationalist ideas into conservatism. He just needed one or two people. And he found them and he cultivated them, and he sent them out into the world.

As much as I dislike talking about my ex-boyfriend, watching the trajectory of [MAGA “troll on steroids” and digital provocateur] Chuck Johnson from our time at Claremont McKenna was so illuminating—not just because he is a specific type of person with a certain set of beliefs, but because his behavior was permitted and encouraged along the way as long as it led to a proper outcome for powerful people such as Peter Thiel or Donald Trump or whoever in the Republican Party called upon him for his services. Now, people are backing away from him. But I don’t think he would’ve gotten that far if it had not been for powerful people who found utility in his behavior.

You bring up Johnson here, and he’s just one of the people who pepper this text. People whom Hillary Clinton would have labeled ‘deplorables.’ You worked for Tucker Carlson, did a stint in the Stephen Bannon orbit. You shared an office with Matt Boyle. Do they actually believe this stuff, or are they just salesmen with a product that appeals to consumers who are hungry for it?

How MAGA Hijacked the Conservative Movement

I think that binary is a little too simplistic. In 2010, people entered this world believing that the power of the conservative activist movement and network, and the ideas that were being traded through it, were powerful enough to sway the country in one direction. Then Trump came in and said: ‘Hey, what about populism?’ And a big section of the party was like: ‘Oh, actually, yes, we do like populism.’ 

And so everyone starts facing a choice. The conservative movement has turned into a career infrastructure that you start in as a young person and turn into your livelihood, your identity, your social circle, your reason for existence. And all of a sudden, do you take that value system that you hold so dear and say, ‘No, I don’t want to go in this direction’? And then lose everything you’ve worked for? Or do you hold your nose and say: ‘All right, I’m doing this. There are parts of this that I actually kind of enjoy’? A lot of people have chosen the latter. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d stayed in the movement when Trump came around. I was lucky enough to get out in 2012 and build a separate life of my own.

You write about one meeting in 2015 with Democratic leaders, in which you realize for the first time that the Left doesn’t have that same pipeline and infrastructure that the Right does. Can you talk a little bit about your surprise there and what you’ve seen the Left try to do to compensate since then?

One of the things about growing up in that movement that I just took for granted was I see this structure working around me and I go: ‘Oh, this is the way things normally work. That’s cool.’ Why is one party so disorganized, and the other one is extremely organized? And the answer I came to was the nature of the leaders of progressive movements and the Democratic Party, which is: We want change immediately.

One [Nebraska] woman I spoke to said they’re obsessed with finding the shiny new thing nationally. And Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, they’ve been building these networks since the Goldwater-era Leadership Institute. Mitch McConnell came out of it. Think about the idea of a 60- to 70-year plan. 

I’m curious how much you think the structures of the MAGA movement are durable. Because the structures of the conservative movement have proven durable, but I’m not sure that there’s any scaffolding around MAGA-ism. Are we just missing that?

There are certainly attempts to do that in the MAGA movement. There are actually dueling efforts between two think tanks that are trying to staff the next Trump administration. You’ve heard of Project 2025, primarily a Heritage Foundation project, and the America First Policy Institute, which is staffed almost exclusively with former Trump administration officials. AFPI was founded explicitly as a MAGA rejoinder to Heritage. 

Does the MAGA movement last past Trump? Is this something that we’re going to be talking about in 50, 60 years?

It doesn’t unless Trump designates a successor. I don’t think he will. It would have to be a direct order from Trump himself in order for that movement to survive. 

The far Right has taken hold with younger voters in ways that I don’t think a lot of people appreciate. I wonder if it’s not a symptom of the environment on college campuses in recent years. Nothing builds unity like thinking you’re in a bunker with your friends. Is that how MAGA superseded the Rove-type College Republicans on campus?

I would say so. There’s always going to be that bunker mentality that conservatives on campus will feel. 

One of the questions you ask a lot, and I don’t know that we get a satisfactory answer, is: Who’s picking up the tab for this conservative pipeline? It’s easy to shorthand and say the Koch network, but that’s not the whole story, is it?

No. And the Koch network is actually declining in actual influence on the Right. They can throw a lot of money into AFP and try to get it to move in one direction and try to bolster libertarian free market ideas, but the money doesn’t actually work in populism. If anything, the idea of a wealthy billionaire trying to use his money to get people to vote against their own interest is anathema to a lot of voters these days. 

The reason that I ended up in conservatism was literally because [conservative think tanks and journalism training programs] threw me a thousand dollars to work on some projects. There’s someone bankrolling tons of operations, but you’re not gonna’ see it in terms of giant donations to a think tank anymore, or boosting a certain candidate. It’s all going to be little tiny micro transactions to networks of online influencers who will start tweeting about one thing or another. 

So, Jan. 6, which you watched in close quarters. I’m wondering how that affected your approach to reporting on the movement. And then the follow-up is that you went out on a roadtrip and you describe it very cleverly as an AAPI de Tocqueville journey to better understand this country. I won’t ruin the details for readers, but did you come back more or less depressed by the state of the country from that. What is your view of America having done Jan. 6 and done the road trip? Where are we as a country?

I think everyone’s really scared. I think when you exist in Washington and you exist in New York, and you exist in these media circles for too long, you kind of forget that the machinations and insider gossip that you’re hearing affects people far as away as like rural Washington, where I ended up at this random church that was called the Patriot Church. Everybody I talked to was like, ‘I have no idea what’s going on. I am just terrified. I don’t know what’s true or not anymore.’ All of these people are angry. They always kept asking me: ‘Can you report the truth?’ And I was like, ‘I’m trying my best. guys.’ 

There is a hunger for stability and a knowledge of what is actually going on. And I also was struck that there can be trust in the media. 

Finally, I have to appreciate that there are moments of levity throughout this and they’re often coupled with your observations about your identity as a woman of color. How have you approached the contradictions in a lot of Americans’ minds that persons of color have to be liberals and the conservative side of the stadium is reserved for white voters?

That is such a wrong conception. That is absolutely not the case. In border towns, the Vietnamese community is so MAGA. Immigrants, especially those who have worked their way in as legally as possible and did a lot of work to make sure that they were safe here, are now being targeted by these disinformation campaigns specifically to warp their mind against Joe Biden. They’re the same going on in Hispanic communities, communities like Venezuelans and Cubans who have looked at socialism in their own countries, and said: ‘What if that happened here? We really don’t want that to happen here. Let’s Make America Great Again.’

Immigrants—especially refugees—have a really deep-seated trauma about the causes that led to the instability in their own homelands and the forces that pushed them to leave. Too often it was based on socialist governments, and far too often they were targeted specifically because they had wealth or status, or were political dissidents. My parents were eating pumpkins for an entire year because the government was taking away their money. Liberals don’t quite understand. This is going to be a spicy take, but a lot of Democrats who are coming up with certain immigration policies do it from a place of academic, detached privilege.

I’ll look forward to your timeline’s response to that. Thank you for your time.

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