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The MAGA Crowd May Venerate 1776 But They Idolize a Would-Be Monarch

The Patriots of the American Revolution believed no man was above the law. Donald Trump’s followers are sure he is.
August 17, 2022
The MAGA Crowd May Venerate 1776 But They Idolize a Would-Be Monarch
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

Like its predecessors on the American right, the MAGA movement draws heavily on the rhetoric and iconography of the American Revolution. Such rhetoric was brought into full view during the January 6th insurrection, when the crowd that stormed the Capitol bore “1776” banners and Betsy Ross flags and the markings of the Three Percenters (the militia movement whose name derives from the mistaken belief that only 3 percent of the American population fought in the Revolution). And it has surfaced again, with a fury, in response to last week’s FBI search and seizure of documents from President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.

The MAGA adherents who bedeck themselves in the symbols of the Revolution imagine themselves to be zealous patriots, modern-day Sons of Liberty and Minutemen at Lexington and Concord, standing against tyranny. The MAGA fanatic who died in a shootout last week after he attacked the FBI field office in Cincinnati said as much, referring to “patriots” in his postings to Trump’s Truth Social website and replying to MAGA superstar Marjorie Taylor Greene that “the next step is the one we used in 1775.”

The irony here is that the real-life American revolutionaries were avowed enemies of monarchy, while today’s wannabe revolutionaries have as their leader and hero Donald Trump, the most arrogant, monarchical president in U.S. history, a man who truly imagines himself to be beyond the law that applies to everyone else.

Even this latest scandal involving the documents stored at Mar-a-Lago gives evidence of Trump’s monarchical self-regard. One of the most sycophantic Trump supporters, Rep. Jim Jordan, said last week that “everyone knows” it is “ridiculous” to question Trump’s possession of classified documents, because “Come on, he’s the ultimate classifier and decider.”

Trump agrees: He has boldly declared that he declassified everything in question, at will and on his own word, as if this is sufficient. Trump’s camp insists that “he had a standing order . . . that documents removed from the Oval Office and taken to the residence were deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them.”

So forget the fact that “declassification, even by the President, must follow established procedures.” Trump’s courtiers assert—without providing any evidence—that he had a policy in place that said he could take classified documents anywhere he pleased and those documents, as if by royal fiat, would instantly be declassified. The king’s will is law.

What would the men and women who supported America’s break with the British monarch make of Trump’s monarchical inclinations? Here is Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, the Revolution’s most important pamphlet:

Independency means no more than this, whether we shall make our own laws, or, whether the King, the greatest enemy this continent hath, or can have, shall tell us there shall be no laws but such as I like. . . . In America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other. [Emphasis in original.]

Here is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, writing to George Washington from Paris in 1788:

I was much an enemy to monarchy before I came to Europe. I am ten thousand times more so since I have seen what they are. There is scarcely an evil known in these countries which may not be traced to their king as it’s source, nor a good which is not derived from the small fibres of republicanism existing among them. I can further say with safety there is not a crowned head in Europe whose talents or merit would entitle him to be elected a vestryman by the people of any parish in America.

And what of Washington himself? In 1782—during the period after the victory at Yorktown but before the peace treaty was signed—Gen. Washington received a memo from a Philadelphia official suggesting that a new government be constituted with a king (presumably Washington himself) at its head. Washington immediately responded to describe his “surprise,” “astonishment,” and “abhorrence”: “You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.”

If the American Revolution’s most important leaders and their most ardent followers agreed on any one thing, it was that no man was above the law. And yet the Revolution’s current MAGA enthusiasts live by the motto “Trump is ours and he can do no wrong.” And the more that their man stretches the bounds of legality, propriety, and credulity, the more they support him.

Donald Trump was the first presidential candidate in forty years to refuse to release tax returns.

Donald Trump was the first president in U.S. history to treat national security as a matter of his own private whim—long before this latest scandal over classified documents. Within days of his inauguration, the New York Times reported that he coordinated the administration’s response to a North Korean missile test on the Mar-a-Lago terrace in full view of guests, “a remarkable public display of presidential activity that is almost always conducted in highly secure settings.” Like a monarch, he sought to give official positions to his heirs, and then he reportedly overruled security officials and staffers to get them top-secret clearance.

Donald Trump continued to run his private business while in the White House, despite promises not to, and regularly ignored the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, leasing federal property for his Trump International Hotel in the nation’s capital, where foreign governments spent millions, and where political allies and lobbyists spent millions more frequenting the hotel and its bar while Trump served as president.

Donald Trump famously has the tacky taste and tendency toward ostentation of a minor king, and it was reported last month that he has been garishly and illegally using the presidential seal to promote the Saudi government-backed LIV Golf Tournament at his Bedminster, New Jersey golf course. According to the Washington Post, “the seal was plastered on towels, golf carts and other items” at the event.

And Donald Trump is, of course, the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice; the only president to refuse to concede office after losing an election (indeed, the only major presidential candidate to refuse to concede a lost election); and the only president to attempt to overturn the election results, going so far as to incite violent supporters who were calling for the death of his own vice president.

Yet despite all that, Trump continues to lead the Republican party, and continues to attract followers.

“We are a constitutional republic. We are not a democracy,” Trump’s MAGA partisans like to say (exhuming a slogan from the John Birch Society). It is supposed to explain why they do not care what others say about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, and why they continue to support their man Trump.

But in fact, what they defend is neither a republic nor the Constitution, but a demagogue who has no respect for either—and who would rule as a king if he could.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.