The MAGA movement is making inroads into NYC. Credit: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Moms for Liberty organization — a coalition of right-wing education activists that won significant political power and subsequently began to splinter, all at lightning speed — launched its first NYC chapter in Queens late last year. Months later, Bruce Blakeman, county executive of neighboring Nassau County in Long Island, issued an executive order barring girls’ teams from utilizing county-run sporting facilities if they had any transgender athletes, and was promptly sued by the state. Then, just this week, hundreds of new books were found in the trash near a Staten Island school, with notes making it clear they were being discarded due to their inclusion of characters of color and discussion of LGBTQ themes.

Moms for Liberty, trans athlete restrictions, book bans? Aren’t these the province of red states with hyper-conservative leaders, with our beloved NYC a faraway respite? How can this be happening here?, some New Yorkers wondered. To answer that question, let’s talk a little bit about what the MAGA movement fundamentally is, and what it hopes to accomplish.

MAGA has often been referenced interchangeably with the contemporary GOP, but I think that obscures the causality a little. MAGA in its contemporary form has emerged as a sort of cult of personality around Trump as a figure, yet its roots stretch further back and its implications are wider. Its relationship with the mainstream Republican party has gone from something semi-organic that was then aggressively cultivated as a weapon against political enemies, to breaking containment and functionally taking over.

Basically, think of MAGA as a virus from a zombie movie. The shadowy corporate lab saw the potential of the pathogen in the raw and decided to modify it, shape it, test it out in various forms on various organisms, refine it to its deadliest format. Then, one day, the now super-virus got out, and the very qualities that had made it such a desirable weapon were turned on its creator, whose dwindling lab staff found themselves hunkered down in some fortified conference room, desperately planning a counterattack as the zombies closed in. Only instead of a resistance to pain and an unrelenting desire for brains, these qualities are a deeply-ingrained skepticism of institutionalism as a concept, a reflexive conspiratorial bent, a belief in the legitimacy of the weaponization of government against enemies and the necessity of political violence.

This didn’t all happen in 2015, nor even during the Tea Party boom of Obama’s first term. You could argue it traces its roots back to Goldwater and Nixon. But it escaped from containment, I think, during Trump’s election, when the skepticism that had been so useful in destroying the base’s faith in impartial journalism and government programs was trained on the RNC and mainstream GOP itself. Lawmakers who had had a hand in engineering this movement suddenly found themselves cast aside or even targeted over not sufficiently kissing the ring or stopping short of wholesale endorsement of conspiracies like, eventually, the big lie of 2020 election theft.

Now, Republicans have underperformed relative to expectations in practically every federal election since 2018, with the almost certain renomination of Trump as the 2024 presidential nominee promising to be something of an anchor, accelerated by the unpopularity of policies like abortion restrictions and, more recently, the turn against IVF. State parties are broke and have resorted to heavy gerrymandering to keep hold on state power. The movement is in many ways well on the process of devouring the party that honed it, yet this isn’t as much a cause for alarm because its adherents don’t necessarily see themselves as having to act within the preexisting confines of the political system.

What all this really means is that there is no real immunity from the MAGA spread, even in deep-blue locales like NYC. It is a movement rooted fundamentally in a message of they’re out to get you, and if you let them, they will take away your way of life (I’ll note the irony of that coming from a movement whose main response to this fear is an attempt to subjugate everyone outside it). As such, it benefits from but doesn’t especially require electoral success in any given area. Is there much of a chance that MAGA will gain a substantial political foothold in NYC? That seems unlikely. But the fact that it doesn’t need those footholds to have an impact, that it sees itself as something of an underdog guerrilla movement even as its leader was recently president of the United States, makes it even more consequential.

The books debacle is a perfect example. As per the Department of Education, there was no formal review or approval of this decision, and these sorts of book bans would never get enough electoral appeal or policymaker buy-in in NYC to be legitimately implemented. But it got done anyway, at this school, by a staffer or several staffers who either saw themselves as frontline executors of this MAGA vision or at the very least didn’t care to intervene as it was happening. If someone hadn’t noticed the boxes, and if they hadn’t explained on post-it notes and markings on the boxes why they were doing this — e.g. “not approved. Discusses being transgender. Teenage girls having a crush on another girl in class.” — then the school simply would have implemented a full-on MAGA policy. Perhaps some other schools already have.

On the issue of Blakeman’s trans athletes restriction, I want to note two specific things: first, it targets only girls’ teams, meaning it is a de facto prohibition on trans athletes only in one direction. Transgender boys and nonbinary people assigned female at birth are free to compete in boys’ teams, which sort of gives away the orders’ hand as an effort to tap into the preoccupation with girls’ safety that powers a lot of reactionary policy making (concern that seems to mysteriously stop at ensuring access to reproductive care).

Second, it’s not altogether clear that there actually are any transgender girls or male-assigned nonbinary people competing in girls’ teams right now in county facilities. The order doesn’t really reference anyone specific, nor does any of the coverage I’ve seen; if there are some such athletes in the county, they must be a tiny fraction of the overall athlete population. So who is this for, exactly? The supposed victims are basically theoretical. The harms, too.

The MAGA movement is making inroads into NYC.

This is in effect a policy not primarily designed to change things on the ground, but to loudly signal that Blakeman is fighting the good fight against the woke enforcers, or whatever. It’s an attempt to keep inching the bounds of acceptable policymaking and general political discourse towards open bigotry, which is another plank in this movement. I was remarking to some students lately that, nine years ago, Trump was cutting his starkly anti-immigrant statements with allusions to “a big, fat, beautiful, open door” for legal immigrants, a product of the still-held understanding that Republicans couldn’t straight-up come out against immigration as a concept. Now, nearly a decade later, it’s considered practically disloyal to reference wanting any immigration at all, legal or not.

Ditto with concepts like the so-called great replacement conspiracy, the notion that nonwhite immigrants are in effect being imported to dilute white majorities and their power. Seven years ago, this was a fringe enough position that there was shock at its open invocation during the now-infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Now, it’s practically part of the GOP platform, invoked by Trump himself with comments like his recent allusions to immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country” and prominent figures like X owner Elon Musk, who’s made musing about the conspiracy something of a calling card.

The shift happens slowly enough that most people won’t necessarily perceive it; if you ask a regular voter how much Trump has moved in the last eight years, they will probably say that he’s been relatively consistent in his rhetoric. Yet if you actually compare it one-to-one, it’s markedly, significantly more extreme. And that’s really what’s happening here, a series of beachheads around the country that are committed to pushing the same extremism, whether they are or are not actually electorally in power, because the purest version of this ideology sees electoral legitimacy as ultimately unnecessary.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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