When most people think of the MAGA movement’s adherents, odds are that they’re thinking about rural conservatives in southwestern or Rust Belt states, or even suburban New Yorkers on Long Island or upstate, but while New York City itself remains a blue bastion, the movement and its conspiracy-minded anti-government bent have made inroads.
The standard-bearer and originator of this particular flavor of extreme right ideology, former President Donald Trump, actually did better electorally in NYC in 2020 than his performance in 2016, shocking some observers. The City Council’s GOP bloc grew from three to five, still a small minority of the 51-member legislative body, but significant enough to be playing a consequential role in the Council’s ongoing redistricting process.
Among them, Minority Leader Joe Borelli of Staten Island has long been a prominent Trump surrogate, while Brooklyn Councilmember Inna Vernikov is an ardent supporter who recorded a robocall with Donald Trump, Jr. Queens Councilmember Vickie Paladino has embraced dubious right-wing positions like vaccine skepticism, having clashed with her colleagues over the Council’s vaccine mandate, eventually receiving an exemption.
Beyond the electoral matters, far-right and even explicitly white nationalist organizing has blindsided some New Yorkers around the city. In 2018, members of the white identitarian group Identity Evropa held an anti-immigration rally in Fort Tryon Park in Fort George. In 2019, several members of the racist group Proud Boys were convicted for the brazen assault of demonstrators outside the Metropolitan Republican Club, where founder Gavin McInnes had been invited to speak.
All of this is both puzzling and concerning for New Yorkers who see a rising tide of what seems like a dangerous and aggressive form of anti-democratic thought and don’t know what is being done about it, or what they can do in response. One official who has thought deeply about the danger of an advancing militant MAGA movement is Brooklyn Councilmember Justin Brannan, who often tussles directly with assorted trolls on his sizable Twitter account.
Conspiracy theories abound
“What I find most depressing is how we’ve even lost the fake civility we once had. These days I can’t even talk about getting a pothole filled without someone spitting in my face yelling NancyPelosibailreformGeorgeSorosHillaryslaptop,” wrote Brannan in an email to me, referencing a number of conspiracy theories that have proliferated on the right, as well as the acrimonious battle over bail reform, which has often been blamed for rising violent crime even as there’s little evidence that it has substantially led to more dangerous people on the streets.
Referencing a famous quote from former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who said that there was “no Democratic or Republican way to pick up garbage,” Brannan lamented that even the nuts and bolts of local government were getting sucked into the black hole of political culture war. “I’m focused on demystifying local government, pulling back the curtain and putting the power back where it belongs — in the hands of the people. I recognize information, knowledge, and awareness is power,” he wrote. “These days credible and accurate is in short supply.”
For many in New York City’s political firmament, the crux of the problem is that the opposition is either complacent or disorganized. The Brooklyn Democratic Party has been in a monthslong meltdown over its leadership. Democrats in the State Legislature hamstrung themselves with an ill-fated attempt to gerrymander state legislative lines in their favor, an effort that backfired and has now made the state congressional elections a sudden battleground.
Voters are being taken for granted
There’s a perception that the powers that be are taking certain constituencies for granted. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for City & State on the stunted Latino political movement in New York, with the continuous gains in population for the city’s massive Hispanic population not translating to corresponding political power. During the course of that reporting, former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is Puerto Rican, vented to me that her fellow Democrats often treated Latino voters as responsible for voting them into office, rather than seeing themselves as responsible for winning those votes. “Instead of blaming us as Latinos, to say, ‘Well, you’re not committed Democratic voters,’ which is what I’ve heard some people say, as opposed to that, to say, ‘Well, what are we doing [to earn votes]?’”
For Latinos and Asian-Americans and others who’ve occasionally felt deprioritized, the apparent lack of outreach or effort doesn’t just disincentivize participation in more mainstream politics, but can open the door for more fringe ideologies to take hold, particularly in a golden era of spreading disinformation. As investigators at Equis Research, which among other things studies the spread of false information among Latino voters, recently delineated to me, a survey of thousands of Latinos in the U.S. surfaced efforts not just to make them switch parties or vote a certain way, but to lose trust in mainstream institutions altogether through a mix of disinformation including anti-vaccine and political conspiracy messaging.
For a regular New Yorker bewildered by this, an obvious move is to demand that political leaders drop the complacency; the desperate efforts by Brooklyn Democratic Party officials to retain rigid control of the borough’s political machine, for example, helps no one and wastes a lot of time and effort that could be better spent hearing and responding to voter concerns from different constituencies. In practice, that doesn’t mean ignoring the spreading ideologies and hoping they’ll go away, but acknowledging what voters are hearing and working to counteract false narratives with concrete action.
Politicizing of certain issues
Brannan, the Brooklyn councilmember, uses the example of crime, which is a real concern for constituents even as it gets wildly twisted into a political weapon far beyond the actual reality. “I understand perception is reality. I will never tell someone they aren’t experiencing what they are experiencing. No victim wants to hear about statistics showing crime rates are actually low — because while that may be true, it doesn’t solve their problem,” he wrote. “Only a foolish politician would deny what people are feeling but we must also avoid leaning into media hysteria. Yes, let’s take crime in our community seriously, but let’s also live in reality.”
On an individual level, the best advice I can give is to pay attention to what’s happening in the thousands of tiny communities that make up the city; you might not be able to directly influence city politics, but you can certainly influence yourself, your family, people in your church or synagogue or mosque, people at your workplace. The conspiracy-mongering and extreme ideologies take hold more easily in the absence of community, and particularly if there aren’t counter-acting political conversations. If you care about maintaining a healthy politics, provide alternatives, including your own grass-roots organizing. Be aware of how bad information spreads, such as familiarizing yourself with the quick guide I put together last week. Be a neighbor, and demand more from our elected leadership.