In late July, I had a conversation with my Puck partner Tina Nguyen, who covers the part of the conservative world I’ll call the MAGAverse. I hoped to get a better understanding of how power is moving in our country, and Tina did not disappoint. We connected from hotel rooms, mine in D.C., and hers in Tampa, where she was reporting on Turning Point USA Student Action Summit—a conservative meet-up and incubator for young right-wing activists and leaders. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Baratunde Thurston: Good morning, Tina! So, I’ve brought you into this hotel-to-hotel chat to pick your brain on three topics. The first is January 6 and what we’ve been learning and how the MAGA world thinks about it. The second is what the outside world thinks about our little democratic experiment we’ve been running for a couple of centuries. The third is you and how you came to be in a situation where, as I understand it, you’re spending your weekend at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit, which is why you’re in Tampa.
But let’s start with the Jan. 6 hearings. I’m old enough to remember my excited liberal friends donning Robert Mueller t-shirts that said things like, “It’s Mueller Time,” as they opened boxes of wine to prematurely celebrate a moment of accountability for Donald Trump. In the end, of course, not much happened to Trump, so I’m curious what the far right you cover is seeing when they watch these hearings, if they are watching these hearings at all?
Tina Nguyen: It’s an important question, because right now there’s a part of MAGA world that has always viewed the Jan. 6 riot as, essentially, a whole bunch of hyper-enthusiastic patriots who got a little carried away. You’ll also hear people in this world say, well, they would have let Antifa do it. Do you remember in 2010 when a bunch of pro-teachers union activists took over the Wisconsin State Capitol and stayed there for three months?
Tina: They’ll equate both of those things. In other words, “You let left-wing people do it in Madison, Wisconsin. Why can’t we do it here?” I was covering the January 6 riot before it was a riot. I was literally there on the Hill that morning—before any shit went down, before any Proud Boys broke any fences, interviewing people who were there to intimidate lawmakers as they entered the building. And one of those guys literally said to me, “You know what? We could overtake that building. They let Antifa do it in Madison, why can’t we do it here? There’s more of us than there are of them.”
Baratunde: Wow. I’m pausing on “I covered the January 6 riot before it was a riot.” That is a claim to street cred that rivals any fan of an obscure punk band that I’ve ever heard.
Tina: Thank you. It’s interesting, the social context is really important when you’re looking at how Republicans have reacted to the fallout. Now, to be clear, we have learned some new information as a result of the Jan. 6 hearings that has changed our understanding of the event. The various connections to the Oathkeepers and Proud Boys, to right-wing militia activity, is new. Learning that Trump intentionally declined to do anything while it was genuinely possible that his vice president, Mike Pence, could be killed—that’s also new. It’s getting harder to defend for Republicans, but they’re still kind of holding on to the idea that it was just this protest that went a little haywire and not a coup.
And, frankly, that’s the missing link that Democrats still haven’t been able to nail. Yes, the riot got really out of control. Yes, there were actual militia members and reactionary street-brawling groups that were in there trying to find, and possibly kill, lawmakers. Yes, the people who ran both of those groups were on a text thread, and somehow they had advance notice that Trump was going to ask people to march to the Capitol, and they decided to stage themselves outside of the Capitol, despite quote-unquote “adults” in the White House imploring Trump not to incite the Stop the Steal rally audience to march there. But, they have not been able to establish a causal link between Trump wanting to keep the presidency, and the Proud Boys, etc., breaking into the Capitol.
The other thing, and there’s polling to support this, is that many Republicans genuinely think that Trump was just exercising his constitutional right to free speech.
Baratunde: When you bring up the Wisconsin teacher sit-in, I don’t recall any firearms or any American flag-themed spears. I don’t recall anyone trying to hang Scott Walker at the time. Do you think that people who bring up these other incidents from the left involving civil disobedience at a large scale truly believe in the comparison, or is it simply a story they need to tell to rationalize what was clearly a horrific, embarrassing and frightening day for the country?
Tina: I think it depends on who you ask. I’ve run into both kinds of people in the wild.
Baratunde: Ok, just to put it differently, does anybody in MAGA world give a shit about Jan. 6? Or do they just consider it another day in America, something to squeeze in between wondering if Apple is going to buy the NFL and if a Star Wars character in an upcoming film is going to be the gender I don’t expect them to be? Where does Jan. 6 rank on a list of concerns for MAGA world folks?
Tina: They would tell you it ranks really low. I really don’t have much of a psychic insight into what they genuinely believe, although certainly there’s some portion of G.O.P. voters who don’t want Trump to run for president again, not because they believe he was a bad president, but because they want someone with less drama.
Baratunde: I’m going to project a psychological or emotional explanation on that talking point. When anyone’s been through some shit, we’ve got to make up a story to make it less horrific. So “drama” becomes a codeword for, “completely and utterly unacceptable.” I have to say, “We just want someone with a little less drama,” because if I admit that I fundraised for, attended rallies for, voted for, and defended this person, then that impugns me. That indicts me, and that can’t be true because I’m a good person.
Tina: Right, and that’s why a growing number of Republicans say they’re backing Ron DeSantis. That’s literally his pitch: I can do all the MAGA shit that Trump did, but without the drama.
Baratunde: Does anyone actually like Ron DeSantis?
Tina: He’s the highest polling potential ‘24 candidate behind Trump, and he’s even beaten him in some polls, though he’s still the underdog in a head-to-head matchup by a wide margin. But he’s got a real following. I’ve run into people in the wild who are like, “Ron DeSantis is my guy.” I was literally on an elevator at the Turning Point USA conference, in Florida, and there were kids glued to their phones watching a Ron DeSantis speech.
Baratunde: As you know, I have a humble interest in preserving and extending our small-d democracy. It’s why I do the How To Citizen podcast and related work. In the U.S. we’ve had a tradition of at least saying we believe in democracy even when we don’t practice it, but it seems like even that shared pretense is out the window. The attack on state elections officials by Republicans is one flagrant example. In a moment where pretty much everyone on the left and in the center acknowledges we have a crisis of democratic legitimacy (see: the Supreme Court, the Electoral College, the Senate, election denial, etc.), are there people in MAGA world who fear for the American project in the way that I do?
Tina: They do. But the way that they view it is completely different. When I was covering the Pennsylvania Senate race, I was talking to some G.O.P. operatives running one of the campaigns, and they pointed out that plenty of the state’s Trump voters now genuinely have this fear that paper ballots are not going to be counted correctly, or that poll workers are secretly funded by George Soros, etcetera. The changes that states made during the pandemic, which led to huge increases in mail-in ballots and the use of remote ballot boxes, sparked this very deep primal fear within the Republican Party. Whether you want to blame Trump’s messaging, or conservative media, or voters themselves, it’s a fact that those fears are real and not going away.
Baratunde: With respect to the democracy question, what do they fear? What are they afraid is going to happen?
Tina: On the surface, they’ll say they fear big government—the impact of some faraway bureaucrat making decisions that lead to rising gas prices, higher inflation, and so on; institutional-level scolding over what they can or can’t say; the imposition of Covid restrictions that make their life or job feel less secure. Deep down, if you’re talking to the conservative activist crowd that I know and cover, they’ll say it is a fear about losing control.
Baratunde: Fear of losing control is a fear I can identify with. On an individual level, no one really wants to feel like they’re not in control of their lives. But when I look at the political outcomes in this country, from Supreme Court decisions to Senate representation and the Electoral College, this fear emanating from conservative and largely white America feels so absurd. I’m thinking, “You’ve got more control than you mathematically deserve” based on public opinion and what fairer districting lines would produce. So I see a group punching above its weight and having a disproportionate amount of control over policy and legislation.
Tina: They’re pretty explicit about their belief that, in fact, progressives have an equally outsized advantage in control of academia, the media, Hollywood, all of these cultural institutions that can put ideas in people’s heads. That’s why you see them going a little bit psycho over “wokeness” within corporations or newsrooms or the Hollywood studios.
Baratunde: Right, that explains why Ben Shapiro recruited Jordan Peterson to join The Daily Wire, for instance, and why they’re making such big investments in video and even movies. They recognize the discrepancy in cultural power and storytelling power with respect to more liberal Hollywood, and they’re like, “This should not be normal. We need different programming for our kids. So we’re going to start our own streaming thing.”
Here’s the closing, third act of this conversation: you, Tina. You’ve written about some of your upbringing, such as your personal connections to the Claremont Institute. How did you come to be a reporter on this particular beat and to have such trusted sources within MAGA world? What led you here?
Tina: My first real job out of college was at The Daily Caller, thanks to a conservative internship program I joined called The Institute for Humane Studies—a Koch-funded journalism program with a libertarian focus. Because of where I started, I have this tactile understanding of what goes on in the background of the conservative movement. It’s like how Bill Cohan used to be a banker, and now reports on Wall Street.
Baratunde: This Turning Point USA Student Action Summit you’re at right now, it sounds like a version of what you did in your own youth, where young people are trained to become the next generation of conservative activists or conservative media people. Is that about right?
Tina: That’s absolutely accurate. There are a bunch of conservative programs that try to target the next generation of conservative leadership, and they invest heavily in all aspects of it. So I entered this world via journalism programs that are specifically meant to find young conservatives. Or, not necessarily conservative, but young, right-leaning people—or in my case, people who were just obsessed with early American history and the Founding Fathers. As a result, I got a paid internship in the summer of 2009, at the height of the recession, when paid internships in journalism just weren’t happening. They said, “Hey, if you come to this seminar called Journalism In the Free Society, we’re going to talk about how the media gets reporting on free market economics completely wrong. We’re gonna give you $3,200, and you can have an internship for the summer.”
Baratunde: That’s a lot of money!
Tina: For a 20-year-old, yes. Then I got another fellowship from the Koch Foundation that summer to help my professors research something, which gave me an additional $5,000. So I had a very flush summer in 2009. The thing is, they don’t need or expect every single one of the students at these events to become a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian or conservative. They just need to have enough. There are plenty of people in Washington who have gone through one of these seminars that say, “Oh, I just applied for it. It got a little wacky. I’m not into that anymore.” But then there are the people that recruiters found at those seminars who ended up becoming the speakers here at Turning Point tonight.
Baratunde: Was Ben Shapiro the product of this kind of conservative academic pipeline that you’re describing?
Tina: Yeah. One of the reasons he became known in the conservative world was because he was attending this secret conservative salon in Hollywood called Friends of Abe, as in Abe Lincoln. It was basically all the Hollywood conservatives getting together to complain about how shitty it is being a conservative in Hollywood. The group was initially run by Gary Sinise. Then Andrew Breitbart took over the group. Ben Shapiro and his now-business partner, Jeremy Boreing, met there, and that’s how The Daily Wire kind of got brainstormed into existence.
Baratunde: The pipeline you’re describing—the think tanks, the nonprofits, all the outside investment in nurturing the conservative movement and its practitioners—reminds me of our colleague Peter Hamby’s great piece about the 50 year journey to overturn Roe, and it involves a lot of investing. In fact, what you’re describing with these conservative journalism programs sounds more like venture investing: “We don’t need all these companies to go to the moon or to 10x or 100x. We just need a few, enough to make the payoff worth it.” I think a lot of folks on the left aren’t aware that this is happening. Is there a liberal version of this that’s countering this conservative cultural investment?
Tina: Not really. The conservative activist movement as we know it has been around since the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. From the very beginning, they’ve followed a strategy of identifying key institutions of cultural and political power and then looking at how to infiltrate or counterbalance them. That includes the Republican Party itself. In the 1970s, conservative activists were so disillusioned with the G.O.P. that they were ready to start their own party. They thought they would never get their agenda passed. Ronald Reagan had to lobby them hard, and moved further to the right, to keep them in party because he needed their votes.
Baratunde: And look at that agenda now. Tina, this has been an incredibly useful conversation. I think of it as a bit of a public service, honestly. You’ve added some clarity to how things actually work in the country, and for me, removed some of the mystery and surprise while raising the bar on what’s required to advance a different set of ideas. So thank you for taking time to talk to me as the country decides whether it wants to continue to be a country.
Tina: Thanks, Baratunde. This really is such an intricate and crazy world that it’s hard to even scratch the surface in one conversation.
Baratunde: Well, let’s make sure this isn’t the last one we have.