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New books traces the story of the MAGA movement and its 'ground war to end democracy'

“Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy” by Isaac Arnsdorf
Little, Brown and Company
“Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy” by Isaac Arnsdorf

The violent protests at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 shocked the nation. But, The Show's next guest reports it also inspired a growing movement of activists to pick up where the riot left off.

Isaac Arnsdorf is a national political reporter for The Washington Post and author of the new book "Finish What We Started," which traces the story of the MAGA believers who took over the Republican Party from a grassroots level here in Arizona and around the country — and continued their mission to return former president Donald Trump to power.

The Show spoke with Arnsdorf more about it.

Full conversation

ISAAC ARNSDORF: I thought it was important to understand January 6th as the beginning of something rather than that culmination of something and that, that it was the start of a new era in American politics. And at that time in the immediate aftermath, you know, Trump was kind of out of the picture. He was kind of in hiding for a while. And so it was really the grassroots that set the direction for how the party was going to go. And specifically a plan that was popularized by Steve Bannon to take over the party organization itself through the the bottom rung of the ladder at the precinct level and then work their way up to the districts and the county and the state and eventually the RNC. And so really, actually the, you know, the change in leadership that we saw at the Arizona state GOP and then up to the RNC in the past few months are kind of the expression of that movement and that strategy finding a lot of success in a short amount of time.

LAUREN GILGER: It's really interesting because I've reported on it from, you know, the news side of it and never really realized that it was sort of a cohesive strategy. Talk a little bit about what this has looked like specifically in Arizona, starting at those precinct levels and working their way up.

ARNSDORF: Yeah, I mean, Arizona was a very MAGA state party to begin and was pretty far to the right going back 10 years, you know, like, like birther-ism was very big in Arizona. But even with that, as your starting point in 2021 what, what changed was a ton of new people came into the precinct and the district party committees. And so the leadership of the party organization changed from more traditional Republicans to more MAGA Republicans. And that led to things that you know well, like the audit, the nomination of very outspoken election deniers, a change in leadership of the party, the "fake electors." And now the prosecution of the fake electors.

GILGER: This plan seems almost to be backfiring but not in a way that anybody within the Republican Party seems to be regretful of, I guess.

ARNSDORF: Yes. And I, I remember asking Steve Bannon about that right after the midterms when you know, the red wave that everyone was expecting didn't materialize. And particularly in Arizona, the Republicans lost, I think, every statewide office except treasurer and Bannon was like, yes, absolutely. It was because the traditional Republicans didn't get with the program. But he viewed that as their problem, not his problem. He used the phrase a taste for blood that now that the, that the MAGA Republicans had the experience of winning the primaries and getting their nominees, even though those candidates went on to lose, that taste of victory was going to embolden them rather than humble them.

GILGER: Wow, that's, that's really interesting. OK. So in this book, you profile these characters who are, you know, very in depth, some of whom we know here in Arizona in the news. But tell us about a few of the people in this book who you've profiled who really captured your imagination.

ARNSDORF: Yeah. So there's, there's a woman in Maricopa County named Kathy Petsas who is kind of the epitome of the traditional Republican. I mean, literally a lifelong Republican, grew up volunteering, licking envelopes, president of the Teen Age Republicans, was a page on the floor of the 1980 convention when Reagan was elected, you know, puts a John McCain sign out on her lawn every year. You know, she is, she calls herself an G Republican and she kind of represents this crazy experience that she and, and a significant number of other Republicans have had of suddenly getting confronted with people who they've never seen before who were telling them that there weren't real Republicans, right? That they were RINOs.

How could they not understand the theft and the fraud and, and how elections really work and, and struggling with how the party was changing and what their place in it would be. And a process over the course of the midterms where Democrats and also some, some anti-Trump Republican strategists sort of developed that as a community, sort of the stranded Republican who doesn't want to vote for Democrats but can't tolerate the Republicans who are on the ballot and how do they deal with that? And that being like a real struggle that people are having in, you know, an admittedly small slice of the electorate. But in a close election that, that can be decisive.

“Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy” by Isaac Arnsdorf
Little, Brown and Company
“Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy” by Isaac Arnsdorf

GILGER: Yeah, absolutely. We've seen that happen so many times here. Talk a little bit about some of the people within the MAGA movement who you profiled and the motivations that they have for, you know, taking this route, even as, as you said, they've lost.

ARNSDORF: I, I interviewed a lot of people who have personal experience with things happening at polling places that they experience of voting or monitoring the elections. And, you know, there are being a lot of things that, that don't make sense because elections are hard and they're complicated and they're not intuitive and just administratively, they're very complicated. So people having the experience of, of seeing that for themselves and, and you know, where that leads them with the information that they're getting. But also that ultimately like anything that you hear about the machines or the mules or the, or the various allegations that will kind of pop up and get knocked down are really not what it's about as much as just a feeling of what was supposed to happen in the election and, and who America is supposed to be for and feeling represented and heard.

And Bannon was also very candid with me about how he thinks about the, the hole in people's lives, of the way that they feel alienated by modern society and loss of social bonds and community, particularly coming out of the pandemic and the way that, that he approached building this movement after January 6th as giving people something to belong to. And that, that was what he was filling that hole with was MAGA.

GILGER: So I want to ask you lastly then, I mean, the subtitle of this book is "The MAGA movement's ground war to end democracy." What's the ending democracy part of this in your mind and from your reporting?

ARNSDORF: Yeah. Well, people often ask me about that because it is actually the machinery, counterintuitively, it is the machinery of democracy. If you think about like party organizing that the movement is using and that was kind of the whole innovation. But you know, historically, that's actually a key point is that democracy is vulnerable as a free society to anti-democratic forces within it. And in countries where democracy has back slid or it just as often happens at the hands of its own elected leaders than it does in some kind of military coup.

And so, you know, when you have a movement that is premised on the outcome of a free and fair election and you have a candidate who is very open about tolerating violence when it suits his ends. And also about wanting to govern if he returns to power in a way that would use government power against his critics and opponents. That is the choice that America is facing.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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