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‘MAGA Republicans’ are a variant. The disease is white supremacy.

Trump extremists are only the latest manifestation of the racism embedded in this nation’s foundation.

In his speech in Philadelphia last week, President, Biden cast the midterm elections as a stark choice between his agenda and the extremism of “MAGA Republicans.”Doug Mills/NYT

President Biden is right to call out the “MAGA Republicans,” but he’s still having the wrong conversation about the greatest threat to democracy.

It’s white supremacy.

Without it, there would be no “MAGA Republicans.” Those devoted to Donald Trump, who would sooner leave this nation in ashes than uphold democracy’s promises, are only the latest manifestation of the racist malignancies embedded in this nation’s foundation.

The same forces that sustained and justified slavery for nearly 250 years and sabotaged Reconstruction thread through the Jim Crow era. It flowed in the veins of the white men who snatched Emmett Till from his bed in Mississippi in 1955 as well as the white police officers who lied and falsified evidence for the no-knock warrant that led them to Breonna Taylor’s door as she slept in her Louisville apartment in 2020.


And it exhales in the shrill whine of the defeated man who incited thousands of white insurrectionists in a violent attempt to overthrow the 2020 presidential election. That centuries-old brew of racism, grievance, and entitlement continues to roil and undermine the nation.

More than a century before MAGA Republicans, there were the Red Shirts, White Leagues, and Ku Klux Klan terrorizing and massacring Black people and their allies across the postwar South. For them, the Civil War never ended; it simply moved to new fronts.

“With them, the end sanctifies the means, however desperate and bloody; and that end is first, midst, last, and always, ‘A WHITE MAN’S GOVERNMENT’ — tantamount to the old slaveholding oligarchic supremacy,” William Lloyd Garrison, the Boston abolitionist, wrote in an 1875 letter to the Boston Journal.

Not a single word needs to be altered to capture the current climate. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are nothing more than rebranded Red Shirts and White Leagues. And Garrison’s descriptions also apply to Trump’s acolytes whether they’re on school boards, in Congress, or on the Supreme Court.


In coining the term “MAGA Republicans,” the Biden administration has taken great pains to distinguish the hardcore Trumpists from the rest of the party. During his speech last week about threats to democracy, Biden said, “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.”

But he added: “There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country.”

I am not as generous as the president. If there are Republicans opposed to their party’s full embrace of Trumpism, most have remained awfully quiet about it. During both Trump impeachments, there were stories about Republicans who privately wanted Trump held accountable. But they voted publicly to save his hide and, by extension, their own political futures.

Some Republicans may disapprove of Trump as their party’s brand ambassador, but there’s been no mass repudiation. After four catastrophic years, Trumpism should have been soundly rejected in 2020; instead, even though Trump lost, millions more voted for him that year than in 2016. Clearly, Republicans were focused not on the messenger but the messaging, such as swarming the Supreme Court with Federalist Society-approved conservatives who all ultimately voted this year to overturn Roe v. Wade.


Trump gave Republicans what they wanted. That earned their silent loyalty and showed their enmity for democracy. They may not like Trump, but his vision for America matches their own and permits them to rest easy in the comfort of lies about “election integrity” and banning “divisive” books in schools.

But in Biden’s willingness to separate comparatively reasonable Republicans from “MAGA Republicans,” he absolves them. And that allows them to look elsewhere for answers to the sorry state of the nation instead of inward at their own complicity. In times of crisis, saying and doing nothing is disgraceful yet that’s the path that “good” Republicans have chosen as democracy falters. It’s a reminder that not every white supremacist wears a white hood — or a red MAGA cap.

Never let it be forgotten that an American president felt compelled to give a televised speech because, as Biden said, “equality and democracy are under assault,” by fellow Americans. “We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise,” he said.

We also do ourselves no favors pretending that Trump is the sole architect of a treacherous moment many bloody centuries in the making. To save democracy, it’s not enough to cut off “MAGA Republicans” like a diseased branch. White supremacy itself, the soil from which Trump and MAGA grew, must be uprooted.

After Biden’s speech, some journalists and pundits complained that the president went too far in his condemnation of MAGA Republicans. I would argue that until Biden calls out white supremacy as democracy’s biggest enemy, the president still hasn’t gone far enough.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.