Why Biden is deploying Trump's MAGA brand against the GOP

·10-min read

WASHINGTON — On Thursday, April 21, President Biden left Washington for a pair of fundraisers in the Pacific Northwest, one in Portland and another in Seattle. By the time he returned to the White House the following Monday, his effort to brand the Republican Party as hostage to Trumpian extremists would be underway.

As he flew west, Biden was fleeing a host of troubles, from the defeat of his travel mask mandate by a Florida judge to a persistent inflation crisis. “It's been a very bad few days for Joe Biden,” said a CNN headline that Wednesday. Arguably, it had been a very bad few months for the president, with his approval ratings in the low 30s, a perilous place as the congressional midterms approached.

The first fundraiser was at the Portland Yacht Club. It was there that the embattled Biden tried out a phrase that has since entered his lexicon in full force — and could help Democrats paint the Republicans as a party of extremists untenable to moderate voters who may be unhappy with Biden.

“This is not your father’s Republican Party, by any stretch of the imagination,” Biden said. “This is the MAGA Party. Not a joke.”

President Biden speaks at the White House on May 10.
President Biden speaks at the White House on May 10. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

In the past several weeks, “MAGA” has become the president’s favorite epithet, his effort at Trump-style branding. When he first took office, he referred to President Donald Trump as “the former guy,” distinguishing him from congressional Republicans with whom Biden believed he could work, as he would have during his own decades in the Senate.

Months of political setbacks proved him wrong. And so there in Portland, Biden erased the distinction, to the delight of Democrats who came to conclude long before he did that paeans to bipartisanship were not especially helpful in an acutely partisan age.

“I'm looking forward to making sure every American hears about the Republicans' toxic agenda” directly from the president, one Democratic Party operative in Washington, D.C., told Yahoo News. Like others who spoke to Yahoo News for this story, he was cheered by the pugnacious spirit, which could help Democrats power through the headwinds of a midterm election not favored to go their way.

“We’re going to make a contrast to the American people,” Biden pollster John Anzalone said. Although he would not say what his own polling revealed, Anzalone praised the president’s attempt to highlight the extent to which Trumpism remains the core GOP platform.

“It's incumbent on us to expose that," Anzalone told Yahoo News.

Then-President Donald Trump throws a
Then-President Donald Trump throws a "Make America Great Again" cap into the crowd during a campaign event in Allentown, Pa., in October 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Biden had never before used the phrase “MAGA” — Make America Great Again, Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan — since becoming president. He used it for a second time later on that April day in Seattle, during another fundraiser.

“This is not your father’s Republican Party,” Biden said. “This is a different deal. Not a joke. Not a joke. And it’s not just Trump, it’s the MAGA crowd. It’s all about things that have nothing to do with traditional, conservative doctrine.”

Without using his name, he alluded to Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and his crusade against Disney, which opposed a controversial new state law that critics said was antigay. DeSantis moved to strip the entertainment corporation of its favored tax status, making little effort to depict the move as anything but political retribution.

“I don’t believe it’s who the vast majority of American people are,” Biden said in Seattle, laying the groundwork for what has become, since then, the most sustained assault on Republicans — their candidates, their proposals, their vision for the country — since taking office.

The following day, Biden attended an Earth Day celebration in Seattle. “This is the MAGA party now,” he said, calling out Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas by name. “These guys are a different breed of cat. They’re not like what I served with for so many years. And the people who know better are afraid to act correctly, because they know they will be primaried.”

People wearing MAGA masks attend then-President Donald Trump's campaign event in Martinsburg, Pa, in October 2020.
People wearing MAGA masks attend then-President Donald Trump's campaign event in Martinsburg, Pa, in October 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Biden didn’t deploy the phrase again until after news broke that the Supreme Court was likely to overturn the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide. In remarks from the White House about the economy on May 4, Biden invoked the specter of “MAGA Republicans” trying to foist a radical and unpopular agenda on a nation that, in his telling, had not yet fully grasped the threat.

He argued that abortion bans in Republican-led states were only a preview. “What are the next things that are going to be attacked? Because this MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that's existed in recent American history.”

Republicans and conservative commentators have charged Biden with desperation and misdirection, but Democrats say that he is only pointing out that, whether Trump runs in 2024 or not, the party is as solidly his as it has ever been.

“The rhetoric very much reflects the reality: The GOP is now completely captured by Donald Trump and his extreme MAGA followers,” says independent Democratic strategist Ashley Woolheater, who formerly served as communications director for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “That's going to continue to turn reasonable people away from the Republican Party, and President Biden and Democrats are smart to lean into it.”

The White House says the MAGA branding was entirely Biden’s own idea, but it also reflects what Democratic pollsters have found to be an effective message. “​​We've tested ‘MAGA Republicans’ and ‘Trump Republicans,’” Biden pollster Celinda Lake, who also worked on the 2020 campaign, told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. “Those test very, very well.”

Joe Biden and Donald Trump participate in their second presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, in October 2020.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump participate in their second presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, in October 2020. (Jim Bourg/Pool/Reuters)

Other pollsters and consultants have arrived at similar conclusions. In a PowerPoint slide deck called the “GOP Branding Project,” compiled in late April, Navin Nayak of the Center for American Progress presented polling that showed branding all Republicans with the MAGA brand would dampen enthusiasm for the GOP.

“After messaging, voters tell us that MAGA Republicans are extreme, radical, power hungry, and racist,” Nayak’s presentation said. He added that MAGA was a “potential dog whistle to OUR base,” of the kind Republicans had been effectively using for years.

Since early May, Biden has invoked an “ultra-MAGA agenda,” which he says is “extreme, as most MAGA things are.” And he has called Trump “the great MAGA king.”

Lake told Yahoo News that “the qualifier ‘ultra-MAGA' helps. It makes them seem out of the mainstream.” She deemed the whole effort “incredibly effective.”

The push to turn GOP into MAGA comes at a propitious time — and after earlier efforts failed, leaving Democrats befuddled about how to approach the congressional midterms.

Last fall, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Virginia, tried to frame his Republican opponent, the politically inexperienced finance executive Glenn Youngkin, as the latest manifestation of Trumpism.

Trump speaks at a rally in July 2021 in Sarasota, Fla.
Trump speaks at a rally in July 2021 in Sarasota, Fla. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

Youngkin won easily, in part because of roiling discontent in liberal Northern Virginia suburbs over pandemic-related school closures.

“We could not make Glenn Youngkin a Donald Trump in a Patagonia,” HIT Strategies founding partner Terrance Woodbury told Yahoo News, referencing the candidate’s fondness for quilted vests.

Since then, however, several developments have made McAuliffe’s argument more salient than it was during his own campaign. In Florida, DeSantis launched a multi-front cultural battle that included, most notably, a law critics have called “Don’t Say Gay” for the chilling effect it would have, they say, on gay educators — or educators who want to discuss the nuances of gender and sexuality.

Dozens of mathematics textbooks have been purged from Florida schools for supposedly questionable content. Students have seen yearbooks policed. And Disney has emerged as an unlikely foe for its opposition to the law, with DeSantis seeking to punish the corporation in ways that seemed antithetical to traditional conservative pro-business attitudes.

“They're going to storm Cinderella's castle before this is over,” Biden recently joked.

DeSantis’s fellow Floridian — and predecessor as the state’s governor — Sen. Rick Scott, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also became a convenient target after releasing his 11-point program to “rescue America,” which would raise taxes on millions of Americans and end popular programs like Social Security and Medicare unless they were passed by Congress again.

Then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki is seen from a reporter's cellphone during her daily briefing on Sept. 22, 2021.
Then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during her daily briefing on Sept. 22, 2021. (Susan Walsh/File/AP)

The White House quickly turned Scott’s plan into the mainstream GOP platform, despite the fact that Scott’s colleague Sen. Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s Republican leader, made clear his disapproval. Scott’s own wealth — he is the richest member of Congress — only made the attacks more appealing, which the White House continued despite the protestations of other Republicans and an unfriendly fact-check from the Washington Post.

“Rick Scott is not a random senator. He is literally in charge of winning back the Senate for Republicans,” then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a recent press briefing.

Then there is Trump and the prospect of his return as a Republican presidential candidate in 2024. His successful endorsement of J.D. Vance in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat from Ohio was widely seen as a sign that the former president retained power over a party that has been desperately searching for new, younger leaders.

Woodbury said that the increasingly real prospect of Trump’s return made Biden’s branding especially effective, more than McAuliffe’s had been last fall. “‘Ultra-MAGA’ is a compelling frame for Democratic voters, but the threat is more real if it also includes their intention to reinstall Trump, and not just their brand of politics.”

Perhaps nothing crystallized Democratic anxieties like the draft decision by Justice Samuel Alito, leaked to Politico, that strongly suggested Roe v. Wade would be overturned before the Supreme Court session ends in June. The astonishing news coalesced progressive anxieties, given that it was the three Trump justices who hastened Roe’s imminent demise.

President Biden speaks at a White House reception on May 5.
President Biden speaks at a White House reception on May 5. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

“Sometimes voters need one of those defibrillator shocks to wake them up," Anzalone, the Biden pollster, says.

Together, these developments have allowed Biden to sharpen the contrast between his own administration — however unpopular it has been — and a Republican Party that in recent weeks has seemed to more closely embrace Trump and Trumpism than at any time since the Jan. 6 insurrection, when even conservative Republicans were willing to criticize the then-president.

“Their views don’t match the views of the American public,” Anzalone says. And the more explicitly Biden says that, he and others believe, the more appealing the Democrats’ message will become.