The Shape-Shifting Meme of MAGA

Common Symbology Before Common Ideology

Danielle Lee Tomson
5 min readJan 15, 2020

This is part of a new series of blog posts produced as I write my doctoral thesis-slash-book about conservative media influencers, technology, and nationalism. See the first one here.

Credit: Greg Nash for the Hill

Recently, I had a chance encounter over Chinese takeout with a journalist at a major magazine while visiting my fiancé at work. When I told her about my research, she asked, “What do these conservative influencers actually believe? Or is it just about owning the libs?”

While “owning the libs” is certainly a common joy for many conservative media influencers, it is more of a tactic than an ideology. But I responded:

“Honestly, there is a shared political symbology, less so ideology. MAGA is a shape-shifting meme that flattens a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people into a single symbol.”

This tracks with conservative media culture generally. Ever since Breitbart founder Andrew Breitbart uttered the words, “Politics is downstream from culture,” many conservative media influencers have held that the look, feel, and vibe of being conservative should come first. Politics, policy… that will come.

A meme gives a common feeling, less so a common explanation of a feeling. We know what is meant by this awkward seal meme, but might have different explanations or ideas of that meaning — sometimes to the point of dissonance. Awkward for thee is something different for me.

From Reddit

In an age of instantaneous, ever-scrolling, now-now-news-alert, ting-ding, bing-bong, check your square box, present shock (thanks Douglas Rushkoff), a meme, especially as it is commonly known as a viral picture with some text, is the perfect vehicle of instant political solidarity. Coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s, a meme is an object, idea, or behavior that acts as a carrier for culture and symbols. Has a meme ever carried an entire political movement as effectively as MAGA?

Superlative judgements aside, MAGA offers a common aesthetic, even pre-verbal understanding to adherents. “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” There is an archetype — even if that picture might be different in everyone’s head. Big Red Hat, sure. But for MAGA-lytes, there is greatness, heroism, accessibility, bravado. Above all, there is loyalty. There is a team wearing the common colors of red, white, and blue. Believe what you want, disagree even, but ultimately support the president.

In my dozens of interviews with conservative Instagram, Twitter, Fox News, and Youtube personalities, a common refrain is sung: MAGA is a big-tent movement. There are nationalists, libertarians, libertarian-nationalists, paleoconservatives, fiscal conservatives, “tradcon” types, free marketeers, and “free market economic nationalists” (riddle me that one). There are Catholics, former Muslims, gay men, cosmopolitan Jews, black women, blonde women, white men, former army, former Bernie supporters, and former Never-Trumpers. They agree to disagree, but they maintain a similar style and a common loyalty. Populism itself, after all, is an aesthetic phenomenon, a style.

So much ‘gramming at the White House Social Media Summit. Source: AP Photo Evan Vucci

The memetic nature of MAGA and its MAGA-lytes makes the digital conservative media influencer all the more important to political victory. The influencer types make politics accessible on the ride to work, on a lunch break, or scrolling silently next to your wife in bed. One young woman I met described with a giggle her own high school “red-pilling” or conversion to conservatism, finding solace in Instagram and Youtubers her age who gave her company when her “liberal” classmates shunned her. She thought the conservative influencers had more diversity than “militant lefties.” Some influencers she agreed with and some she didn’t, some conflicted with each other: Cernovich. Fog City Midge. The Typical Liberal. PragerU’s Will Witt. Jack Posobiec. Charlie Kirk. Candace Owens. Some of these figures have risen from pop-culture bloggers to veritable political powerhouses, complete with fellowships at major conservative think tanks. They get a conference at the White House. Yet they maintain their lifestyle influencer presences.

Perhaps a generation ago, the equivalent would have been talk radio, Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh —disc jockeys who rose into prominent political media power, working towards fashioning the Republican party as the “party of the working class.” Similarly, one does not have to be a bow-tie wearing college Republican to find prestige in contemporary politics. In fact, success might be limited if you commonly have ideas that require more than 280-characters or an Instagram story.

Recently, there have been efforts to declare an ideological home for MAGA with “National Conservatism,” which claims a nationalist posture and steps away from free-market puritanism. In some ways, its sort of retrofitting MAGA with an intellectual framework. I attended a July 2019 conference on “National Conservatism,” where Ambassador John Bolton and Fox News Host Tucker Carlson keynoted — where Carlson himself remarked on disagreeing with Bolton “on everything.” What was the lynch pin ideologically speaking? Carlson said, “I don’t have politics, I just have reactions to things.” In this sense, an aesthetic or rhetorical style is more consistent a measure than political ideology (see Reece Peck’s book Fox Populism on this). MAGA is a brand, team logo, and mission statement in one retweet. It doesn’t draw attention to disagreement (though there is a lot), it flattens it into a color.

The first image that comes up when I searched “Green New Deal.” Source: CNN

The Left might be catching on with the Green New Deal — which is a set of ideas centering climate justice, anti-racism, ending inequality, and intersectional solidarity. There is a sense of what it stands for, even if that sense is unclear. It also has a style — its diverse, its urban, it claps back and wears lipstick. It is très AOC. But it tore down Obama’s “Hope” posters. Until I see a common symbolic meme that encapsulates this movement in either a t-shirt, a color (green looks good on no one), or an image, MAGA could continue to shape-shift its way towards a big-tent victory in this game of capture the flag.

These posts are as helpful to me as they might be entertaining to you. As always, if you have questions or comments, reach out. Would love to hear your thoughts, additions, and reading recommendations. Also happy to provide citations — though blog posts cease to become blog posts when every sentence has an academic citation.



Danielle Lee Tomson

Personal Musings of a Scholar and Strategist Navigating Propaganda, Tech, and Power