MAGA's Intellectual Roots: A Movement 300 Years in the Making (2024)

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Legendary Christian author C.S. Lewis once described the Book of Psalms as a literary and spiritual inheritance from another era.

“In reading them,” Lewis wrote of the Psalms, “I suspect that we have our hands on the near end of a living cord that stretches far back into the past.”

Indeed, that same “living cord” often connects us to our most cherished political ideas and traditions.

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When former President Donald Trump embarked on his present political journey, he did so not to trumpet some future utopia, but to guard a treasured inheritance.

As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump promised to “Make America Great Again.” Eight years later, as the presumed Republican nominee and current presidential front-runner, he has renewed that pledge.


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In the intervening years, “Make America Great Again” and its acronym, MAGA, have come to define his political movement.

While the promise to make America great keeps our attention fixed on the present and future, the word “again” invites a more backward-looking perspective. In other words, what kind of restored greatness has Trump envisioned? What “living cord” might connect MAGA to the distant past?

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To begin, we must understand how and why a multi-billionaire earned the support of so many ordinary Americans.

In effect, eight simple words brought Trump and his MAGA supporters together: Something went wrong in the country they love.

Furthermore, having observed the political landscape over several decades, they identified the same culprit: a corrupt, tyrannical, warmongering, uniparty establishment.

At its core, therefore, MAGA amounts to an anti-establishment movement. Under Trump’s leadership, it is the most important such movement since Abraham Lincoln and the birth of the Republican Party in 1854.

Of course, the establishment and its minions would mock that sort of lofty comparison. After all, they have spent years slandering Trump and his supporters as bigots, terrorists and the like.

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For that reason alone, MAGA members deserve to know the ancient, triumphant, liberty-loving political tradition to which they belong.

And when we trace that tradition back through the centuries, we find that our mental journey has taken us to a London coffeehouse in the winter of 1721.


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“Cato’s Letters” and England in the Early 18th Century

The distilled essence of MAGA first appeared in the 17th installment of “Cato’s Letters,” a weekly series of pseudonymous essays published in the London Journal between 1720 and 1723.

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Co-authors Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard each wrote dozens of articles on tyranny and liberty.

In a preface that appeared in a 1755 edition of “Cato’s Letters,” Gordon described the late Trenchard, who died in 1723, as “the best friend that I ever had.” (Gordon himself lived to 1750.)

Indeed, the older and more established Trenchard had taken Gordon under his wing “without any other recommendation than a casual coffee-house acquaintance, and his own good opinion.”

Small wonder, therefore, that in “Cato’s Letters” Trenchard and Gordon often wrote in a similar voice.

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And they wrote with a purpose. To put it mildly, something had gone wrong in the country they loved.

The mists of time have obscured the immense transformation, but suffice it to say that the English state of 1720 looked very little like it had in the previous century.

In 1689, English Protestants concluded what they called the “Glorious Revolution.” They had invited the Protestant Prince William of Orange to invade England and depose the Catholic King James II.

The ensuing and largely bloodless coup established King William III and his wife Mary — James II’s daughter — as England’s sovereigns. It prevented a Catholic hereditary succession and ushered in an era of remarkable political liberalization, including the adoption of the English Bill of Rights .

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In other words, it should have felt every bit as “glorious” as the name suggested. And to many, it did.

William’s reign, however, also brought several ominous developments.

First, it embroiled England in a nine-year war against France and King Louis XIV. After William’s death in 1702, Queen Anne continued the fight against France and its allies for 11 more years.

All told, England found itself at war for nearly a quarter-century.

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Second, those wars triggered innovations in English finance and statecraft, including the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694 and the government’s maintenance of a long-term funded debt — that is, a debt serviced by interest payments made possible only through onerous taxation.

Meanwhile, the English ruling class enriched itself on government securities and bank stock. Queen Anne centralized power by forcing the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland — the act that created Great Britain. A professional bureaucracy developed. And the line between the two parties, Whig and Tory, grew blurry.

In other words, what historian John Brewer called “The Sinews of Power” in a “fiscal-military state” emerged within a generation.

Then, in 1720, one of the Western world’s first financial panics nearly collapsed the gargantuan South Sea Company, a joint public-private enterprise that managed the British national debt.

Dishonest behavior by company directors, including false promises of spectacular profits, had driven company stock to incredible and untenable heights. A frenzy of speculation ensued. When the crash came, many investors lost everything.

Sir Robert Walpole, Chancellor of the Exchequer, helped manage the crisis, resulting in a bailout for the company. Shortly thereafter, Walpole became Britain’s first-ever prime minister.

Thus, “Cato’s Letters” originated in righteous anger over the South Sea catastrophe. And the co-authors often vented that anger in colorful language.

In Cato No. 3, for instance, Gordon denounced the South Sea “stock-jobbers” as worse than “crocodiles and cannibals.”

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“They are stock-jobbers; they have served a whole people as Satan served Job; and so far the Devil is injured, by any analogy that you can make between him and them,” Gordon added.

Three weeks later, in Cato No. 6, Gordon blasted the willing dupes caught up in the scheme.

“Every adventurer in this mighty lottery foresaw that many must be losers, and that what was got by one must be lost by another; but every man hoped that fate would be kinder to him in particular, than to a thousand others; and so this mad hope became general, as are the calamities which it has produced,” he wrote.

As months passed, however, and anger over the South Sea collapse dissipated, Trenchard and Gordon turned their attention to more general themes related to what we now recognize as the birth of the British imperial state.

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“Freedom of speech,” Gordon wrote in Cato No. 15, constitutes “the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them.”

Then, two weeks later, Trenchard penned the essay that became the “living cord” to the present day.

Cato No. 17

The 17th installment of “Cato’s Letters,” published on Feb. 18, 1721, came with an instructive title: “What Measures are actually taken by wicked and desperate Ministers to ruin and enslave their Country.”

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By “wicked and desperate Ministers,” Trenchard did not mean diabolical religious leaders. He meant government officials.

By implication, he also meant wealthy and well-connected members of a decadent ruling class — not all members, of course, for Trenchard himself owned land and eventually served in Parliament. But he meant those who, corrupted by power, sought only their own interests and viewed the people’s liberty with contempt.

In other words, he meant the 1721 equivalent of the establishment.

Thus, contemplating the corrupt establishment of his own day, Trenchard identified clear signs of a government-led conspiracy against liberty.

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Mindful of the danger in targeting powerful people, however, Trenchard opened Cato No. 17 with some overwrought flattery.

“As under the best princes, and the best servants to princes alone, it is safe to speak what is true of the worst; so, according to my former promise to the publick, I shall take the advantage of our excellent King’s most gentle government, and the virtuous administration of an uncorrupt ministry, to warn mankind against the mischiefs which may hereafter be dreaded from corrupt ones,” the essay began.

Trenchard, of course, did not regard powerful governments as “gentle,” “virtuous” or “uncorrupt.” He simply chose the safest approach by which to “warn mankind.”

Next, Trenchard explained that corrupt government officials work to destroy liberty from the shadows.

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“Few men have been desperate enough to attack openly, and barefaced, the liberties of a free people,” he wrote.

Thus, conspirators “disguise their treason with plausible names” and “recommend it with popular and bewitching colours, that they themselves shall be adored, while their work is detested, and yet carried on by those that detest it.”

The people, in other words, often unwittingly act as agents of their own destruction.

Trenchard, therefore, pledged “to shew by what steps and gradations of mischief nations have been undone, and consequently what methods may be hereafter taken to undo others.”

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Conspiracies against liberty, in fact, have a recognizable pattern. By Trenchard’s reckoning, that pattern had 12 distinct elements.

And no honest reader will deny that all 12 have modern parallels, undertaken by the establishment and detested by MAGA.

First, according to Trenchard, the conspirators “will probably endeavour first to get their prince into their possession.” They will keep him secluded, lie to him and cause him to “mistake his foes for his friends.”

During the Trump presidency, of course, a number of administration officials worked to undermine the president.

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Second, the conspirators will introduce “wicked and dangerous projects, to make the people poor, and themselves rich.” With the power of the purse, they will “squander away the publick money in wanton presents to minions, and their creatures of pleasure or of burden, or in pensions to mercenary and worthless men and women, for vile ends and traitorous purposes.”

The modern establishment has “squander[ed] away the publick money in the form of a gargantuan national debt, history’s most effective instrument for redistributing wealth upward.

As a result, in 2023, suburbs of Washington, D.C., accounted for five of America’s 10 wealthiest counties by median household income, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Third, the conspirators “will engage their country in ridiculous, expensive, fantastical wars.”

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In addition to swelling the debt, wars prepare the people for restrictions upon their liberty.

Indeed, the people will “be disposed to fall into all measures offered, seemingly, for their defence, and will agree to every wild demand made by those who are betraying them.”

Here one pictures the infamous Patriot Act and all subsequent measures that have bolstered the establishment’s surveillance state.

Fourth, the conspirators will “deliver up the strong-holds of their country” to “open enemies.”

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Let President Joe Biden’s calamitous 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal testify to the truth of Trenchard’s assertion.

Fifth, the conspirators “will create parties in the commonwealth, or keep them up where they already are; and, by playing them by turns upon each other, will rule both.”

On issues of minor importance to the establishment, Democrats and Republicans maintain the appearance of a two-party system.

On the projection of power abroad and the concentration of wealth at home, however, Democrats and establishment Republicans have united. They speak with one voice, as evidenced by a recent bipartisan foreign aid bill that included $60 billion for Ukraine.

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Sixth, the conspirators “will not suffer any men, who have once tasted of authority, though personally their enemies, and whose posts they enjoy, to be called to an account for past crimes, though ever so enormous.”

In other words, the establishment will not punish its own, even from personal animosity or party loyalty.

Hence, the Russia collusion liars and conspirators escaped punishment. The Durham Report came to nothing. Neither did special counsel Robert Hur’s investigation into the “elderly” and confused Biden. The impeachment of Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas stalled in the Senate. Anthony Fauci lied to Congress but remains free.

And, of course, if Hunter Biden had the last name “Trump,” he would have faced consequences long ago.

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Speaking of which, only those who challenge or defy the establishment end up in court, or worse. Trump’s persecutors have thrown every possible legal obstacle in his path. They want him to spend the rest of his life in prison, where supporters and allies already languish.

Seventh, the conspirators against liberty “will put men into employments, without any regard to the qualifications for those employments, or indeed to any qualifications at all, but as they contribute to their designs, and shew a stupid alacrity to do what they are bid.”

In recent years, qualities such as skin color and sexual preferences have mattered most. Diversity, equity and inclusion mandates have turned unimpressive people into White House press secretaries or Supreme Court justices.

Above all, Americans must know that conformity to a demoralizing woke ideology means everything, and merit means nothing.

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Eighth, the conspirators “will promote luxury, idleness, and expence, and a general depravation of manners, by their own example, as well as by connivance and publick encouragement.” They know, after all, that “immorality” results in “servile dependence upon power.”

Why do powerful members of the modern establishment live in gated communities while turning a blind eye to crime elsewhere? Why do they promote abortion as a form of child sacrifice on the altar of convenience and career?

In short, moral behavior alone reflects the kind of strength and independence that poses a threat to establishment power.

Ninth, the conspirators “will, by all practicable means of oppression, provoke the people to disaffection; and then make that disaffection an argument for new oppression.”

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After years of openly questioning the validity of the 2016 presidential election, the establishment and its minions treated all doubts about the 2020 presidential election as threats to democracy. And the Biden regime’s vengeful response to the Capitol incursion of Jan. 6, 2021, appeared calculated to further provoke.

Tenth, the conspirators “will endeavour to bribe the electors in the choice of their representatives.” And if they cannot corrupt the electorate as a whole, they will “endeavour to corrupt the deputies after they are chosen, with the money given for the publick defence.”

Our elected representatives never seem eager to discuss the ways they have profited from connections to the military-industrial complex, or from inside information about pandemics. After all, as a group, their stock buys have performed suspiciously well relative to the general public.

Eleventh, “if the constitution should be so stubbornly framed, that it will still preserve itself and the people’s liberties, in spite of all villainous contrivances to destroy both; then must the constitution itself be attacked and broken, because it will not bend.”

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The Biden administration has trampled the Bill of Rights, albeit in some cases with Congress’ connivance.

Meanwhile, establishment minions have regularly called for “common sense” restrictions on constitutional freedoms.

Some have even suggested that elites should have more influence in determining which candidates win elections.

Finally, if all else fails, the conspirators may “veer about, and, by joining with the enemy of their prince and country, complete their treason.”

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Judging by their enthusiasm for measures and methods promoted by sinister international organizations such as the World Economic Forum, U.S. elites already have signaled their abandonment of country and allegiance to authoritarian globalism.

Conclusion: The Living Cord

Trenchard’s timeless critique of corrupt power, written in the tone of a conspiracy theorist, has reverberated down the centuries.

Oddly enough, its survival as a classic commentary was by no means assured. In its own day, “Cato’s Letters” did not make nearly the impact on British politics for which its authors hoped.

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We cannot say the same, however, for its impact on colonial America. From collections in private libraries to quotes in polemical pamphlets, “Cato” had a demonstrable influence on political thought in the colonies before the American Revolution.

And Cato No. 17 had a hand in exerting that influence. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, for instance, used conspiratorial language in their most important writings, including the Declaration of Independence.

Thus, Cato No. 17 has come down to us through the Founders.

And with woke mobs attacking the Founders at every turn, MAGA patriots and those in their general orbit constitute the only meaningful line of defense for the preservation of both the Founders’ memories and the anti-establishment tradition transmitted to us through them.

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Moreover, MAGA’s connection to Cato No. 17 goes beyond a general appreciation and love for the Founders.

After 1689, Trenchard and a few others detected alarming changes in the English state.

Likewise, modern Americans have cause to wonder why, after 1989, another supposedly glorious victory — this time in the Cold War — did not usher in the kind of world we had reason to expect.

Of course, we remember what happened.

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The weapons of mass destruction did not materialize.

Modern equivalents of the “too big to fail” South Sea Company received bailouts, while unfortunate citizens lost their homes.

The anti-establishment Tea Party movement grew out of anger over the bailouts and then intensified when the administration of President Barack Obama successfully pushed to mandate private purchases of health insurance.

Perhaps the Tea Party lacked only Trump to transform it into a MAGA-like national force capable of capturing the GOP. Or, perhaps the time had not yet come.

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Either way, the Republican establishment staved off the initial threat.

Then, a 2012 “foreign policy” debate between Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, revealed that, when it came to spending money and making war overseas, the candidates could find little on which to disagree. Thus, the debate “strayed frequently into domestic policy,” according to Reuters.

Like Trenchard and Gordon, millions of Americans recognized that nothing had turned out as expected. Wars multiplied, the government grew bigger and the debt skyrocketed. It almost seemed as if it happened by design. Eventually, part of the electorate awakened to the fact that they could not trust the establishment under any circ*mstances.

Then, Trump showed them how to fight back.

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First, in the words of Tucker Carlson, Trump made a “blood enemy” of the federal government by criticizing U.S. foreign policy.

When the establishment threw everything at Trump, he withstood it and countered with relentless ferocity. To paraphrase the former president, voters had never seen anything like it.

Then, in his Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 2017, Trump channeled the anti-establishment spirit of Cato No. 17.

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country,” the then-incoming president said.

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Of course, the story did not end there. The establishment retaliated again and again. More than seven years later, the contest remains unsettled.

But Trump and his MAGA supporters know the stakes, so they should also recognize the cord that connects them to the ancient principles they defend.

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Michael Schwarz

Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.

Michael Schwarz holds a Ph.D. in History and has taught at multiple colleges and universities. He has published one book and numerous essays on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Early U.S. Republic. He loves dogs, baseball, and freedom. After meandering spiritually through most of early adulthood, he has rediscovered his faith in midlife and is eager to continue learning about it from the great Christian thinkers.

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MAGA's Intellectual Roots: A Movement 300 Years in the Making (2024)
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