The Rise of the MAGA Democrat

Mike O’Brien. (Photo taken from Mike O’Brien for Congress advertisement.)

There is an ancient magical belief that to know the true name of someone or something is to hold a special power over that person or thing; relatedly, a change in one’s metaphysical status is accompanied by a change in name. Jacob wrestles the angel and, defeating him, demands to know the angel’s name; the angel does not share a name but reveals something when he blesses Jacob and gives him a new name: “Israel,” meaning “contends with God.” Magical names remain part of our lore: Rumpelstiltskin, Shazam, “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” Nobody needs an explanation as to why saying a malevolent spirit’s name aloud three times would summon that spirit and set it loose—it is something deeply imprinted in us, like the fear of snakes.

Magical thinking has always been a big part of politics. We try to rationalize these things, of course, ours being times that are not only unimaginative but anti-imaginative. You can draw a pretty straight line from the superstitious belief that a king’s touch cured scrofula to the myth (it is entirely untrue) that the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s was deepened by the “fact” (it is a fabrication) that President Ronald Reagan refused ever to say the word “AIDS” aloud. Reagan was unfavorably compared with that great pagan cult idol of the 1980s, Princess Diana, who was celebrated for her willingness to offer the mystical royal touch to AIDS patients. The mechanics of the magic are easily transferred to politics: If only the powerful/holy person will speak the right words, reality will be transformed.

Pardon my rehearsing that point, which is very much on my mind because of a book I’ve been writing. It is a very long way down to the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District. But the belief that magical words can transform facts on the ground persists there, too. Hence the peculiar phenomenon of Democrats’ adopting MAGA-style rhetoric and speech. 

The winner of the Democratic primary on April 23 will have the honor of almost certainly losing the R+8 district to House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, the sycophantic cretin and half-assed QAnon cultist who helped to execute the legislative leg of Donald Trump’s failed coup d’état in early 2021. There must be something in the water down in Dillsburg. 

The headline writers must be hoping that the Democrats nominate Mike O’Brien so that they can call the race a “dogfight.” A Gen. Jack D. Ripper for our lobotomized era, Rep. Perry is a retired brigadier general of the National Guard and veteran of 44 combat flights as a helicopter pilot, while O’Brien was an aviator in the Marine Corps and attaches the evocative label “TOPGUN” (it is not an acronym, but is invariably styled all-caps) to his name on every third reference. Neither man does much to explain how combat flight experience is relevant to working in the House, and neither apparently thinks that he needs to. “TOPGUN” is big magic. 

(Also in the Democratic mix is a former TV anchor trying to explain away an on-air joke about Asian people eating “cat tacos,” among others. It’s that kind of a race.)

O’Brien (who agreed to and then backed out of an interview for this column) is determined to out-MAGA the MAGA dorks. He poses against patriotic backgrounds and introduces himself thus: “Mike O’Brien is a Pennsylvanian, patriot, and retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel who defended freedom abroad for 20 years as a TOPGUN F-35 Stealth Fighter Pilot.” If the eccentric capitalization is not enough to summon Donald Trump, boggart-like, into your imagination, then try the idiotic superlatives. O’Brien—or whoever does his writing for him—boasts that his military career at “the pinnacle of tactical leadership in the Marine Corps” was marked “by unparalleled accomplishments while fighting for freedom in service to our nation.” 

Well, no.

The word “unparalleled” means “without equal.” O’Brien therefore claims, if we literally take him at his word, to be the greatest fighter pilot there ever has been. He would not put it that way, of course, but that is what “unparalleled” means. A remarkable fact is that O’Brien and his wife held simultaneous squadron commands, but neither was at the “pinnacle” of leadership. Impressive achievements can never stand as merely that: They must be ultimate, unparalleled, superlative. And that’s the real MAGA style, too: Just say whatever sounds most impressive at the moment, and never mind the details. When some columnist points out that you are talking through your hat, just roll on.

O’Brien likes to describe himself as a “patriot.” And that’s a funny word just now: The people who tried to overthrow the government in 2021 call themselves “patriots,” and so do the people—at least some of the people—who oppose them. O’Brien is, as a policy matter, an unexceptional Pennsylvania Democrat in hock to the usual union bosses and abortion ghouls, but he is determined not to cede the rhetoric of patriotism to Republicans. 

And if you know MAGA rhetoric, you know what comes next: 

“Scott Perry is a traitor to the people of Pennsylvania and America,” O’Brien insists. Rep. Perry is not a traitor. He is a lowlife and a coup-plotter, and I’d be more inclined to entrust political power to my dachshund, Pancake. But traitor is a serious word because treason is a serious thing, and while there is a perfectly defensible colloquial use of such words, the gentleman from Pennsylvania is not talking about someone who cheers for the Cowboys when they play the Eagles. A man seeking a seat in the House of Representatives ought not to use traitor in a serious sense unless he is willing to go down that road to the place where it ends. If O’Brien means that Rep. Perry is in some serious sense a traitor, then he ought to ask Joe Biden, who just happens to run the Justice Department at the moment, why charges haven’t been brought, why there is no trial, no investigation, no hint of either. Those would be fair questions, if anybody took any of this seriously.

But in reality, this is just more MAGA-style unseriousness about serious things. 

I can understand why Democrats would want to reclaim the rhetoric of patriotism from Republicans: As political incantations go, “patriot” is pretty strong magic. And as far back as What’s The Matter with Kansas?, Democrats have been in thrall to the magical thinking that their unpopular ideas, unlikable candidates, and unlovely cultural associations will—abracadabra!—be transformed—presto-change-o!—if only they use the right words, including formerly taboo words such as “traitor” and “treason” with all their McCarthyite resonance. They think that if they talk the way the MAGA goons talk, then they’ll be able to tap into the same energy. But you can’t do the MAGA hustle while carrying Randi Weingarten piggy-back. 

I get the rhetoric of patriotism. And I’m sure Michael O’Brien is a decent enough guy, albeit one who feels obliged to talk, for the moment, like an idiot, and to let others talk and write that way on his behalf—this is a graduate of the Naval Academy and MIT we are talking about, not Sean Hannity. But traitor talk? I cannot imagine why any Democrat would want to imitate the most stupid and rotten aspects of the Republican Party circa 2024. 

Because we all know how to call that by its true name, even if it is unprintable in this space.

Comments (199)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More