When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, many Americans risked their careers and reputations to support his controversial MAGA message. Robby Starbuck was among them—a successful video producer for movie and music stars, he turned his talents toward defending Trump’s leadership.
Starbuck has remained a consistent advocate for MAGA and incorporated local service efforts into his grassroots activism. His initiatives to fight human trafficking and collect necessities for victims of tornadoes and flooding in Tennessee evolved into a run for Tennessee’s fifth congressional district in 2021. But he hit an unexpected obstacle when Donald Trump suddenly endorsed his more liberal opponent, a member of Trump’s inner circle and friend of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
While Trump has since tried to justify his choice, top MAGA leaders have unflinchingly supported Starbuck. Raheem Kassam, who runs the investigative outlet the National Pulse which has publicized incriminating details about Starbuck’s opponent, described Starbuck as a “favorite of Trump’s base.” This is demonstrably true: he’s endorsed by Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), and Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and conservative activists Jack Posobiec and Amanda Milius.
This is not the first time an endorsement set Trump at odds with his core supporters. While in office, Trump endorsed Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia, only to later regret their duplicity toward himself and the Trump agenda. More recently, Trump endorsed football celebrity Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate race, despite Walker’s uncertain views on mainstay conservative issues like abortion and guns. Other politicians like Kristi Noem and Vernon Jones have a tenuous relationship with conservatives, but Trump endorsed them against their bona fide MAGA challengers Steven Haugaard and Patrick Witt.
Some insiders have speculated that opportunists on Trump’s team are corrupting the endorsement process into a pay-for-play influence scheme. But others insist Trump is squarely in the drivers’ seat, barely consulting with others on whom to endorse. Either way, the influence of the grassroots is on the wane, as the MAGA movement drifts into the same neo-establishment territory as the Tea Party movement did.
The grassroots Tea Party activists of 2010 were responding to the Bush-Obama years of big government and its resulting financial, foreign policy, and civil liberty crises. But enterprising lawyers and party insiders turned it into a “pyramid scheme that transferred tens of millions of dollars from rural, poorer Southerners and Midwesterners to bicoastal political operatives,” according to former “teabagger” Paul Jossey.
Of the small-dollar donations PACs raised for Tea Party causes, investigations revealed that 87 percent went to “overhead.” And the issues that mattered most to the grassroots—bank bailouts, constitutionalism, and religious social issues—were shelved by establishment groups like Americans for Prosperity, which pushed for corporate tax cuts, mass immigration, and increased offshoring of jobs.
Relitigating the Tea Party’s failure is not just academic, because the same thing is happening now. Trump’s head-scratching endorsements of GOP insiders over MAGA outsiders are starting to reveal the outlines of another fraud. MAGA is being co-opted through a hostile takeover by the same old Republican neoconservatives, social progressives, and self-seekers draped in a Trump flag. The rot in Mar-a-Lago keeps pointing back to one source: a power brokerage called the America First Policy Institute (AFPI).
AFPI began as the Office of American Innovation, a special-purpose task force in the Trump White House that housed Jared Kushner’s pet projects, like a $100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, federal prison policy and pardons, diplomatic overtures to Israel, and COVID-19 vaccines. AFPI now fronts as the premiere MAGA think tank, while in reality, its leadership includes the most anti-populist voices from the Trump Administration—those who fought tooth and nail against Trump’s tough stance on China, immigration, and law enforcement. Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro said of AFPI’s executive team, “they are all China apologists.” Now, AFPI is playing an outsize role in selecting Trump’s endorsements for the 2022 midterms, and it is reasonable to expect they will be hovering over his shoulder when he runs for president in 2024.
AFPI will always side with the GOP establishment over MAGA. As long as Trump is a package deal with Kushner and his associates, our movement will always stop short of victory, tripping over its own feet.
Populists who want to restore a true MAGA agenda, however, should not only focus on attacking grifts like AFPI. The truth is, we get the MAGA movement we deserve: AFPI’s success in co-opting President Trump’s agenda reflects our failure in educating and enlisting the grassroots and donor class to push for better leadership, strategy, and policy.
Clicking the “Donate Now” button is no longer a substitute for standing on the front lines, no matter what the latest “President Trump needs your help!” email claims. The MAGA comeback we need depends on us and our ability to choose and influence our leaders, not the caprice of conservative inside baseball.