Three female, Trump supporters
Three female Trump supporters pose for a group portrait during the ex-president’s first campaign rally for the 2024 presidential election at Waco’s Regional Airport in Waco, TX, on March 25, 2023. Photo credit: © Jaime Carrero/ZUMA Press Wire

Explore the evolution and deep roots of the MAGA movement, its impact beyond Trump, and an insider’s journey from belief to disillusionment.

On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with journalist Tina Nguyen, author of The MAGA Diaries: My Surreal Adventures Inside the Right Wing and How I Got Out. A one-time MAGA fellow traveler, Nguyen delves deep into the heart of the movement. 

Challenging the notion that it’s merely a product of Trump’s influence, Nguyen — who journeyed from a conservative student to disenchanted MAGA-member to jobs at Politico, Vanity Fair, and now Puck — exposes the intricate network of well-funded conservative organizations that have shaped right-wing politics going all the way back to the 1960s.

In laying bare the truly reactionary nature of these movements, Nguyen highlights the long standing role of youth recruitment, which provides longevity to the cause, and the power of social media in spreading the message. 

Nguyen’s narrative not only uncovers the historical roots of today’s MAGA movement but also offers a critical analysis of its enduring influence and potential future — even without Trump. 

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In this pivotal election cycle, as Donald Trump’s behavior and that of his followers becomes increasingly extreme, a pressing question arises: is Trump the architect of the MAGA movement and its radical fringe, or simply a conduit for the most extreme fascist leaning voices in today’s politics? And how bad can it get with or without Trump? History shows us that cult-like movements have existed throughout history. In a similar vein, the MAGA ideology and even more extreme philosophies were gaining momentum well before Trump’s rise to prominence.

Our guest today, journalist Tina Nguyen, has witnessed this evolution firsthand. In fact, for a while she was a fellow traveler in the movement. Having seen the light, she offers us a window into a transformation we might otherwise have missed. Tina’s insights offer more than just an expose that contributes to the historical narrative of our current political landscape. Her stories highlight the precarious balance of democracy and delve into a new generation of young Republicans. These are not the dirty tricksters of the Nixon era, but a group that represents a more profound and potentially dangerous shift. This new wave of young MAGA supporters forms part of a formidable infrastructure aimed at recruitment, indoctrination, and mobilization. It’s eerily reminiscent, minus the brown shirts, of movements from darker times.

Tina Nguyen brings a wealth of experience and insight to this discussion. As a national correspondent for Puck, she focuses on Donald Trump and the American right. Her background includes roles as White House Reporter for Politico, a staff reporter for Vanity Fair’s Hive, and an editor at Mediate. She’s a graduate of Claremont McKenna College, where her rightward journey began, and it is my pleasure to welcome Tina Nguyen here to talk about The MAGA Diaries: My Surreal Adventures Inside the Right-Wing (And How I Got Out). Tina, thanks so much for joining us.

Tina Nguyen: Thank you for having me.

Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here today. One of the things that you hear so many people say is that if only Donald Trump would go away, if in fact he loses an election, and we’d be done with him, but in fact, the MAGA movement, particularly as you’ve seen it from the inside and as you write about it in The MAGA Diaries, is much more complex. It’s much deeper, it’s much more organized. It’s not something that’s going away so quickly. Talk about that first.

Tina: So when I entered Claremont McKenna, I was a student who came from an immigrant background. I didn’t really have that much money. I didn’t really have many connections going into the professional world, and Claremont not only offered that, but it also hit on the second love that I have, which is of the founding fathers and the American Revolution. When I was a kid, I thought that was the most beautiful concept in the world, that all these people would come together and create a form of government with balances of powers that would protect certain ideals.

And the moment that you walk on campus and see that there’s a research institution that focuses on studying the founding fathers and American politics in relation, I’m just thinking like, “Oh my God, yes, please,” but the moment that I stepped into that world, this entire universe of conservative organization, the type of organization that goes back to the 1960s just emerged to me. And the connections that you build inside that network are not just through journalism, which is where I wanted to go, but it’s in the legal system, it’s in the election system, it’s in state legislatures, it’s in activist movements on the ground.

Any civic institution that you can think of, there is probably a right-wing activist or interest group trying to figure out a way to get their ideas through it. And it’s so organized. It’s so well funded but it’s so deep. That’s the thing that I don’t think people quite understand, exactly how ingrained into politics this movement has become.

Jeff: Is it your sense that this has grown organically, that it has simply been layered on top of layer on top of layer since the 1960s as you talk about, or is there some grand vision that you see behind this? Somebody pulling the strings behind the proverbial curtain.

Tina: I really don’t think there’s a string puller, and it’s easier to think that there is, but this movement came together in the 1960s under the Goldwater Revolution with people such as William F. Buckley, Morton Blackwell, and they came together. And the gist of it is, oh, no, society is moving too quickly in the direction of, at that time, communism. We need to pull it back from this socialist-communist direction that we think Lyndon Johnson is taking the country in. And they organized to that end, and the initial plan is [to] train future leaders, identify young conservatives who think in that direction, and teach them how to become elected officials.

Think of it this way, Mitch McConnell, who is old, was a member of the Leadership Institute in 1960-something as a 20-year-old. That’s how far back this movement goes. But the thing is that movements like that only continue to exist if they evolve with the times and address the issues that they believe are anti-American at that point, and develop what they believe is [a] pro-American stance in opposition to it. So in the ’60s, it was Lyndon B. Johnson and the Great Society, in the ’80s, it was the rise of communism and protecting the religious right.

In 2000, it was defending the Iraq war and being pro-American values, imperialistically, not negotiating with terrorists as Obama was going to do, and that was the big fear for my generation going into the Obama era. And the thing that I noticed was when I went to a current youth activist organization called Turning Point USA, I was like, “Okay, you guys are focused on fighting wokeism, on fighting LGBTQ rights, on withdrawing American military influence from places like Israel and Ukraine.” This is so against the thing I grew up in, but the ultimate core of it was, “There are leftists who are trying to destroy the values you hold dear. You’ve got to band together because you are the future of the party” and that was always the through line.

Jeff: Do you see the through line connection, because you mentioned it and I want to look back at that. The connection that goes all the way back to the ’60s, to people like William F. Buckley, you mentioned Morton Blackwell and Clifton White, and so many others that were the organizers then that the MAGA movement today and where it has wound up actually does have roots, has antecedents in that time.

Tina: Oh, absolutely. The thing that they share in common, the conservative movement has always taken for granted that there is a base of voters out there who will vote for them and their vision of whatever is pro-America at the time. Their fatal flaw was that they believed that they were the true arbiters of what was on the right, what was conservatism. And for a while they were able to do that, but then Trump comes in as an outsider who’s fueled by social media and who has a much better messaging instinct than the right ever did. And he immediately connects with the people that they thought were theirs.

So, for years and years, they have tried in some capacity to take the stance of like, “No, this is what conservatism is,” limited government, states’ rights, yada, yada, yada, and then Trump and his movement goes, “Actually, no, we like Medicare and we want to close our borders and get out of saving Ukraine and allying with NATO.” And at that point, if you are a network in an institution whose entire existence has been [about] getting control of the American government and American civics, do you go along with the people who you thought kind of aligned with you if it goes against your values, or do you say, no, I’ve got to stop this and then suddenly lose power?

And not just power, but your social circle, your way you make money, your career. It’s such a huge calculus that I think goes underappreciated in general coverage of the right. It’s a huge motivating factor for why the Republican party is how it is. It’s not just a bunch of people who’ve decided that they wanted to be Republicans, it’s a bunch of people who have made Republicanism their way of life.

Jeff: And even though the policy today is so different than the way it was originally, that the power seems more important, essentially is what you’re saying?

Tina: Yes. The influence to shape whoever’s in charge. Here’s a really good example from some of my recent reporting that didn’t end up in the book. There have been all these reports about Trump administrations in waiting who have plans on day one to reform the federal government, but the thing is, if you look really closely at this movement, there are two competing organizations who are trying to build Trump administrations.

One of them is from the Heritage Foundation, which is this old bulwark of conservatism that dates back to the Reagan era and loves putting together policies, and for a while was the beginning and end of what was considered conservative. And then this separate group called AFPI, the American First Policy Institute, that wanted to call themselves the Trump administration in waiting. It was full of people who had served in the Trump administration and knew how to translate what Donald Trump said at any given moment to something that was actionable policy.

And the way that someone put it to me was that Heritage was conservative and they wanted to take Trump’s positions that seemed to resonate, but then make them safe for the Constitution and within the boundaries of law that already existed, whereas AFPI was like, “Okay, we’re going to work backwards and we don’t care if it’s a little too unconstitutional. It’s what Trump wants. We’re going to make it so.” And that’s, I think, the key. And the thing is if Heritage wanted to compete with AFPI, because ultimately Trump is the person who decides who goes in the administration, Heritage is going to have to be more amenable to doing whatever Trump wants, even if it means violating the Constitution. And I don’t know whether they are willing to do that, but I kind of think they are.

Jeff: Talk about the youth movement within this organization, because we tend to think [of] young people as more monolithically on the left, but in fact, the young people that are part of the MAGA movement today are a pretty substantial part of it, and how hard the movement has worked to recruit them.

Tina: Yes, it’s been an interesting phenomenon to watch all of these youth organizations that I came up through. Just keep in mind that when I say that this movement [has] existed since the 1960s, it really has. And the reason that it has lasted so long is because of this youth recruitment at the ground level. The thing with this generation, though, is that they are always reactionaries to the core. That’s always been a hallmark of conservatism. But this generation is reacting to the things that they see on college campuses. The way that they feel rejected by campus progressivism overall has been something that the right has mined over the past several decades.

But now with social media and the facility for these students to immediately feel more aggrieved, it’s just more powerful and I think a bit more intense than when I was a child growing up. And I think they’re better at marketing too, because these kids grew up on social media and they, frankly, know how to dress and know how to look good. And I’ll say this about the conservatives I knew growing up, they did not particularly care about wearing eyeliner or a not wrinkled tie.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about how you got into the movement originally and how you got out of it.

Tina: So when I was talking about how the movement tries to influence every lever of American society, they also do have a fairly substantial investment in training young journalists. I didn’t know it at the time. I was this little founding father loving baby, and I saw this internship opportunity in the Listserv email blast lists that our institutes would send out, and one of them was for a paid internship in journalism in the post-crash summer of 2009, where they’re like, “Are you a liberty-loving student who wants a job in journalism? Apply for this fellowship.”

And so I get it. I go to this seminar that just sits us down and goes, “All right, here’s how you do journalism. Also, isn’t the Affordable Care Act bad? Why isn’t the media covering this?” And one seminar, however, is not enough to get someone into the movement. They selected people from that group to enter an official mentorship program where they actually would look over your resumes, read over your cover letters, connect you with people in the movement who were looking for journalists and writers.

And eventually, I ended up at the Daily Caller. After that, I was thrown all of these job opportunities with these groups, the more I looked into them, the more I realized, “Wait, they don’t want me to write the truth. They want me to edit it heavily so it makes Democrats look bad.” And at that point, I was like, “No, I’m a journalist first and foremost. I cannot bend the truth to this.” So at that point, I just torched my resume and moved to New York and became a food blogger for two years.

Jeff: When you were at the Daily Caller, there was a period of time you worked with Tucker Carlson in his early days.

Tina: Oh, yes. One of the things that people these days just don’t understand about Tucker was that he was really charming and super fun and also one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. When I was let go from the Caller, he literally gave me his phone number so he could personally tell my mother that it wasn’t my fault that I got fired. And then on top of that, he gave me a recommendation to my next job. He didn’t have to do that. I was this 22-year-old neophyte who could have just no longer had a job in journalism, but he will go out of his way to make sure that you’re going to be okay and that you have fun.

However, if you turn against him and criticize him to a certain point, he will strike back really, really hard and he’s eloquent, and he’s brutal about it and he’ll go to the biggest platform that will have him and make sure that you are torched as thoroughly as possible. And that I think is just a really underexplored dynamic with Tucker. At the end of the book, I go into an interview with him, 12 years after I leave the Caller, and I swear to God, about 20 percent of the time he is just ranting about journalists that he hates in D.C. and the culture that he left behind and just calling them these nicknames like reptile creatures and narcissistic rich ladies. And I’m just thinking, “Okay, all right, here you are. This is what’s up.”

Jeff: Talk about John Elliott, who he is, and how he relates to this story.

Tina: So he was that mentor I mentioned earlier. He was the person who accepted my application into the internship program to begin with, who ran the seminar, who gave me all of these job opportunities. And over time, when I left conservative journalism and drifted more into the mainstream, he started floating in a rightward direction, but I didn’t realize how deeply enmeshed he was in far-right ideology until this report came out talking about how he was literally on this email chain with conservative journalists called “Morning Hate,” where they were explicitly trying to insert white nationalist ideas into conservative reporting, conservative columns.

These were all journalists with incredible influence, and they were like, “You know what we can do, the internet has removed the barriers that dictates what is and is not on the right. We can seed our ideas.” And then they started referring to Hitler with all sorts of pleasant names and making fun of minorities. And Elliott was at the center of this. And not just that, he was actively recruiting people who had been in this program to join him and made them big deals in conservative media, egged them on to be more and more hateful. And it was because he identified very early on that they shared his ideas.

Jeff: He was at George Mason at the time?

Tina: He was affiliated with the institute hosted by George Mason, yes. It’s a couple of steps removed from official affiliation, but that’s the way these things work. Technically, this was funded by the Koch brothers.

Jeff: One of the things that’s remarkable about all of this infrastructure that you write about is the fact that it is endlessly funded. There never seems to be a shortage of money for any of it.

Tina: Yes. Also, it’s cheaper to do so these days. I think that the traditional understanding of here is a Republican with a lot of money. This Republican is going to throw it at some guy and then get his vision funded. That’s fading away, although there are newer rich people stepping in with more out there ideas. But it is really easy inside this movement to get in front of a rich person, even at a really young age and say, “Hey, I have this idea, give me money,” and they will invest in you.

That’s how people would always tell me about it. It was an investment in the future. And if you are a Republican donor who makes the right bets and they pay off in the future, that means that your vision of how America is going to go is now in the driver’s seat. So the Koch brothers, for instance, they are super libertarian, [and] they’re losing influence because their people are not winning. However, the Rebecca Mercer view of the world has been paying off in terms of Breitbart and a whole bunch of other people whose careers she fostered from the early days. Ali Alexander, for instance, the guy who literally organized the Stop the Steal rally on January 6th, was [a] Mercer beneficiary.

Jeff: You found your way out of this labyrinth, but how difficult is it for others to find their way out? And talk about the ones that just can’t do it.

Tina: In journalism, it’s especially hard because if you enter the field thinking, “All right, I’m going to get these skills and move on to another job,” you just can’t. Someone will look at your resume and say, “No, you’re conservative. We’re not trusting you. We don’t think you belong here.” And either you give up and stay in conservative journalism forever, or you literally go to journalism school and pay $100,000 to cleanse your resume to “prove” that you are unbiased.

And the rest of the field is sort of like that too. Democrats can easily just quit and do something else. Republicans who quit, especially those who do it for reasons like, “This is contrary to my values, I just can’t anymore,” they are demonized. They are dragged through the mud. And that sort of speaks to that sense of loyalty that goes back to being a college student, I think. If you’re in a movement that raised you from the early days and gave you the ability to get to where you are, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, sorry, I don’t believe in what you’re doing anymore. I can’t do this. Goodbye.” Everyone’s going to hate you for basically condemning who they are as well. It’s just sort of a group mentality.

Jeff: Given how entrenched all this is, what’s next? As you dig into it today, as you report today, what is it that you’re seeing that even goes beyond what you’ve written about in [The] MAGA Diaries?

Tina: I think it’s really underappreciated how much influence the MAGA online media sphere has. Now, I wouldn’t say that there is one individual person who’s in charge of MAGA media. There are plenty of influential people, but the sheer volume of podcasters, live streamers, online personalities, that someone who doesn’t like mainstream reporting or the Democrats can run to is vast and infinite in this big old fringe that stems out of Fox News. And you can’t influence them by going to one outlet and be like, “All right, change people’s minds.” These are all independent actors. And the more control that this blob has over the narrative, the more Trumpism, I think, takes hold.

And that’s just something underappreciated by, I think, people who try to understand the Republican Party and Republican voters. They’re not being influenced just by watching Fox News anymore. They’re going to Red Pill, 87s online Twitch stream or something. And the organization part I was talking about earlier, though, that only comes into play if Trump gets into office. Maybe some other Republican, but most certainly Trump. And what happens after that is going to be a very radical change in American government and quite possibly what are considered American values. So that’s going to be quite a transformation to watch should it occur.

Jeff: And what happens if Trump doesn’t get elected? What happens to the movement, do you think then?

Tina: If Trump doesn’t get elected, the first thing he’s going to do is talk about how the election was stolen once again. And I don’t know whether you’re going to see one big January 6th over again because Washington security has gotten much better ever since. But I wonder if you’re going to see a whole bunch of smaller January 6ths in state capitals around the country. And it also depends on whether Trump supporters are genuinely fearful of the FBI. The reason that you haven’t seen a lot of pro-Trump violence to the level that you saw leading up to 2020 was that they really believe that the FBI is monitoring them and will try to throw them in prison.

And so, they’re sort of underground at the moment, but in smaller levels, they will be much more active. I could list about a half dozen hotspots where you could see militia activity pop up. And other than that, though, the longer term sustainability of the movement would be, if there’s anything I think your audience would appreciate, is that unless Trump designates a successor to the movement, and that successor has the same charismatic ability that he does, that movement is going to fracture into a whole bunch of squabbling factions. That’s always happened inside of the conservative movement and probably will continue to do so. It will probably continue to do so. I think I’ll just leave it at that.

Jeff: And finally, having seen this up close and personal, and having gone through the metamorphosis that you’ve gone through, what is your sense of why the left in general and Democrats in particular are so bad at this?

Tina: They’ve been trying for decades to replicate the success of the right. It’s not like they don’t know what’s happening. It’s just that in the very center of Democratic progressivism is this deep need to make things happen right now. The quickest way to point A to point B is through a mountain, for instance. And the conservative movement will plot a really careful course that goes around the mountain. And maybe it’ll take longer to get to point B, but they’ll get there. But the progressive movement has always been like, “Let’s go straight through the mountain,” and then they’ll crash into it.

But it’s a lot of short-term thinking and a lot of misalignment of resources, and this desire to attack anyone who steps outside of what they consider the right way to be. Just look at what’s happening to John Fetterman right now. He’s taken this pro-Israel stance. The progressive movement, which is heavily pro-Gaza, has condemned him, tried to destroy him. The thing is that he is not just the progressive senator. He is the senator from Philadelphia and Philadelphia is a pretty purple [state]. The moment that he goes, “Actually, free Gaza,” a huge segment of those Christian voters in Pennsylvania will turn off from him and they’ll be like, “Why didn’t we vote for Dr. Oz in the first place?” It’s a lot of purity tests on the left that I find way too short sighted.

Jeff: Tina Nguyen. Her book is The MAGA Diaries: My Surreal Adventures Inside the Right-Wing (And How I Got Out). Tina, I thank you so very much for spending time with us today.

Tina: Oh, thanks for having me.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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