President Trump is a populist demagogue who won by using a noxious combination of open nativism and closet racism. But will Trumpism survive Trump and become an enduring feature of American politics? Unless Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate in Virginia's gubernatorial race is defeated decisively on Tuesday, the answer, sadly, is "yes."
What's more, this race shows that unless the right backs off, the left will retaliate with its own politics of fear — embroiling America in a downward spiral of fear-mongering.
By all accounts, Gillespie is — or rather, was — just about as far from a natural Trumpist as a politico can get. A former chair of the Republican National Committee, he is a fiscal conservative whose main flaw is that he makes milquetoast look enticing. But to his credit, he has long been an advocate of a more inclusive kind of conservatism that combines traditional bread-and-butter issues (so to speak) with a gentler line on immigration and moderation on social issues that appeals to voters of all hues and backgrounds. Indeed, he ran for the Senate in Virginia three years ago on a pro-immigration, pro-growth platform that consciously avoided Mitt Romney's harsh talk against undocumented aliens that, he was convinced, had alienated Latinos and cost Romney the 2012 presidential election. Even in this election, he stayed away from divisive cultural and social issues throughout the primaries, emphasizing instead large across-the-board tax cuts — which he advertised in Spanish and Korean, no less, to reach Northern Virginia's ethnically eclectic electorate.
But after his narrow primary victory against a Republican opponent who played Trump's white ethno-nationalist card, Gillespie has gone whole hog hardline. In a bid to rally the GOP's Trumpist base, he has unleashed a torrent of negative advertisements depicting his Democratic opponent Ralph Northam, the lieutenant governor, as too hard on Virginia's Confederate heritage — and too soft on undocumented aliens.
In one ad, Gillespie declares that he wants to maintain Virginia's "Civil War monuments" while Northam wants to tear them down. Never mind that the structures that Gillespie is fighting for — like the controversial Charlottesville Robert E. Lee statue whose removal brought in Trump's words "fine people" like white supremacists out on the streets in violent protests this summer — were erected during the height of the Jim Crow era. They were always meant as an ode to white supremacy, not a celebration of some benign chapter in Southern history prior to the Civil War.
In another ad, Gillespie blames the presence of Central American gang MS-13 in Virginia on Northam's tie-breaking vote against a bill that would have banned sanctuary cities in the state. But it's a logical impossibility that Northam's vote could have had anything to do with the gang given that there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia — and they wouldn't protect violent illegal immigrants anyway. Indeed, MS-13 operated in small pockets in America for decades before Trump turned it into a bogeyman to gin up anti-undocumented alien sentiment.
Even Gillespie's conservative friends are disgusted with his dog whistles to nativists and supremacists. Conservative scholar Norm Ornstein who knows Gillespie well tweeted: "Man, how he has fallen! Right into the gutter." Likewise, Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) right-hand man Doug Stafford, who lives in Virginia and whose own boss himself hasn't been shy about finding his inner Trumpist, has called Gillespie's campaign "gross." Another conservative pundit Gabe Schoenfeld laments that Gillespie has "covered himself in filth."
And of course Northam's backers are not taking matters lying down. They have responded in kind with their own campaign portraying Gillespie's Confederate backers literally like the devil. One particularly jaw-dropping ad by Latino Victory Fund depicts a truck sporting a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker cruising the streets of a quite, affluent, suburban neighborhood chasing Hispanic, Muslim, and other minority school kids in what turns out to a bad dream. No doubt the ad is meant to boost the turnout of Virginia's well-heeled minorities in Fairfax and other northern counties by alerting them to the reign of terror that a Gillespie victory might bring for them. The ad is certainly over the top, but scarcely more than Gillespie's, and arguably less of a non-sequitur than his sanctuary city one in that it draws out the logical limits of emboldening Virginia's Confederate rabble.
So is this competitive fear-mongering of left and the right the future of American politics? Pretty much — unless Gillespie goes down to a resounding loss. Should he scrape a victory in this blue state that Hillary Clinton won — or even lose by a narrow margin — it'll be a signal that Trump's red meat strategy is a viable one. Usually, when Republicans have played the race card — say, George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton ad — they've done so somewhat hesitantly for fear of alienating suburban moms and social moderates who connect mostly with the GOP's economic message. But if Gillespie makes headway with this message — which it seems he is doing given that he has narrowed the gap with Northam considerably in the latest polls — the Republican takeaway will be that their problem in the past wasn't that they were too aggressive in stoking their red-meat base, but not aggressive enough. A new calculus will prevail where there is much more to be gained than lost by embracing Trumpism.
During the presidential election liberals were nonplussed by Trump's efforts to tap into a substratum that norms of political decency had till then caused the GOP to merely tap dance around. But they also expected it to self-destruct. Now, however, they are countering with their own brand of demonizing that they are field-testing in Virginia.
So depending on the outcome there, American politics may get a whole lot worse before things get better. There is nothing more depressing than watching decent men destroy each other like cocks in a fight with tiny blades fastened to their feet. Americans can hope for the best. But they should expect the worst given what the occupant in the White House has unleashed.