"It has become necessary to destroy the town in order to save it," a U.S. military officer may or may not have said of the Vietnamese city of Ben Tre, infested with enemy insurgents, in 1968. Whether or not this statement was true of Ben Tre then, it accurately describes the state of the Republican Party today.
It is necessary to destroy the GOP in order to save it.
The thing we call "Trumpism" — the demagogic politics of white identitarianism — now exists independently of President Trump. Which shouldn't surprise us, as Trump did not invent Trumpism; he merely harnessed its electoral potential in a way no presidential candidate had before.
And the gubernatorial race underway in my adopted home state of Virginia shows how the Trumpism virus is spreading. It must be stopped.
Republican Ed Gillespie is vying against Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In his heart of hearts, Gillespie, a lobbyist and former Bush administration official, would no doubt prefer to run the kind of wonky, bread-and-butter campaign about education, taxes, and traffic congestion that demographically growing northern Virginia is famous for preferring. Milquetoast Good-Republicanism was getting Gillespie nowhere, however. And so he resorted to Trumpism, releasing a series of ads about MS-13 gang violence and sanctuary cities (which do not exist in Virginia), and the removal of Confederate statues.
In response to an outcry over the MS-13 ads, Gillespie has essentially played dumb, adopting the "Who, me? We're anything but racist" defense. He has tried mightily to keep his distance from Trump. Our bull-in-a-china-shop president has other ideas, though. He tweeted his endorsement of Gillespie, unsubtly linking "tough on crime" with Confederate "heritage/history":
The race is now expected to be close.
National Review's Jim Geraghty, a shrewd observer of politics on the ground, sees the stakes of the race this way:
If Gillespie loses, some Trump-friendly Republicans will no doubt conclude that northern Virginia's increasing ethnic diversity and social progressivism have made the state unwinnable for Republicans and that, with nothing to lose, GOP candidates ought to let their angry, populist freak flag fly. But if Gillespie wins, it will show that traditional pre-Trump Republicanism can still prevail in a purple state. [National Review]
Geraghty is wrong. If Gillespie wins, it will prove that establishment Republicans can't prevail without at least paying tribute to Trumpism. The lesson for Republicans nationally would be equally obvious: Your party is over. The thing you want it to be — a vehicle for tripartite Reaganite ideals of low taxes and light regulation, social traditionalism, and strong national defense — cannot exist without the fuel of white identitarianism. The fact is, it never did; you just looked the other way. Donald Trump has made it impossible to do so any longer.
If you, Republicans, are morally comfortable with this; if you've got no problem playing the Gillespie game of Trumpism at one remove, then you can stop reading.
If not, I have a radical solution: Dump this Republican Party and start building a new coalition.
The party you've got now is like the Vietnamese city of Ben Tre: it's crawling with Trumpist guerrillas. You should not, in good conscience, share a political tent with them.
It's not enough to compartmentalize Trump, to ignore him and (if you're an running for office) hope voters don't notice what you're up to, or (if you're a Republican rank-and-file voter) forget just who and what it is you're propping up by voting Republican. All politics is national now. Yes, even in Virginia.
Fairly or not, the results of Tuesday's election will be picked over for national implications. A victory for Gillespie will be seen as a triumph for the forces of racial division and irreconcilable culture war. Republicans in Virginia: Do the difficult thing. Vote Northam. And start the even more difficult work of building a new party the next morning.