Surprise! Trumpism doesn't need Donald Trump as its ambassador in order to thrive. Voters in in Virginia and New Jersey have just made that abundantly clear.
Republican gubernatorial candidates in both states kept the former president at a distance, while making use of his political playbook to score a victory in blue-ish Virginia and engineer a nail-biter in deep blue New Jersey. By giving Trumpism a gentler guise, they've taught Republicans everywhere powerful, divisive strategies to road-test in next year's midterm elections — and to perfect in time for the 2024 presidential race.
I'm defining Trumpism in the same terms the former president himself first outlined when he rode down that Trump Tower escalator in 2015: anti-institutional, anti-elite backlash wedded to cold-blooded, us-versus-them identity politics, often shrouded in bigotry and racism.
It's always been easy to write off Trump as an aberration, when in fact he is a reflection of his country and his party. His presidency demonstrated Trumpism's traction — even as it exposed certain grotesque truths about America. Trump handily shredded a number of myths some Americans have told themselves about who we are and what we value. Trump was also incompetent and reveled in overtly loony antics, so he wasn't able to either push his agenda as far as he wanted or secure a second term.
But Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey, and Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate in Virginia, have learned from his example. They stoked concerns about government overreach and COVID mandates, while largely avoiding Trumpian histrionics.
To be sure, bipartisan anger over public education policies in both New Jersey and Virginia during the COVID-19 pandemic drew voters to Ciatarelli and Youngkin. Parents especially were angry that school lockdowns had left children and families adrift, and both Republicans tapped into that anger. They also appealed to culture wars and to racism. "Schools" and "education" became proxies for "government overreach" and "racism/racial identity."
Ciattarelli, an entrepreneur and former state assemblyman who years ago labeled Trump a "charlatan," had become a Trump supporter. Once Ciattarelli began campaigning for governor, however, he kept Trump at bay.
At the same time, he hammered his opponent, Gov. Phil Murphy, for what he described as unnecessarily strict mask and vaccine mandates and for locking students out of their schools for too long. Ciattarelli also targeted Murphy for signing a law that incorporated diversity and inclusion studies into New Jersey's K-12 public school curriculum.
I'm a white guy with white kids in a predominantly white town, and I accept the fact that white folks play a pivotal role in perpetuating racism. But, as Ciattarelli's campaign showed, lots of my fellow New Jerseyans do not. Ciattarelli's voters hate seeing mandates and masks trample their liberties — and they are uncomfortable exposing their little ones to robust and provocative discussions of racism.
In Virginia, Youngkin put many Trump themes in play, but not Trump himself. "Candidates matter," Youngkin's chief strategist, Jeff Roe, said of his boss's path to victory. "We weren't defined by Obama, we weren't defined by Trump, we were defined by Glenn." Youngkin "triangulated the Trump dilemma with skill," noted the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, by being "so un-Trump-like" while campaigning on "some of the same cultural issues."
Youngkin, a former financier and an evangelical Christian, railed against Virginia schools that didn't take parents' concerns seriously. He also complained about critical race theory being part of Virginia's public school curriculum (it isn't), and promised to ban it if elected.
One of Youngkin's campaign ads featured a white suburban mother distraught that the late Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved," which explores the ravages of slavery, was taught in Fairfax County's public schools. Morrison, who won both a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer Prize for her work, was black. She also was apparently more threatening to kids than provocative white counterparts such as Cormac McCarthy and Nevil Shute, whose harrowing books are on Fairfax County's recommended list but didn't make it into Youngkin's ads.
Virginia voters said the economy, critical race theory and education were decisive factors in their choice for governor.
Other Republicans are modeling Trumpism without Trump, too, and some undoubtedly are thinking about presidential runs in 2024. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley come to mind.
Seemingly seismic political events, open to multiple interpretations, sometimes fade quickly.
But Trump has shown that we don't live in an entirely rational, fact-friendly country, that racism remains a central facet of the American experience, and that Republicans will continue doing Trump's dirty work if it gets them elected. They'll just do it more politely.