Four months ago, I was watching television when a political ad caught my attention.
It opened with a man wearing a fleece jacket asking people in a circle whether people really cared what political party they belong to. And of course the people in the ad shake their heads and say no, they don’t. “Politics,” the man then tells them, “is undermining our potential.”
That man must not want to be associated with Donald Trump, I thought to myself.
The man in the fleece is Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia. Four months ago, he seemed to be willing Virginians (and, by extension, those of us who live in Washington, DC, but are in the Virginia media market) to not think of him as part of the party of Trump.
Now, with the 2 November election approaching, Youngkin’s message is markedly different. His latest ad, released on 25 October, features a woman complaining that Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia and current Democratic candidate for the office, was responsible for her son being assigned explicit reading material that made her heart sink. Unmentioned in the ad is the title of the reading material (Toni Morrison’s Beloved). Or that this was back in 2013. Or that her son is now a lawyer for the Republican National Congressional Committee.
Youngkin has also railed against “George Soros-backed allies”, whom he claimed have gotten political operatives into school boards, and alleged that McAuliffe would have the FBI “silence parents”. He has also said he would ban critical race theory – an intellectual framework that examines how America’s institutional systems uphold white supremacy, and a favourite punching bag of the former president – from schools. Critical race theory is not part of Virginia’s kindergarten-12th grade curriculum, but no matter.
What happened to the man in the fleece? And why does he now sound so much like Donald Trump?
Youngkin’s “original strategy” was a pivot towards the centre, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. But in recent weeks, Youngkin has engaged in “an increasingly aggressive Trump-style campaign”.
“When you look at American politics, and Virginia politics these days, you see a real absence of a middle compared to the past,” Farnsworth said. “In such an environment, running to the middle doesn’t really gain you all that much.”
That’s particularly true in 2021. Youngkin and McAuliffe (one of the people most involved in turning Virginia blue – or Democratic – in the first place) can’t count on midterm elections or the presidential election to get people to the polls, since neither of those are taking place this year. That means both candidates, who have spent the last few weeks neck and neck in the polls, are playing to their bases.
“You really are looking at competing apocalyptic narratives,” Farnsworth said. “If you listen to the opposing side, you have a choice between a socialist hellscape or The Handmaid’s Tale.”
It’s true that seemingly every McAuliffe ad compares Youngkin to Trump, and that Vice-President Kamala Harris, in a recent McAuliffe rally, gave an impassioned speech on abortion rights in which she urged voters, “Don’t Texas Virginia” (an interesting call for a figure who will almost certainly soon need to campaign in the southern swing state).
And it’s true that Youngkin isn’t as full-throated as Trump in his support of some conspiracy theories, and has tried to win his supporters without scaring off the more moderate part of the electorate he’ll need to win.
But it’s also true that playing to the base in Youngkin’s case has meant not only blasting school boards and Soros, but calling for an “audit” of Virginia’s voting machines. The state’s elections department already carried out an audit following the 2020 election. Youngkin has said that he believed Biden was legitimately elected, but nevertheless continues to speak about “election integrity”. A recent Trump rally in which the former president exhorted people to vote for Youngkin included a pledge of allegiance to the flag said to have been flown at the 6 January storming of the US Capitol (Youngkin, after pressure, called the pledge to that particular flag “weird and wrong”). To put it as charitably as possible, Youngkin’s strategy has meant flirting with racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Is that likely to change soon – for Virginia or for America?
“It’s not clear to me that we ever bounce back,” Farnsworth said. “As long as people consume news in partisan silos, the partisan messaging is amplified, not reduced.”
So long as the Republican base, in Virginia and elsewhere, remains enamoured with Trump, and so long as Republican candidates decide they can’t afford to lose Trump’s support or his most die-hard supporters, that is what playing to the base will entail. Call it politics that undermines our potential.