Column: Virginia governor’s race is a sign of just how deep Trumpism goes

Glenn Youngkin speaks in front of an American flag
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has a fighting chance because he has courted racists and conspiracy theorists without completely alienating educated suburbanites.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

For the sake of our two-party system, I would have liked to believe that Republican Glenn Youngkin, should he win the Virginia governor’s election on Tuesday, could show the way to a post-Trump restoration of the GOP, away from the crazy and the culture wars. After all, Youngkin is a moderate businessman who has long been a traditional Republican.

But I can’t, because that’s not how he’s campaigned against former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Youngkin is no Donald Trump, but neither is he disavowing the worst of Trump. He’s using weasel words, but all the same he’s corroding faith in our elections, exploiting racial divisions and embracing phony culture wars. Trump says what he thinks, and his cultists love it; Youngkin says what they want to hear, just without the bile and bombast that has cost the party the support of many moderates, college-educated Republicans and independent voters in the suburbs, and turned the once-red state a purplish blue.


It may be working for Youngkin. A Washington Post-Schar School poll Friday showed the race is a dead heat, and Youngkin seems to have the momentum. A new Fox News poll showed him with an eight-point lead.

While Youngkin hasn’t denied President Biden’s victory, he’s sure trafficked in Trump’s “Big Lie.” Until May, after he’d won Republicans’ gubernatorial nomination over six mostly more-Trumpy rivals, Youngkin wouldn’t acknowledge that Biden was legitimately elected or that Trump was lying about the election. From the start, Youngkin has proclaimed that “election integrity” would be his top priority, despite zero evidence of a problem.

He’s called for auditing Virginia’s voting machines, when that’s already been long done and the 2020 results confirmed. He participated in an “election integrity” rally with conspiracists at conservative Liberty University. More than once he’s indulged voters fantasizing that Trump will be restored to office soon. “It’s unclear,” he told one, because “we all know the courts move slowly.” False, as he surely knows: Scores of courts have already struck down the Trump claims of fraud.

Most effective for Youngkin, it seems, have been his racially tinged appeals regarding schools. The polls suggest they’ve resonated with just the voters he needs: both Trumpian conservatives and more moderate parents in vote-rich suburbs of northern Virginia, outside Washington, and Richmond to the south. But his appeals are demagoguery and worse.

He vows to ban critical race theory, the academic study of systemic racism that isn’t even taught in Virginia’s K-through-12 classes. He’s co-opted a favorite new conspiracy theory on the right, falsely claiming that McAuliffe contacted “his friend Joe Biden” to get Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland to “sic the FBI” on Virginians at local school board meetings protesting “CRT” and vaccine and mask mandates.

McAuliffe has denied any such thing, and Politifact slapped Youngkin for a “Pants on Fire!” falsehood. Garland’s recent innocuous order that the FBI work with local officials to prevent threats at such meetings came at the request of the National School Boards Assn. , after repeated altercations and even death threats against local officials.


Lately Youngkin has even flirted with book-banning, reviving an old controversy in the state over Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about slavery, “Beloved.” In 2013, a mother complained that Morrison’s book gave her son, a high school senior taking Advanced Placement English, nightmares. McAuliffe, who was a popular governor between 2014 and 2018, subsequently vetoed a bill requiring K-12 teachers to notify parents of assignments with “sexually explicit content.”

Today that mother is starring in a Youngkin campaign ad; the son is now a lawyer at the National Republican Congressional Committee. Youngkin has also made ads showcasing McAuliffe’s gaffe in response to the attacks — “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” — to stoke the grievances among conservative parents.

Youngkin can’t believe much of what he says. A Harvard Business School graduate and former private-equity CEO, he brings to mind other Ivy League Republicans who are conning voters by their Trumpian talk, like Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas.

As a former Republican state legislator said of Youngkin to the New York Times: “Whether he believes in this Trump stuff or if he’s trafficking in it, I don’t know. But if he doesn’t really believe this stuff and is just trafficking in it, that’s worse than believing it.”

Indeed. The cynicism is galling. And it’s the opposite of what the Republican Party — and the nation — needs.