The Trump talisman doesn’t work anymore

7 November 2021

3:56 PM

7 November 2021

3:56 PM

Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Terry McAuliffe is a loud wake-up call for the Democrats, who attempted to fuse the GOP candidate for Virginia governor to Donald Trump’s hip and failed miserably.

Joe Biden won the commonwealth by ten points a year ago — yet Youngkin beat his Democratic opponent by two points. A slew of other Republican victories in key states have led to frantic analyses on cable news and soul-searching postmortems about why the Democrats proved so unpopular. Sure, anti-incumbent sentiment and Biden’s historic disapproval ratings haven’t helped, but one clear takeaway has emerged: the Trump boogeyman no longer works.

For months leading up to the election, McAuliffe’s campaign, in tandem with the news media, made valiant efforts to yoke Youngkin to Trump in every possible way. Back in May, the Democratic Governors’ Association dropped six-figures on an ad campaign to cement the link, while McAuliffe’s campaign sought to tie Youngkin to Trump’s claims of fraudulent election results, despite the governor-elect making it unambiguously clear that he believed that the 2020 elections were legitimate. Just a week before, fear-mongering by the Alexandria Democratic Committee in the form of an announcement that “Trump is coming back to campaign in Virginia” was circulated on Facebook. Never mind that Trump had only offered to host a phone-in “tele-rally,” and that Youngkin refused to participate in any event alongside him.

Without Trump as a foil, the Democrats’ strategy appears rudderless. When you’ve spent the past six years building your whole identity around resistance to Trump and have been rewarded handsomely for it, it’s hard to acknowledge that the country has moved on and that the messaging was going to fail this time. Reason’s Robby Soave summed it up perfectly: “The Democrats need Trump more than the Republicans do.”

A lot of the mainstream press is not alert to this new reality. Axios declared that Youngkin created a new playbook for Republican candidates in the post-Trump era, calling it “Trump light.” So it tastes like Trump but without the Trumpian calories?

It is precisely this way of thinking that has led us to a place where political operatives from the Lincoln Project felt the need to bolster its missing quintessence of Trumpism by manufacturing it with the most stirring visuals possible – assembling a group of five young people dressed in khakis and sunglasses and sending them to clutch tiki torches in front of Glenn Youngkin’s campaign bus in Charlottesville, Virginia. Could there be a more visceral way to reinforce the not-so-subliminal message linking Youngkin to Trump and white supremacy?

The entire stunt backfired when internet sleuths revealed that it was a set-up, forcing disgraced Lincoln Project operatives to admit their involvement and excusing it as an exercise in civic virtue to “remind Virginians about Charlottesville and the Republican Party’s embrace of those values.” Of course, the mea culpa came long after McAuliffe’s campaign staff had retweeted the photo as fact and his spokesperson Christina Freundlich had declared that “this is who Glenn Youngkin’s supporters are.”

Democratic pundits continued with the embellished metaphors even after the results came in, with Van Jones absurdly weighing in that “Youngkin is the delta variant of Trumpism — the same disease, but spreads a lot faster and can get a lot more places.” It’s awe-inspiring how he so seamlessly pulled out not one but TWO of the things that most strike fear into the hearts of the Democratic base.

There are a couple of problems with a messaging strategy of branding every single opponent as the second coming of Trump. One is that voters don’t buy it. Another is that it obscures the real underlying concerns that are really motivating them.

Instead of examining why McAuliffe’s popularity was tanking, the Dems contented themselves with making Youngkin out to be an avatar of Trump. As a result, they dismissed what turned out to be a key issue for Virginia voters — whether critical race theory is or should be taught in schools — as yet another moral panic 3-D printed to perfection in a Republican strategist’s lab. McAuliffe’s revealing gaffe during the governors’ debate where he said that “parents shouldn’t be telling schools what they should teach” was the final condescending nail in the coffin of his campaign.

Parents could only stand by and watch as the media framed their valid concerns over what their children were being taught in school as “code for white race politics.” This eventually morphed into the prevailing elite consensus that a vote for Youngkin was merely a vote for whiteness and racism and white supremacy, all things now synonymous with Trump. In the end, voters refused to accept that framing and voted for Glenn Youngkin, who took their grievances seriously.

The Democrats are unable to win on issues alone right now, as President Biden’s legislative agenda stalls in Congress through opposition from within, and progressive policies in many US cities have failed to deliver on good governance. Biden’s disapproval rating is, at this point in his term, the highest than all others save one — Donald Trump’s — which shouldn’t surprise anyone who is paying attention to the many issues the administration is presiding over: historic inflation, high gas prices, border crisis, supply chain shocks, soaring crime levels, a pandemic with no end in sight, rampant homelessness, the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the raging debate over critical race theory in schools. Trump himself is neither in office nor on social media, which makes it easier for voters to sense that the invocations of his name reeks of desperation and a desire to distract from the substantive issues plaguing America today.

Ironically the 45th president released a statement on election night, saying that he didn’t even have to rally on behalf of Youngkin because “all McAuliffe did was talk Trump, Trump, Trump and he lost!” Trump inserted himself into the gubernatorial race and claimed that McAuliffe essentially ran against him and he came out on top. The former president also thanked his base and said that without them, Youngkin would not have won. How sobering it must be for Democratic strategists to discover that, just like them, Trump lives rent-free in Trump’s head. The Democrats and the Donald are in complete agreement about how to look at the world: calibrate your position in relation to the center of gravity that is Trump himself. What a winning strategy for the midterms..

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