It’s Election Day, 2017, and the nation turns its worried eyes to Virginia, where the campaign for governor has turned into a referendum on Donald Trump and, more importantly, on the future of the Republican Party.
Ed Gillespie, the GOP candidate in that race, would by any honest definition be the epitome of what Trump likes to call “the swamp.” Consider his resume: Gillespie has worked in Washington for more than 30 years. Over that time, he has made millions selling his influence and connections as a top Washington lobbyist. He is also a former chair of the Republican National Committee and served as White House counselor to President George W. Bush. He is, in other words, establishment Republican through and through.
Combine that background with Trump’s bad job approval numbers in Virginia — 37.4 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics average — and you have every right to expect that Gillespie would be running as far from Trump as possible. Instead, he has decided that his best chance for victory is to remarket himself as an echo of Trump by running a highly divisive campaign marked with tinges of white nationalism. As part of that strategy, the New Jersey native has made preservation of Confederate monuments a core focus of his campaign, and he has also tried to make “sanctuary cities” an issue even though Virginia, the state that he wants to lead, has no such cities in the first place.
The idea is to embrace Trump’s approach and Trump’s themes, while not taking on Trump’s personal baggage, in the hopes that it will excite the Trump base to turn out to vote in an off-cycle election. If that approach wins, it will become the model for Republicans nationwide in the 2018 midterms, and the conversion of the GOP into the party of Trump and Steve Bannon will be complete, with little chance of redemption.
It’s a difficult balance to hit, which explains why Gillespie and Trump have not campaigned together. Instead, Trump has turned to Twitter to signal his strong support for Gillespie’s candidacy and campaign, as he did this morning.¹
You will not be surprised to learn that the tweet features a lie compounded by yet another lie:
♦ Trump refers to “Virginia’s poor economic performance” when, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Virginia has an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent, one of the lowest in the nation and well below the national average of 4.1 percent.
♦ He refers to Virginia’s “high crime,” when according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics, Virginia’s violent crime rate in 2016 (217 crimes per 100,000 population) was barely half that of the national rate (397 per 100,000). It was the fourth lowest in the country, behind only Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Over the last decade, in fact, violent crime in Virginia has declined by 23 percent.
These are easily available numbers, produced by the very government that Trump heads. He chooses to blatantly contradict them because they paint a picture of Virginia in particular and the country in general that is very much at odds with the depiction of “American carnage” in his inaugural address and more generally in his 2016 campaign. His entire approach depends on the notion that we are a nation in steep decline.
So when Trump talks about “soaring violent crime,” it doesn’t really matter to him or to his audience whether the claim is accurate. It’s intended to serve as code, as a vehicle for summoning anger and resentment against the minorities presumed to be committing all that non-existent crime.
The same is true of his claims about “a terrible economy.” As Trump reminds us in other contexts, the jobless rate has rarely been lower; the stock market and corporate profits have never been higher. But in this particular context, the notion of a “terrible economy” allows him to rant and rail against foreigners, which is the real message that he wants to communicate and that his audience wants to hear.
It is, in short, a politics of misdirection, of saying one thing but really meaning another. Facts become what we wish them to be, reality becomes just one of several competing narratives. And because words and facts have been stripped of meaning, the administration that results can somehow pose as a populist defender of the little man while handing huge tax cuts to Wall Street; it can promise better health care for all while voting to strip more than $1 trillion from Medicaid and Medicare programs that many Trump voters rely upon. The whole thing is an exercise in saying one thing while doing another.
And here’s the interesting part:
The remaining holdouts of the #NeverTrump movement in the GOP have reacted to Gillespie’s campaign with disgust, seeing it as a surrender and betrayal by one of their own. While I admire their stand on principle, I’m not sure that’s right. I think the true betrayal works the other way around.
Despite Trump’s endorsement, Gillespie remains a creature of the swamp. He is every bit the GOP establishment elitist that he has always been. But through Trumpian rhetoric and appeals to resentment, he is trying to disguise that elitist, corporate agenda beneath a populist, nationalist mantle. In other words, what we’re watching is not Trump conquering the GOP establishment and draining the swamp. It is the establishment co-opting Trump and his ugly message to pursue the same old pro-establishment policies that it always sought.
¹ In one tweet last month, Trump touted Gillespie as a job-creator and crime fighter, closing with the suggestion that “he might even save our great statues/heritage!” The word “our” in that tweet got a lot of attention, and for good reason.
Trump was born and raised in New York City, to parents who were first- or second-generation immigrants. There ain’t nobody named “Trump” buried beneath a Confederate tombstone at Gettysburg or Shiloh. So the only plausible sense in which he can claim Confederate statues as part of his “heritage” is to embrace them as what they are, as monuments to defenders of white superiority. And of course, he has no compunction doing that.