For liberals, the Virginia gubernatorial race—and specifically, the primary fight between Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello—is a test case for the view that left-wing populism can win elections and forge a majority for liberal policies.
Donald Trump’s Republican Party, though, also has a primary on its hands, another contest between (relative) insiders and outsiders. Ed Gillespie, the leading candidate, once led the Republican National Committee and won the party’s nomination for the 2014 Virginia Senate race, nearly besting Sen. Mark Warner in what would have been a major electoral upset. His challenger is Corey Stewart, the at-large chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Prince William County. He was Virginia chairman of Trump’s campaign for president, until he was fired after he organized a pro-Trump demonstration at RNC headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The ideological stakes in this fight are few; both Gillespie and Stewart are conservatives. Where they differ, and what makes the race worth watching, is in affect and emphasis. Gillespie is running as a typical Republican politician, most interested in cutting taxes and slashing services. Stewart has made a different play. Inspired by the president, his is a campaign to bring Trumpism to the governor’s mansion, to—to put it one way—make Virginia great again. And what does that mean for Stewart? It means a campaign dedicated to promoting and celebrating Confederate iconography as “heritage,” pushing a view of Virginia that is as racially exclusive as President Trump’s vision of America.
Here, it’s worth asking a question: What, exactly, is Trumpism, especially in this context? One explanation is that it’s a form of right-wing populism, anti-elite, contemptuous of political norms, preoccupied with restoring cultural status to a presumably neglected majority—in this case, the former industrial working class and its communities. It’s why Trump’s economic pitch revolves around a vision of American work—and the American worker—that centers hard hats and coal miners, gruff men performing manual labor.
But this vision is highly racialized; the workers in question are white. Which gets to the other element of Trump’s formula: racism. On paper at least, Donald Trump is a billionaire. A man of immense privilege who parlayed his father’s wealth and influence into an even larger fortune. He has lived his adult life in the rarefied worlds of celebrity and mass entertainment, a fixture of tabloids and gossip columns. Yet, he ran and won a race for president as a tribune of the white working class, of the “forgotten American,” cast aside by aloof and disinterested elites. He speaks to the country as an avatar of their will—an authentic representative of “the people.”
Racism is what makes this apparent contradiction, this alchemy, work. Trump may not share the life of his followers, but he shares their resentments and vocalizes their prejudices. Their hatred for Hispanic immigrants, their fear of Muslims, their disdain for black Americans. A child of an older, hypersegregated New York City, he holds their investment in whiteness and its social advantages, their nostalgia for white patriarchal leadership and all its trappings.
Which brings us back to Stewart. The Virginia Republican doesn’t share Trump’s wealth or status. But he has adopted the president’s method for building authenticity, taking it one step further and jettisoning any remaining subtext. Stewart, in his bid for the governorship, has centered his campaign on one issue: Confederate memorialization.
Virginia, whose Richmond was once the capital of the Confederate States of America, is dotted with Confederate statues and memorials. And in recent years, Virginians have struggled with what to do about them. In towns and cities like Charlottesville, residents are working to either recontextualize these figures—explaining the history behind these monuments of men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson—or remove them outright. For some, this is an affront and an assault on their heritage. Stewart stands for them, with a rallying cry in defense of this Confederate nostalgia.
“Folks, this is a symbol of heritage. It is not a symbol of racism. It is not a symbol of slavery,” said Stewart, a native of Minnesota, at a recent campaign event, where he unfolded a Confederate battle flag. “I’m proud to be here with this flag.” Holding rallies at sites of Confederate memorials like the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park in Charlottesville, Stewart has promised to defend them from efforts to revise their context or remove them from the public square. He will, he says, reinstate state-issued Confederate license plates and excise any mention of slavery from official proclamations of Confederate history. “The only way that we can kill political correctness is to be politically incorrect,” he has said. By Stewart’s understanding, “political correctness” is a pejorative for a faithful accounting of Virginia’s history, and “political incorrectness” is obscuring that history for the sake of a rose-tinted “heritage.” It’s of a piece with Trump’s rhetoric, which celebrates the same kind of “political incorrectness,” where rejecting the politically correct means embracing explicit racism.
Barring a dramatic shift in political winds, Stewart will lose the GOP primary to the better funded, more experienced Gillespie. That his campaign is likely doomed, however, doesn’t mean we should ignore it. That the Trump-inspired candidate has chosen to run on reactionary white nostalgia, all but embracing a cause dedicated to racial hierarchy, reveals a truth about Trump’s place in the larger story of American politics.
Strip away Trump’s personal scaffolding, his quirks, his controversies, his style and method, and what you have at center, is a cry—call it a rebel yell—for white racial hegemony and its restoration. And while it may not find a place in Richmond, the dark irony of our moment in American history is that it now has a home in Washington.