Is Donald Trump the chicken or the egg in the devolution of the Republican Party? Trump isn’t the first Republican to win over GOP voters with shameless bigotry and relentless demagoguery, and his administration is almost typical in its disdain for the commons and its commitment to enriching the rich. At the same time, his success has unleashed something in the GOP, opening the gate to a crop of candidates who have jettisoned respectability to channel the conservative id in all of its anger and resentment.
The latest example of this phenomenon comes from Illinois, where Republican state Rep. Jeanne Ives is challenging incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner for the gubernatorial nomination. Like Trump against Jeb Bush, Corey Stewart against Ed Gillespie in Virginia, and Roy Moore against Luther Strange in Alabama, Ives hopes to upset a more established Republican by fanning anger and prejudice.
“Thank you for signing legislation that lets me use the girl’s bathroom,” says a deep-voiced male actor wearing a dress, in a new ad released by Ives’ campaign. The ad attacks the incumbent governor for purportedly backing liberal policies and uses a procession of conservative boogeymen to mockingly “thank” Rauner for his aid. A black woman in a Chicago Teachers Union shirt thanks Rauner for a “bailout” of teacher pensions, a white woman in a pink hat thanks him for “making all Illinois families pay for my abortions,” and a man dressed as antifa thanks the governor for making “Illinois a sanctuary state for illegal immigrant criminals.”
State Republican leaders condemned the ad. “There is no place in the Illinois Republican Party for rhetoric that attacks our fellow Illinoisans based on their race, gender or humanity,” said party chairman Tim Schneider in a statement. A Republican candidate for attorney general, Erika Harold, called on Ives to “immediately” take the ad off the air.
But Ives still has considerable conservative support for her message. A member of the Illinois GOP central committee, John McGlasson, called it “a clear, unambiguous message about what Rauner stands for,” and Politico notes that a former Rauner ally, Republican strategist Dan Proft, has jumped ship to Ives’ campaign. It’s unclear how Republican voters will respond to Ives’ message, but the 2016 presidential primary provides clues: 39 percent of Illinois Republicans backed Donald Trump for the nomination, beating out Ted Cruz by 8 percentage points, and swamping both John Kasich and Marco Rubio.
Across the country, Trump-style candidates appear to have the upper hand over establishment favorites. Former sheriff Joe Arpaio shot to the top of the polls in Arizona when he entered the race for a U.S. Senate seat last month, surpassing former state Sen. Kelli Ward and nearly tying Rep. Martha McSally. Arpaio served 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, the most populous county in the state, where he built a reputation for cruelty to inmates and a national profile as an aggressive tormentor of undocumented immigrants. Dozens of inmates died in Arpaio’s jails, and the country spent tens of millions of dollars litigating claims against the sheriff. In 2017, he was convicted of criminal contempt of court for ignoring a court order to stop racially profiling Hispanic residents, detaining them simply on suspicion of undocumented status. President Trump later pardoned him, calling Arpaio an “American patriot,” and it’s not at all clear whether the criminal charges for profiling will help or hurt Arpaio in the Republican primary.
In Virginia, Corey Stewart is seeking the Republican nomination for a Senate seat by doubling down on the far-right approach he used to nearly topple Ed Gillespie in last year’s Republican primary for governor. After President Trump’s “shithole” comments, Stewart proposed legislation that would prosecute leaders of “sanctuary cities” for harboring lawbreakers. Among Stewart’s opponents is far-right preacher E.W. Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2013, which could make the campaign a contest to see who will propose even harder-line policies and sell them with the most inflammatory rhetoric.
Elsewhere, mainstream Republican candidates have pitched themselves to voters with Trump-style appeals. Over Super Bowl weekend, gubernatorial candidates in South Carolina and Tennessee aired “stand for the flag” ads, blasting football players who protested police brutality. “It’s too bad that the league doesn’t respect the patriotism of our national anthem,” said Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee in her ad.
If Trump represents anything new in Republican politics, it’s an aversion to the dog whistle and a preference for shouting his prejudice and making it a central part of his politics. While Trump lost some GOP elites with that approach, he captivated the vast majority of rank-and-file Republicans, who endorsed his bigotry with their votes. The candidates he inspired are hoping to replicate that result, betting they can overcome their more traditional opponents with appeals to anger and resentment. Whether they will ultimately succeed is anybody’s guess, but given the Republican unity behind Trump, it’s not a bad bet.