On Tuesday night in Virginia, voters elected Republican Glenn Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe as their next governor by a margin (at the moment) of 51 percent to 48 percent. The emerging consensus holds that right-wing anger about “critical race theory” drove MAGA-base enthusiasm while Youngkin was able to distance himself enough (physically, even) from Donald Trump to be able to harvest the fruits of less ideological swing voters’ dissatisfaction with the shortage-wracked economy and the frustrating COVID-related decisions made by local school districts.
It almost sounds sensible when you phrase it that way. On the other hand, what in the damn world is this latter group of voters thinking? Do they have the memory of a domestic animal? Is it possible that any adult American has truly thought through the issues and decided that the best way to stabilize a chaotic political and economic situation is to elect a leader from the Donald Trump–era Republican Party?
Apparently so! After four years of embarrassing Trump-created disasters that culminated in mass COVID fatalities, a violent attempt to overturn the presidential election, still ongoing efforts to fabricate evidence of election fraud, and the ascendance of an electorally significant movement whose premise is that Democrats operate a cannibalism ring with Tom Hanks, a determinative number of Virginia voters have decided they’re OK enough with the Republican “brand” that they’re going to give the party a shot running their state. Again, this is on the same day that a number of ardent Republicans gathered in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza because they thought John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in 1999, was going to appear there to confirm an alliance with Trump.
A certain number of upper-middle-class white suburbanites who used to reliably vote Republican, but were put off by Donald Trump, seem to have decided in Virginia that they also don’t really want to be Democrats; if they did, they probably wouldn’t be so unhappy with Democrats like Joe Biden (the most moderate candidate in the 2020 Democratic field) and Terry McAuliffe (for whom voting is about as close as you can get these days to just reelecting super-centrist 1996 Bill Clinton). The bad news for those voters is that the person who still controls the Republican Party’s agenda is Donald Trump. His endorsement is the most coveted currency—the only currency!—in most party primaries. Youngkin wouldn’t say whether Biden was legitimately elected when he was running for the Republican nomination in Virginia, and you only get one guess where his embrace of critical race theory as an issue came from.
Do Republicans who hold power in swing states, as Youngkin will, feel any pressure to moderate their views? There’s certainly no evidence of it! Republicans in Michigan purged their newly selected party chairman this summer for suggesting Trump might have had some role in losing the presidential election in which he was a candidate; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ biggest recent move was appointing a state surgeon general who won’t wear a mask and isn’t sure whether vaccines work. Trump’s going to run again in 2024 unless he’s dead, and his main issue is going to be something like “putting Kamala Harris in the electric chair on television” or “refusing to admit that China has taken military control of the West Coast.” If he doesn’t, the next most likely nominees are pro-COVID figures like DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, although Noem has seen her stock decline since she chose not to attempt to prohibit companies doing business in the state from mandating employee vaccinations.
Basically, there is a small but determined and influential group of Americans who wish they could vote for someone who will cast magic Republican spells on the stock market without suggesting that they should inject bleach into their bodies to kill a germ. However, the only person left in the Republican Party who fits that description is Mitt Romney, and the only way he is getting a vote in a 2024 primary is if he’s running as a Democrat.
To be clear, temperamentally conservative suburbanites with maxed-out 401(k)s are not the only group responsible for what is happening. There are also many independent voters who are not particularly politically engaged and simply tend to ping-pong between parties based on the vague sense that whoever is in charge must be responsible for all the bad things and instability. But I think it’s fair to say the dog-memory issue applies equally there, given that those voters have swung back to supporting the GOP less than a year after it got done creating the problems that they are now upset at Democrats for not immediately solving.
In summary, an important cohort of Virginia residents voted on Tuesday to express their feelings about arbitrary remote-learning guidelines, and what they are probably going to get as a result is a state board of education that requires teachers to present “opposing views” on whether slavery was bad. Weird country.