Donald Trump has the lowest approval rating in the history of the modern presidency. It is not difficult to see why, as his administration continues trading in falsehoods amid the Russia probe, fanning the flames of white supremacy, and trampling the norms and checks and balances of American democracy. Self-described independent voters are increasingly disillusioned with Trump, and his loyalist base appears to be the only segment of the population willing to go down with the ship. All this should be good news for Democratic politicians, but recent events in local political contests suggest otherwise.
The Virginia gubernatorial election, in particular, demands urgent attention. The margin between Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie is razor thin, proving that Trump’s incompetence is not easily converted into support for Democratic candidates or momentum for the party. Gillespie embraces the Trump administration’s positions on immigration and Confederate monuments, and no state in the country should be more primed to deliver a strong rebuke of white supremacy at the polls. But a recent survey found that, in this tight race, only one-third of likely voters say Trump is a factor in their decision.
Gillespie owes his political reputation and his candidacy to gerrymandering. As detailed in The Washington Post, Gillespie and Republican strategist Chris Jankowski were the architects of REDMAP, a GOP gerrymandering strategy spurred by Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. Gillespie and Jankowski urged GOP donors to focus on a few key Virginia Legislature elections in 2010, which tilted the balance of power in the state toward the Republican Party. The GOP-led legislature then set to work redrawing electoral maps to advantage Republican congressional candidates at every turn, exemplifying a commitment to gerrymandering that would prove devastating to Democrats in 2012. Despite Obama’s reelection and 1 million more total votes cast in favor of Democratic congressional candidates, Republicans seized control of Congress.
Trump exploited the inequalities in the American voting system — gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the Electoral College — in similar ways. But the connections between Trump and Gillespie span far beyond their leveraging of institutional inequities, as Gillespie stokes white supporters’ racism just as Trump does. Two recently released advertisements illustrate this commitment. In one ad, Gillespie stirred white fears of Latinos by suggesting Northam is soft on “illegal immigration,” and by extension, crime. “Tough on crime” rhetoric was decoded long ago and revealed as a means to activate white voters’ fears of blacks and Latinos. Research shows that immigration makes cities safer, and there is absolutely no evidence that undocumented immigration has any impact on crime rates. This is the same argument and language that Trump used during the campaign when he said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Perplexingly, Northam responded to the immigration advertisement by confirming that he would indeed ban sanctuary cities in Virginia if he were elected, angering many of his supporters. He should have rejected the terms of the debate entirely.
In another ad, Gillespie addressed the controversy over Civil War monuments, stating that he is for “keeping them up” and his opponent “is for taking them down.” By “Civil War monuments,” Gillespie means monuments dedicated to the Confederacy. Foremost among these is the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, the rallying point for a neo-Nazi gathering where white supremacists assaulted dozens of people and one of them killed a young woman with a car. In the aftermath of the riot, Trump suggested there were “good people on both sides” of the Charlottesville conflict, and failed to condemn white supremacy. Months later, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, suggested that Robert E. Lee, a treasonous enemy of the country for which Kelly served and sacrificed, was an honorable man, and that the Civil War was caused by failure to compromise, rather than the Confederacy’s commitment to slavery. The comments were so objectionable that Civil War historians became overnight media darlings, called on to reeducate the public in print and on screen. As Yale’s David Blight put it, “Robert E. Lee was not a compromiser. He chose treason.”
Trump has amplified Gillespie’s message in no uncertain terms, tweeting that Northam is “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities,” and Gillespie is “Strong on crime, he might even save our great statues/heritage!” Surprisingly, Gillespie was viewed as the less Trump-friendly candidate just a few months ago — he was prodded by his challenger in the primary, Corey Stewart, to take a stronger stance on immigration and monuments as recently as September. In fact, Gillespie denounced the coded racism within the Republican Party in 2006, when he argued for the legal status of undocumented immigrants and wrote, “Anti-immigration rhetoric is a political siren song, and Republicans must resist its lure by lashing ourselves to our party’s twin masts of freedom and growth — or our majority will crash on the shoals.”
Clearly, the tide has turned and swept up more than just Gillespie, as a wave of racist appeals washes over the country this election season. Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in a December election for US senator from Alabama, suggested the Koran was equivalent to “Mein Kampf” and said that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress. He also believes Obama was born outside the United States, and he referred to Asians as “yellows” and American Indians as “reds” during his campaign this fall.
In Edison, N.J., voters considering a board of education election received mailers urging them to deport two Asian-American school board members. The text read, “The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town. Chinese school! Indian school! Cricket fields! Enough is enough,” and “Stop the outsiders!” And in the race for the executive of Nassau County, N.Y., a mailer endorsing GOP candidate Jack Martins suggests that Democratic candidate Laura Curran is soft on “illegal immigration” and “Will roll out the welcome mat for violent gangs like MS-13!” It features a photograph of shirtless, tattooed men looking stoically into the camera.
All of this confirms what we already know: What we now call “Trumpism” did not begin with Trump, and it is not limited to this administration. It is born from a suffocating fear of the “other,” and from indulgence in self-destructive nostalgic delusion. Trump’s low approval ratings alone will not win the election for Northam or future Democratic candidates. Trump’s eventual exit from the White House will not repair the warped moral compass that leads so many Americans to sympathize with avowed white supremacists. The repairs needed must come not only from a political party that rejects bigotry and the absurd, ahistorical premises of contemporary racial debates, but also from the lifeblood of that party: small groups of neighbors, co-workers, and friends willing to stand up for each other and those less fortunate. People who hold each other accountable and know that true power lies not within the leaders they choose, but in their own capacity to draw strength from their differences, face fears head on, and walk bravely toward a land they have not yet seen.Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and the author of “Behind the Laughs: Community and Inequality in Comedy.”