President Donald Trump, though he was many times zones away in South Korea, was quick to throw Ed Gillespie overboard on Tuesday night once it became clear the Republican nominee for Virginia governor was a loser. Enjoying the newfound expressive potential of 280 characters, Trump tweeted:
This was a decidedly different message than earlier in the day, when the president championed Gillespie’s Trumpian fear-mongering over crime and immigration:
The two tweets may seem contradictory, but they both contain an element of truth. The relationship between Trump and Gillespie is a complicated one. Gillespie—a former chair of the Republican National Committee, aide to President George W. Bush, and senior advisor in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—was not the most Trumpian candidate in Virginia. Corey Stewart ran against Gillespie in the Republican primary with a campaign that The Washington Post editorial board described as mix of “bombast, nativist venom and red-meat, race-tinged pandering”—and lost to Gillespie by just 1.2 percent. Gillespie took this as evidence that he should adopt Stewart’s brand of Trumpian populism, on the assumption that it would energize the state’s Republican base in an off-year election. That’s how Gillespie, hitherto a dull establishment Republican, started fighting culture wars on sanctuary cities, immigration, and crime.
Gillespie ran a campaign best described as Trumpism Without Trump, and the fact that he lost handily suggests that Republicans are in for a bruising year in 2018, when Trump’s name won’t be on the midterm ballots.
Gillespie’s strategy, as described by Michael Scherer and David Weigel in the Washington Post, was a simple one: “Run a mainstream candidate who could nonetheless employ the racially-charged, culture-war rhetoric of President Trump to drive out the white, working-class base.” Despite his moderate background, Gillespie played the role convincingly. “A onetime establishment stalwart, Ed Gillespie, declined to campaign with Trump—but he executed on the plan as well as he could,” Scherer and Weigel wrote. “He defended Confederate memorials, vilified Central American gangs in ads that looked like horror movies and even denounced the kneeling protests of professional football players.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign CEO, hailed Gillespie’s rightward turn. “Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win,” he assured the Post over the weekend. “It was the Trump-Stewart talking points that got Gillespie close and even maybe to victory. It was embracing Trump’s agenda as personified by Corey’s platform.”
That’s not quite what happened. Gillespie’s strength among Trump’s core supporters, rural whites, was more than offset by urban and suburban voters who turned more heavily against the Republican Party than they did in 2016. In the general election, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by five points in Virginia. In Tuesday’s election, Democrat Ralph Northam beat Gillespie by nearly nine points.
Gillespie exemplifies the bind Republicans are in next year. The core electoral fact about Trump is that he’s very unpopular with the public at large, but still has the support of most Republicans, who prefer him to the party establishment. Republican candidates are thus torn between conflicting imperatives: the need to propitiate the GOP primary base by echoing Trumpian themes, and the need to win support among at least some of the general-election voters who belong to the anti-Trump majority. Since Trump is one of the most polarizing politicians in American history, that balance is impossible to strike.
As analyst Josh Jordan noted on Twitter, this dynamic is worsened by turnout patterns: “It’s hard for Republicans to replicate Trump’s turnout when Trump isn’t on the ticket. It’s easy for Democrats to motivate turnout against Trump even when Trump isn’t on the ticket. That’s a recipe for disaster for the GOP.” Building on this insight, Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan observed that Trump was similar to Barack Obama in that he won by “mobilizing constituencies that don’t always vote,” which turns into a structural disadvantage in off-year elections.
The failure of Trumpism Without Trump doesn’t just bode ill for the Republicans in 2018; it also reveals a crucial limitation of Trumpism itself. While Trumpism has ideological elements—immigration restriction, racism, and nationalism—it’s mainly driven by a cult of personality. Republicans voters love Trump not so much for his political positions as for who he is. They love that he’s rich and famous, but not an elite. They admire his belligerence, his anger, his refusal to apologize or back down. They find him entertaining.
We can take some comfort in this fact. If Trumpism had been a system of thought, it could be adopted by other politicians. Prior to last night’s election, it was plausible to imagine Trump as a harbinger of a truly revolutionary figure. One could imagine someone like Senator Tom Cotton winning the presidency and then applying Trumpist ideas much more forcefully and effectively, unencumbered by Trump’s laziness and ignorance about government. But this scenario is less likely if Trumpism only works with Trump, as the failure of Gillespie’s wannabe act suggests.