On Tuesday night, Pawlenty lost his bid to be the Republican nominee for the Minnesota governor’s race. His loss was unexpected since he was a major figure in the Minnesota GOP. He had served two-terms as governor of Minnesota from 2003-2011 and had enough of a national presence to run for president in 2012.
Talking to reporters on Wednesday morning, Pawlenty blamed his defeat on changes in the Republican Party. “The Republican Party has shifted,” the politician said. “It is the era of Trump and I’m just not a Trump-like politician.”
In fact, Pawlenty’s relationship with Trump and Trumpism is complex. As The Washington Post’s Robert Costa astutely points out, Pawlenty himself was a pioneer in the push to make the Republican Party more populist and working class in his 2012 run. But he did so by trying to pitch the “Sam’s Club” policy agenda (in effect, a Republican take on strengthening the welfare state) pushed by conservative intellectuals like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. What the rise of Trump shows is that right-wing populism, or rather pseudo-populism, works if it makes a naked appeal to white nationalist grievance. Simple policies to alleviate the lives of the working class have little traction with Republican voters.
After the release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, Pawlenty described Trump as “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit.” Pawlenty’s Republican opponent Jeff Johnson successfully used those quotes against Pawlenty.
As Greg Sargent points out in The Washington Post, this too is part of a pattern: “multiple Republican candidates have been placed on the defensive during this cycle for the same thing: failing to support Trump not just in a general sense, but more precisely for failing to support Trump when the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape surfaced.” The modern Republican party is increasingly shaped by those willing not just to support Trump, but to support him at his most vile. Failing to do that gets candidates ousted.