Ed Gillespie went from potential vindicator of Trumpism to “cuckservative” in the space of a couple of hours.
The Virginia Republican, campaigning in a treacherous political environment defined by an unpopular president of his own party, ran the only race he reasonably could. He distanced himself from Donald Trump personally, hoping to lessen his losses in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia, while hitting some Trumpian notes on crime and immigration to appeal to the president’s base.
As of last week, Gillespie looked to be gaining fast on Democrat Ralph Northam. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the self-declared keeper of the Trumpist flame, believed Gillespie had cracked the code by fashioning a “Trumpism without Trump.”
At least that was the party line until Gillespie lost. Then he became an establishment tool who had betrayed Trumpism and the president.
The hypocrisy of the Bannon faction aside, the Virginia race revealed a problem with the Trumpism-without-Trump construct — namely, that it’s not really possible.
First, it’s not going to be convincing to Trump-haters. Ed Gillespie is not the slightest bit Trumpy. He is earnest, wonky and friendly. When he distanced himself from Trump, it was credible because he hadn’t been close to Trump to begin with. He had never met him, and all of Trump’s support on Twitter was unsolicited.
None of this made the slightest difference to voters in Northern Virginia, where Northam racked up margins bigger than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. These people weren’t showing up to send a message to Gillespie, the otherwise unthreatening candidate who happened to run a barrage of negative ads against Northam (not the first time this has happened in electoral politics). They were showing up to send a message to Trump, whom they believe is a clear and present danger to all that they hold dear.
So as a sheer political matter, there can be no such thing as Trumpism without Trump, or Anti-Trumpism without Trump, or Anything Else without Trump.
It is difficult enough for a candidate to run away from a conventional president of his own party; it is going be even harder with a president who dominates the media to an extent no other president has, and courts — nay, enjoys — radioactive controversies.
Then there is the other, opposite problem: that Trumpism without Trump won’t be fully acceptable to Trumpists. They talk a lot about the “Trump agenda,” although what this means is vague. How could Gillespie have run on it more to their satisfaction? Promise to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it? To implement extreme vetting? To hire the best people and make the best deals?
The fact is that the Trump legislative agenda is entirely conventional (certainly Gillespie has no problem with it), and what sets Trump apart is his populist, guy-on-a-barstool persona and perpetual combativeness.
This is what his loyalists ultimately want everyone to sign up for, the personality. As Trump himself put it in a particularly classless tweet immediately after the Virginia result, Gillespie “did not embrace me or what I stand for.”
In theory, Trumpism without Trump is the right direction for the GOP. It should learn from his populist, nationalistic appeal while avoiding its (and his) excesses.
In practice, Trump himself is going to loom all the larger in the party. He is the main issue in American politics, and he may be the only Republican fit to weather the storm — he has a proven ability to turn out his voters, he doesn’t have to win elections in nonpresidential years, and his persona works for him, if not for anyone else. If the worst comes and Republicans lose both houses of Congress next year, Trump’s importance will be further magnified as the only Republican standing between Democrats and unified control of the federal government.
In that circumstance, Republican voters would probably be much more willing to embrace Trump without Trumpism, rather than the opposite.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.