It was said that Donald Trump’s grand entrance onto the political stage would change the Republican party in the most profound way. And it did. As Trump-deranged Democrats doubled down on bicoastal progressive elitism, the GOP transformed its brand from old-time white-collar conservatism to fiery populism in a matter of months, then over four years cemented its newfound voter base to the tune of over 74 million presidential votes in 2020.
Donald Trump and the GOP had pulled off a once-unthinkable feat, replacing the Democrats in short order as the party of blue-collar America. But of course, it was not enough to sidestep the declared outcome of the presidential race. In the bitter aftermath of turning over the White House while narrowly losing both branches of Congress, the question which lingered in the malodorous political air like a thick layer of smog was where the Republican party would go from there. Would Trumpism still thrive, or even survive, or would the party turn back to the neoconservative days symbolized by the Bush 43 presidency and failed candidacies of Mitt Romney and John McCain?
Then came 2021, the presidency of Trump’s successor which has shocked even conservatives in its utter incompetence, and the impeccable campaign and much-heralded upset victory in Democrat-run Virginia by the previously unknown Glenn Youngkin. The fact that his win signaled a turning of the tide back toward the GOP in a state which had descended deep into blueness understandably grabbed the headlines following an election day that likely exceeded even Republicans’ most optimistic expectations.
MAGA Country Virginia?
But once the sweet fragrance of victory and inaugural adulation dies down, Youngkin’s four year term will merit close scrutiny, because the 55-year-old, highly successful business executive who takes the oath of office today in Richmond as the 74th Governor of the Old Dominion now becomes something of a Rorschach test. He might on one hand be legitimately viewed as a Trump acolyte based on his success on the big stage as a political rookie, and his largely MAGA-friendly agenda. On the other hand, given his apparent policy soundness, together with his relatively mild-mannered personality which stands in stark contrast to Trump, he could be considered the template for a future alternative or follow-on to the 45th president. After all, it was certainly not Trump’s record but his temperament which is widely viewed as the kryptonite which cost him a second term.
Is Youngkin on the same wavelength as Trump? The incoming governor of Virginia distanced himself physically from the former president during his campaign but pulled off an exceedingly difficult balancing act in a state where Trump is famously unpopular. How did he appeal to Republicans and independents, plus a generous smattering of Democrats, while not publicly invoking the name of the former president? A prominent Washington newspaper reported with confidence that Youngkin and Trump spoke by phone repeatedly over the course of the gubernatorial campaign, “allowing the two men to go the length of the contest without saying negative things about each other or clashing on strategy,” all the while “deflecting questions about his support for Trump’s more polarizing views in an effort to make inroads in the well-heeled Northern Virginia suburbs.” Trump in turn told a group of supporters, “I’ve gotten to know [Youngkin} so well and our relationship is so great.”
Old Dominion Swamp?
But there is an opposite perspective being advanced by skeptics positioning this new governor as a product of the DC swamp, in the thrall of anti-America First forces whose success would stand to trigger a return to the bad old days of GOP corporatism. Youngkin spent 25 years with the Carlyle Group, serving for much of that time as co-CEO of the private equity firm. Those with doubts about Youngkin’s populist claims point to his firm receiving investment funding of some $100 million from notorious progressive billionaire George Soros, and its own investments of more than $10 billion across China, according to an article in Red State in April 2021. LibertyNation.com political correspondent Joe Schaeffer argues:
“Youngkin does not remotely fit the profile of an America First Republican … In fact, there is good reason to fear he is the opposite of almost everything Trump and his movement stand for … Youngkin was elected to stop critical race theory in public schools, yet the woman he’s appointed for state education secretary, Aimee Rogstad Guidera, has numerous professional and financial ties to organizations that underwrite the spread of critical race theory.”
Guidera was the founder of the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), an organization deeply tied to the political establishment on education issues. So Youngkin’s curriculum vitae and early appointment may paint a different picture than his stated policy positions, but he will start today with a blank palette on which to paint his leadership of a state which, until his victory, had turned further leftward than any other state in the first two decades of the 21st century.
There are many ways to test the enduring popularity of a legendary figure like Trump without his name appearing on the ballot. And the new governor can certainly learn from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who essentially answered that question in opposite fashion from Youngkin. The Wyoming congresswoman’s decision to rest her political future on non-stop condemnation of the most popular man in her own party proves to be so out of touch with the faithful that she appears all but certain to lose her ultra-safe congressional seat – in a state where her family is royalty and her father is legend.
Glenn Youngkin’s political career is off to a roaring start. Whether it remains on a fast track, or follows the inglorious fate of Ms. Cheney, will almost certainly be determined by whether this new face of the GOP turns out to be the Trump-era populist he has claimed to be, or the recycled swamp creature his skeptics fear.
~ Read more from Tim Donner.