Two events shaped the political reaction to the rolling upheavals that I have called the revolt of the public. First, the shock of Donald Trump’s election made possible an alliance between elites who had soured on the merits of American society and the true believers of the cult of identity. Most of the elites in question were progressive Democrats. After 2016, they could accept without difficulty the young zealots’ condemnation of the U.S. as a sinkhole of racial, gender and ecological injustice.
The second event was, of course, COVID-19. The pandemic swept incipient protesters off the streets, locked them down at home and gave the government tremendous power to decide how and when the public could assemble. The once-angry public, in any case, was now frightened and looking for reassurance. Early in 2020, a British friend told me: “It’s going to be the hour of the state.” He was right. Gallup periodically asks Americans whether the government should do more or less. By September 2020, 54% of Americans were saying the government should do more—an all-time high.
The COVID panic provided justification for taming the digital platforms that, in the past, had served as vectors of revolt. Controls introduced by Google, Facebook and Twitter to stop the spread of “misinformation” on the disease were soon applied to political content as well. Predictably, the first major figure to be “deplatformed” was Trump, avatar of anti-elite populism. A number of Trumpist dogmas—that the 2020 election was won by fraud, for example—were banned on Facebook and Twitter. The same held true for any opinion that could conceivably offend Identitarian sensitivities.
By the time the Biden administration took charge of the nation’s affairs, it represented the reactionary position with remarkable clarity and unusual strength. President Biden himself was a relic of the 20th-century welfare state, competing, in his own mind, with the great builders of that edifice like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. His spending proposals made the Great Society look like a lemonade stand—and the trillions of dollars involved could purchase a great deal of political support.
The attack dogs of identity were to be unleashed against those who resisted, as the administration traded institutional authority for social control. With the near-miraculous arrival of the vaccines, the politics of COVID seemed certain to be a winner. Once Biden and his people led the U.S. to population immunity, a grateful public would swarm into the bars and ballparks without a thought of revolt.
Nine months later, in the first electoral test of the new order in Virginia, these fond illusions crashed and burned. Since the causes of the crackup are closely bound with the fate of the Biden presidency and the counterrevolt of the elites, they are, I think, well worth exploring in detail.
The Virginia gubernatorial election, slotted for the year after the high drama of a presidential election, has sometimes devolved into a testing ground for the issues that dominate national politics. At first glance, however, the 2021 contest seemed to hold few cosmic implications.
Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate, was a popular former governor and attendant in the court of Bill and Hillary Clinton. If this was the hour of the state, McAuliffe personified the old establishment perfectly. He had every expectation of victory: Virginia has trended Democratic for a decade. In 2017, Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate, won the governorship by 9 percentage points; in 2020, Biden took the state by 10 points. Across the Potomac, the new administration remained an asset that could be mobilized to assist McAuliffe.
His opponent, Glenn Youngkin, was a newcomer but by no means a nobody. Youngkin had amassed a fortune as CEO of the Carlyle Group, private equity firm to the elites—where, among his duties, he managed Terry McAuliffe’s portfolio. Despite his wealth, he tacked in the direction of the public, wearing a dowdy fleece vest as a token of the common touch. Youngkin needed a powerful lever to break the Democratic hold on the state. In the first months of the campaign, none seemed readily available—opinion polls showed McAuliffe comfortably in the lead.
A competition between two rich, white, middle-aged men from Northern Virginia lacked every ingredient necessary to generate excitement. The issues were predictably partisan. McAuliffe ran on his economic record as governor, wrapped himself in the Biden spending agenda and accused Youngkin of unreconstructed Trumpism. The latter attempted to run a populism-without-Trump campaign, eventually settling on education as his wedge issue. While that turned out to be a deft move, it shifted the debate to purely local questions. Given Trump’s poor showing in Virginia and Biden’s early popularity, Youngkin wished to keep the voters’ attention tightly focused on their home turf.
That never happened. In the course of the year, the national political scene and the Virginia election gravitated by degrees toward each other, eventually fusing into a single, overwrought spectacle. The primary reason behind this melding was the precipitous fall from grace of the Biden administration.
Following the self-inflicted disaster that was the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden plunged into a downward spiral of confusion, weakness and unpopularity from which he has yet to recover. Elected on a nostalgic craving for old-fashioned experience and stability, he has been revealed as an accidental president—the final jest played by Trump on “The Swamp.” Biden’s evident befuddlement in the face of events is in part a function of his age and personality—only 40% of Americans agree that the president “is in good health,” according to one poll. But the reactionary impulse is a fantasy, not a program, and addiction to binge spending is merely a symptom of an administration that is hollow at the core.
Virginia became a test of how far the presidential collapse had proceeded. McAuliffe, for one, explicitly cited Biden’s decline as a reason for his own shrinking lead in the polls. Identity and COVID-19, chosen instruments of control, were repurposed into potent issues by the Republicans, who began aggressively pushing back on everything from mask and vaccine mandates to the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. Suddenly, the media had a reason to pay attention.
In a Sept. 27 debate with Youngkin, McAuliffe, who is more mandarin than politician, expressed a perplexing opinion for a candidate in the act of wooing the electorate. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” he said. That, in all likelihood, was the moment the race went fully national. Before the end, millions in outside money had poured in for both sides.
Two weeks after the debate, a new Gallup poll showed that 52% of Americans now believed the government was “doing too much.” The numbers had flipped from the previous year. Unnoticed by the elites at any level, the public had been roused out of its pandemic torpor—and the hour of the state had passed.
The strength of the Biden coalition had been more apparent than real. The alliance of graying elites with youthful identity activists, forged in the Trump years, was not only unstable but unnatural. The oldsters, as we have seen, had nothing to say. The young radicals provided all the causes, all the energy, all the words. What they lacked was a stopping point.
The cult of identity can be compared to a vehicle that runs on conflict. If it ever attained satisfaction, it would sputter to a halt. Activists engage in a permanent inquisition to identify and attack racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, climate denialists and gender refuseniks. If the targets are weak, they can be fired from their jobs, deplatformed from social media or forced into abject apologies. If they are strong, they will be harassed without mercy. Either way, the movement must march on to the next conflict—and the next after that. In a fundamentally unjust society, there can be no rest for the virtuous.
The Biden administration is an empty shell propelled haphazardly by these compulsions. By executive order, it has imposed “equity” on the federal workforce, which is like equality but somehow more equitable. It is probably the first national government on earth that can boast of a “gender policy.” But that was just the first skirmish. Identity in power demanded the clash and clangor of endless struggle.
We now know that the Justice Department has threatened to unleash the FBI on parents who complain too loudly before identity-obsessed school boards. It was thought that these parents posed a risk of violence and should be likened to “domestic terrorists.” A Texas school district is under a federal civil rights investigation for rejecting critical race theory. With the blessing of administration inquisitors, local school boards have called in the police to forcibly expel angry parents from meetings and intimidated them with the possibility of prosecution. One of the more notorious ejections took place in Loudoun County, Virginia—it involved the father of a girl who had been sexually assaulted in a school bathroom by a transgender person.
To issue rules and regulations from Washington is one thing. To get between parents and their children’s education is an entirely different matter. The cult of identity had descended from the bureaucracy and the university to the suburbs where huge numbers of Americans live. In Virginia, affluent suburbanites had voted Democratic for years. They now rebelled against the rule of the righteous. McAuliffe, having embraced the latter, never regained his balance on the issue. By skill or by luck, Youngkin had positioned himself perfectly to tap into the parents’ revolt; on Election Day, he would be rewarded with an increased share of the suburban vote.
With the race now a toss-up, McAuliffe recruited the president, Vice President Harris and Barack Obama to campaign on his behalf. That virtually ensured that the administration’s identity overreach would be on the ballot. It fell to Obama, however, to deliver the mandatory display of elite cluelessness. “We don’t have time to be wasting on these phony, trumped-up culture wars,” he asserted in Richmond, effectively denying the reality of the school controversy and suggesting that upset parents must therefore be either dupes or frauds.
Election results in Virginia were close but decisive. Republicans won the three statewide races and gained control of the House of Delegates. Results in a handful of other states—including a squeaker in the gubernatorial race in bluest of blue New Jersey—left no doubt that voters were punishing the president they had elected only the year before.
On Oct. 26, just a few days before the election, President Biden stumped for McAuliffe in the Northern Virginia suburb of Arlington. He seemed to have very little to say—or, more accurately, he had a single thing to say. In remarks lasting 17 minutes, Biden mentioned Donald Trump 24 times.
I have the sense that Trump looms enormous in the president’s mind. He won the White House by attacking Trump. He oriented his administration to undo Trump’s work. He can be said to possess certain flattering qualities only in comparison to Trump. Without Trump, Biden would be the same pedestrian politician who, in younger days, ran three times for president and dismally failed in each attempt.
There’s a kernel of strategic sense in the Trump mania: It unifies a fractious coalition and frightens suburbanites into voting Democratic. McAuliffe, too, as he flailed in search of an advantage, took to constantly comparing Youngkin to Trump, even calling him “Trumpkin.” Yet the fixation with a defeated opponent is mostly a symptom of the sterility of our political class.
Trump is the horror that haunts the elites’ imagination—their unified field theory for the many things that have gone wrong with the world. One can argue, for example, that parents in Virginia were actually more irritated with COVID-related public school closures than with the cult of race and sex. But that’s a distinction without a difference: Biden’s singular achievement has been to convert the pandemic into an identity issue. Behind every opposition to vaccine mandates or school closures, he—like all our baffled elites—has perceived the monstrous figure of Trump. To remain unvaccinated or advocate opening the schools thus became the moral equivalent of being a racist or a homophobe.
While Trump bonds and expands the Democratic base, he has the opposite effect on Republicans. His absence turned out to be the surprising non-event of the campaign, totally to Youngkin’s benefit. In Virginia, Trump was the dog that didn’t bark. It’s easy enough to imagine an alternative history in which he brought his chaotic brand of personal politics to the state, making the election all about him. As Biden and McAuliffe understood, that was a formula for Democratic victory.
Why didn’t it happen? Much of the credit goes to Youngkin, who managed to appease Trump while keeping him (largely) silent and solidly planted in the golf course at Mar-a-Lago. He fudged the question of voter fraud—the poisoned cup of Republican politics—in a way that alienated neither hard-line rural Trumpists nor parents in the multicultural suburbs. The truth of the matter was that Youngkin, with his goofy vest, didn’t look or sound much like Trump. Quite intentionally, he portrayed himself as a “nice” populist, which appears to be a contradiction in terms but, in principle, is not—and may now be a model for the future.
Viewed through the lens of the Virginia election, our national political landscape assumed a familiar aspect. In many states, the public has emerged from lockdown in a rowdy and anti-establishment temper. The Biden coalition, always an unstable lash-up, appears to be crumbling at the edges under the pressure of the president’s unpopularity. Its reactionary project has been shown to be an empty dream. The relentless crusade to promote identity only compounds the public’s discontent. The party in opposition, meanwhile, is eager to cash in on the mood of revolt.
The wild card in all this is Trump. Ironically, given his divisive record, he is destined by whatever path he chooses to become a unifying figure. If he goes after the presidency again, he will galvanize and unify the Biden coalition. If he declines to run, he will do the same for a new Republican coalition that includes anti-identity suburbanites.
The heavy betting among the people I know is that Trump will run. Without question, Biden or whoever succeeds him in 2024 will present a tempting opportunity for a man driven at all times to be the center of attention. But one last lesson from Virginia is that Trump can be nudged and flattered into playing an atypically passive role.
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