Deconstructing ‘Trumpism without Trump’
Ed Gillespie was supposed to be the strategy’s death. Roy Moore may have just saved it.
By all accounts, this week was a disaster for the Republican Party.
The party lost two governorships, both with right-of-center candidates built to appeal to independents. The loss of Virginia’s governorship was particularly stinging, after Republicans poured resources into Ed Gillespie’s campaign only to lose the race early in the night. Results down the ballot were no better, with Democrats picking up local legislative seats, a place that Republicans have dominated since 2010. And following the Washington Post’s story detailing U.S. Senate nominee Roy Moore’s alleged pedophilia, party leaders have called for Moore’s withdrawal from the race before the December election.
Before the Moore allegations came about, Gillespie was the biggest story about the state of the Republican Party. Gillespie’s strategy in the race was a mixed bag, using President Donald Trump’s strategy of cultural warfare as a way to turnout disaffected white voters, while distancing himself from the unpopular President. This strategy, obviously, did not work out in the end, and left Gillespie in the dust after opponent Ralph Northam beat him by 8 points, and pundits scrambling to explain the loss.
Republican opponents of Trump have pointed towards Gillespie’s embrace of Trump-esque policies, such as keeping Confederate statues and banning sanctuary cities, as issues that alienated key voting groups, particularly young voters, that would have been necessary for Gillespie to win. Yet in the Trump wing of the Republican party, the blame rested on Gillespie’s refusal to embrace Trump 100%, attempting to run a campaign that appealed to Trump supporters via policy, and skeptics via Gillespie’s image as a more establishment-friendly Republican, only to lose most voters’ interest in the process.
Democrats seized Gillespie’s loss and used it as an example of how President Trump’s ideology doesn’t resonate with voters. What many people took away from Gillespie’s run is that his strategy was not an embrace of Trump the man, but Trump’s voters, and the issues that they cared about. This ideology has been called ‘Trumpism’, and mostly circles around low-income, small-town whites who feel as though they’ve been left behind by an advancing economy and a changing world. On paper, it is a legitimate voter base that Gillespie could have tapped into successfully to give him an edge in the polls.
But ideology didn’t matter in exciting the base. It never was going to matter. If Gillespie wanted to succeed in rallying Trump voters without the help of Donald Trump, the only way he was going to do that was by acting like Trump himself. And the strongest evidence that this is a winning strategy is Roy Moore.
Moore’s campaign is filled with the same controversy and bombast that people saw during Trump’s infamous 2016 run. He has made offensive statements time and time and time again, very little of which was detrimental to his campaign.
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His major opponent in the race was sitting Senator Luther Strange, who had backing by the GOP Establishment and (reluctantly) by Trump himself. Yet Moore placed first in the round one primary and won the runoff, all without the President’s backing.
Even now, looking at his pedophilia allegations, he is taking the same approach that Trump himself took following the “Access Hollywood” tape. Moore slammed the report as fake news concocted by the liberal media and denied all allegations. Even if it’s a stretch to connect “Locker Room Talk” with pedophilia, the White House still has maintained the official position that all women who have accused Trump of sexual assault are lying.
The backlash is even playing out in a similar manner, with Republicans calling for Moore to step down if these allegations are true, and Moore refusing to do so. And while it may be too early to tell, the fact of the matter is that Alabama is a deep-red state. Trump’s base turned out for his election. They turned out for Montana’s Greg Gianforte after he assaulted a reporter. And whether you want to acknowledge it or not, many of them will turn out for Roy Moore, whether he is the official nominee or not.
That is the essence of Trumpism; becoming so beloved by your voters for your fight against the system that you become untouchable.
Gillespie was always going to be viewed as a generic Republican suit, so he tried to dress himself up with Trump’s policies. But those never matter, and they continue to not matter.
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Trump voters want someone who will take on the institutions that they believe have left them behind. Corey Stewart, Gillespie’s primary opponent, would have rallied the base better by virtue of being more of an outsider than Gillespie was. Stewart’s support for Trump’s policies would have just been icing on the cake.
Explaining the success of populism is nothing new, of course. The success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were enough to showcase that. But the model for Trumpism goes beyond populism, into a place that doesn’t hold accountability for it’s leaders. As far as these voters are concerned, the media and the establishment are just jumping to conclusions when it comes to Trump or Moore. Trumpism thrives in the post-fact era of politics. Gillespie wasn’t an example of Trumpism’s failure, but the misunderstanding of Trumpism.
But does that mean Trumpism can be a success? Greg Gianforte’s race didn’t depend on an embrace of the president, and Karen Handel’s victory in Georgia’s 6th District was via a delicate balancing act. There’s no telling whether Corey Stewart or a more Trump-like Gillespie could have won that race. As for the Roy Moore controversy, the jury is still out until election day as to whether Moore is a Trumpism success or failure.
It is entirely possible that the pressure forces Moore to drop out, but it should also be taken seriously that Moore could be elected to the U.S. Senate despite these allegations. Moore is a candidate for the Trump era, and we know how successful being that kind of candidate can be.
Izzy Rodriguez is a writer and student at Rice University. You can follow Izzy for more commentary on politics and pop culture on Twitter @IzzyRxdriguez.