Just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that the Republican Party had thrown in the towel on maintaining any sort of Donald Trump-free identity. Sen. Jeff Flake announced that, rather than defy the Trump-supporting base in Arizona, he would not seek reelection. He followed Sen. Bob Corker's path. Sen. Ted Cruz, who, in a different universe, had stood tall at the Republican convention in Cleveland, responded to the small chorus of Trump critics in the Senate (Corker, John McCain and Flake) by growling that his fellow senators should "shut up and do (their) job."
Now, in the aftermath of the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere, people are asking whether Trumpism can prevail "without Trump."
Laura Ingraham rushed to explain Ed Gillespie's Virginia loss as a result of too little, not too much, Trump flavor in the mix. He "played footsie with conservative populism, but didn't embrace it. Big mistake." Trump himself tweeted, "(Gillespie) worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stood for."
But Gillespie did very well with the central and western voters in Virginia who had gone for Trump. His trouble was that Virginia Democrats were burning to rebuke the president and his party. Voters who wanted to express disapproval of President Trump outnumbered those who wanted to support him by a 2-1 margin. Sixty percent of Virginia voters said they had a negative view of the Republican Party, and Democratic turnout was up 4 points over 2013.
With a wave of Democrats crowding polling places, the Republicans were doomed. Recounts will determine whether Democrats were able to wrest control of the House of Delegates, which Republicans had controlled since 2000.
In a hint of what Democratic turnout may look like when the party is no longer saddled with Hillary Clinton, Ralph Northam did better among almost every demographic than Clinton had. He won 61 percent of women, compared with 56 for Clinton. He won 69 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, compared with Clinton's 54 percent. He won 60 percent of college graduates, while Clinton won 55 percent. Only among African-Americans did Clinton edge a slight, 1-point advantage over Northam's totals.
Immigration is the signature issue for the Trump base. Among Virginia voters who cited it as their most important voting issue, 74 percent went for Gillespie — but they represented only 12 percent of voters.
Besides loyalty to Trump himself, what is Trumpism 12 months after his election? Is a Trump nationalist supposed to be for a southern wall paid for by Mexico when Trump himself hasn't taken a single step toward erecting it or extorting that payment? Is a Trumpian expected to support deporting minor children of illegal immigrants as Trump promised in his campaign, or letting them stay, as Trump agreed with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to do? Shall a Trumpian demonize trade though Trump has done nothing (thank God) so far to launch trade wars? Does a Trumpian favor huge infrastructure projects to put blue-collar men back to work? Even though Trump hasn't done that?
It's just possible, isn't it, that Trumpian nationalism and pot-valiant talk about "America First" is pretty light on content. Trumpism seems to be a personality cult built around a particularly unappealing personality, and little more.
Trump's Rasputin, Steve Bannon, seems convinced that nastiness is the secret sauce. He was for Gillespie's primary challenger, Corey Stewart, who ran on worshipping Confederate statues, labelling his opponents "cucks" and locking up illegal immigrants. Wonder how well he would have done if he'd been the party's nominee instead of Gillespie?
Bannon has been beating his toy drum about backing challengers to "establishment" Republicans. So far, he's outfitted Michael Grimm, just out of prison on a tax-fraud conviction; Tom Tancredo, who called Barack Obama a bigger threat than al-Qaida; Kelli Ward, who appears on Alex Jones' radio show and called upon John McCain to "step aside" hours after his cancer diagnosis; and Roy Moore, who thinks parts of Illinois — or maybe Indiana — labor under sharia law and hasn't read the part of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits religious tests, if he's read any of it.
Update: A number of women are now suggesting that Moore made sexual advances to them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. He may be more of a creep than even Bannon bargained for.
Though these strivers cannot be said to espouse a consistent philosophy, they are united in their crudeness, ignorance and sheer jackassery. Republicans should be asked whether this is what Trumpism amounts to, and if so, whether they are happy to be counted as members of the louts and dunces party.