Ed Gillespie was the quintessential establishment Republican: senior adviser to President George W. Bush, chair of the Republican National Committee, founder of a bipartisan lobbying firm. He was also the GOP’s nominee for governor in Virginia, and he was losing.
Then he embraced Trumpism. He began running bizarre, fearmongering ads about Hispanic gangs and sanctuary cities. The polls narrowed, Democrats panicked, Trumpists began celebrating. Two days ago, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, told the New York Times that Gillespie had “closed an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda … in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward.”
This was the Democrats’ worst nightmare: that Trumpism might work better without Trump. That Gillespie could take Trump’s culture-war playbook — his attacks on immigrants and diversity and disorder — and, in severing it from Trump’s erratic personal behavior, do what Trump couldn’t: win blueish states like Virginia.
Except Gillespie lost. He lost by more than Trump did. He lost by more than other statewide Republicans running in Virginia. Trumpism without Trump didn’t just fail to win. It collapsed.
The reason, I suspect, is that Bannon had it exactly backward. The age of Trumpism without Trump isn’t ahead of us. It’s behind us, at least for now. Trumpism without Trump was possible before Trump was president. It might be possible after he’s president. It’s not possible while he’s president.
In 2016, Trump had the advantage of being a true outsider: He had no record to answer for, no unemployment rate to explain, no votes to justify. For all his oddities and eccentricities, he was a blank slate — a businessman to those who wanted a businessman, a culture warrior to those who wanted a culture warrior, a pragmatist to those who wanted a pragmatist, a conservative to those who wanted a conservative, and so on. He was theory severed from practice; “ism” without the reality check of is.
But now we have Trumpism with Trump, and the American people don’t much like it. Trump is no longer an abstraction, Trumpism no longer an idea. Instead, we are watching the real thing: a White House in chaos, a legislative agenda in shambles, a world in which nuclear war is likelier and America’s global leadership is diminished. Trump isn’t merely unpopular; he is less popular than any president at this point in their term since the advent of modern polling, and he is that unpopular even though the economy is growing and Americans are not dying in large numbers overseas.
The result is that a wave election appears to be building. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias notes, across the special elections held over the past year, Democratic candidates have outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin by 11 points and Barack Obama’s 2012 margin by 9 points. If you average recent polls, Democrats hold a 9-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot. Tonight, in Virginia, Republicans saw what that means.
It is still possible that the theory was correct, that Trumpism without Trump might have been a winning formula. For now, however, that will remain untested. Trump is the president of the United States, and so there is no such thing as Trumpism without Trump, there is only Trumpism with Trump, and the dysfunction and disappointment and backlash it creates.