A lot of good people are rooting for Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin to save Virginia. Although he initially did not campaign as a populist, Youngkin tapped into popular anger against irresponsible school boards pushing radical race and gender ideologies. His victory is seen as an affirmation of the potency of culture war issues. But there are warning signs ahead.
Just days after victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Youngkin announced Heritage Foundation president Kay James as the co-chairman of his gubernatorial transition team.
Heritage embodies everything about the establishment that populists oppose. It is the premier organ of the conservative consensus that has conserved nothing but its own sinecures. Hiring James and others who don’t share the concerns of the voters who put Youngkin in power does not bode well.
For example, amid the 2020 riots, James affirmed rather than denounced the central thesis of critical race theory, the idea that America is a racist country. “The senseless and completely unjustified killing of George Floyd—an unarmed black man—by a white police officer in Minneapolis . . . should shock the conscience of America,” James wrote. She called racism America’s “fatal wound” and asked, as cities and livelihoods burned, “How many times will protests have to occur?”
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson heard James say the quiet part aloud: “The message from our leaders on the right, as on the left,” Tucker said, “was unambiguous: Don’t complain. You deserve what’s happening to you.”
An important aspect of the populist mandate given to Youngkin by Virginians is a rejection of the “woke” narrative on race that James accepts. So it is troubling that Youngkin has chosen her to be on his team, particularly because she’ll be involved in other personnel decisions. Personnel, after all, is policy.
Unfortunately, James is not the only odd staffing choice for a governor who swept into office with a right-wing populist mandate. Consider a member of his communications team, Joshua Marín-Mora, whose publicized political views appear diametrically opposed to those of Youngkin’s voters. Marín-Mora is active in LGBTQ political causes and has served on the Georgetown Latinx Leadership Forum, a left-wing student organization that has advocated for safe spaces for Latinos on campus. Like James, Marín-Mora supported the Black Lives Matter demonstrations as they raged through cities, and criticized Georgetown’s refusal to impose a fee on students that would subsidize a reparations initiative.
Whatever Marín-Mora’s strengths, does someone with leftist views belong on a Republican governor’s team? For their part, Democrats would never hire someone with social media pictures of himself sporting a MAGA hat. The “big tent” seems open only to the left.
Naturally, after I noted Youngkin’s strange personnel choice on social media, Guy Benson, the political editor of Townhall, defended Marín-Mora and described him as “center-right.” Benson sees the problem without understanding what he is observing: despite its populist put-ons and capitalizing on socially conservative issues, the GOP doesn’t mind shifting left. Today, a conservative man is “center-right” if he wears women’s clothing, supports the use of pronouns, and defends Black Lives Matter.
A series of other responses from conservative pundits and Lincoln Project members not only agreed with Benson’s sentiment but downplayed the significance of the culture war in electing Youngkin, mocking the idea of “culture warriors.” This, despite all the credit given to culture war issues immediately after Youngkin’s victory. His win is already being retroactively reframed into a referendum for milquetoast conservatism.
The GOP establishment advisors Youngkin has surrounded himself with are compromisers, not combatants. His top campaign consultant, Axiom Strategies founder and CEO Jeff Roe, was the senior strategist and campaign manager for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid. Roe also developed an intimate relationship with Jared Kushner, who reportedly had him on speed-dial. In 2017, around the time Trump’s agenda shifted from populist toward establishment, Politico reported that “the two speak regularly, and Kushner often seeks out Roe, an expert on data analytics with valuable focus group information collected across the country, for political advice and help in understanding how initiatives are playing with the Trump base.” In 2020, Roe was considered as a replacement for Trump’s campaign manager and Kushner confidant, Brad Pascale. His proximity to Trump’s son-in-law should be a warning for populists as his star rises within the GOP’s circle of consultants.
The influence of Youngkin’s advisor and personnel choices may already be reflected in his statement on COVID-19 mandates. Last weekend, Youngkin announced that he would not mandate masks and vaccines, but also would not block localities from implementing their own mandates. Framed as consistent with the principles of limited-government conservatism, Youngkin’s statement is nevertheless jarring, for in an August radio interview he said “there should be no mask mandates in Virginia.”
Youngkin also said that he would reject efforts to mask students and leave the decision to parents. On the campaign trail, he warned voters that outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam’s new mandate for masks in schools proves “Richmond liberals . . . will stop at nothing to impose their will and take away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for our kids.” But now that he’s been elected, Youngkin is leaving the decision whether a school district can double-mask toddlers to localities, parents be damned.
Youngkin’s hands-off policy on health mandates is also at odds with his promise to mandate a ban on critical race theory. Will Youngkin leave that up to localities as well? For now, the outcome seems to depend on what the new governor’s GOP establishment advisors recommend.
Middle Americans can be happy that they narrowly avoided a McAuliffe administration that would have continued worsening the situation in Virginia. But the establishment GOP’s incentive structures and patronage networks ensure it will do little to undo the damage the Democrats have done.
Republicans have a long history of capitalizing on cultural outrage to secure electoral victories, only to grant major concessions to the opposition while recentering their focus on economics. Indeed, because much of the GOP’s worldview is based on materialistic capitalism, its own sense of right and wrong cannot help but be informed by the leftist values they claim to oppose. That is why establishment Republicans are often eager and willing to denounce their detractors on both the left and right as racist and bigots. They try to prove that they are even more virtuous than the Democrats by the Democrats’ own definitions of virtue.
The survival and potency of populist political movements will depend upon perpetual vigilance, as well the as discipline and accountability of the people it empowers. It must be guided by the Middle American radicals, not GOP establishment advisors or pundits.
(Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (center) and Heritage Foundation President Kay James (right); Heritage Foundation press release, Nov. 10, 2021)