Five years ago, Corey Stewart was almost completely unknown in the national political arena. Few of his fellow Virginians devoted much thought to him. He lost badly in a statewide race to be the Republican Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, and retreated back to a minor post in Prince William County. Last year, Stewart emerged from hibernation to run for governor, again losing in the primary to Ed Gillespie, a corporate lobbyist and one-time chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But Tuesday night, Stewart finally got over the hump. He defeated Nick Freitas, a right-wing member of the Virginia House of Delegates, to claim the GOP nomination for this November’s contest against Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Stewart isn’t just a Virginia problem. He’s an American problem. Unabashedly pro-Confederate, Stewart has long been allied with the organizers of last year’s violent white nationalist confab in Charlottesville, and vocally defended its participants in the aftermath of the bloodshed. His victory demonstrates that the Republican Party is totally, unequivocally Donald Trump’s organization, that whatever Republicans once thought their party represented, its central organizing principle in 2018 is white grievance.
Stewart won his contest by 5,277 votes out of 304,435 total votes cast. He lost the rural vote and the big population centers in Richmond and Virginia Beach. He owes his victory to the Northern Virginia suburbs, where he carried Fairfax County by 4,666 votes, Loudon County by 2,011 votes and Prince William County by 3,927 votes. Fairfax is particularly telling. It has a median income of $114,329 ― roughly double the national figure ― a poverty rate of 6 percent, less than half the rate across the country, and an unemployment rate of 2.3 percent, again, well below national trends.
For many Democrats and much of the intellectual left, the surge of white nationalism within the GOP is just a more straightforward expression of what the party has been up to since the 1970s. Beginning with Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” Republicans have been winking and nodding to the darker impulses of the electorate with code words and dog whistles. With Trump, they argue, the hoods have come off.
The GOP’s alliance with hardcore white supremacists is real and old. But this is dangerous thinking. Because Stewart’s political career shows not only that the GOP is a racist party, but that the party has changed, and changed rapidly. As recently as last year, Stewart couldn’t win. Things are in fact getting worse.
Had Hillary Clinton secured 78,000 more votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan on November 8, 2016, she would be president today. When the margin of defeat is that narrow, every factor can reasonably be considered decisive ― people who want to blame James Comey, Robby Mook, de-unionization or the historical legacy of slavery all have a case. But it mattered that Trump won traditionally Democratic states that had all been economically gutted by the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing industry.
Pretty much everything we know about “Trump voters” from general election vote tallies and exit polls is a reflection of “Republican voters” more broadly. It isn’t too different from what we know about 2012 Mitt Romney voters or 2008 John McCain voters. Where Trump stood out from his predecessors was his ability to win in the Rust Belt. What he was selling wasn’t enough to carry other swing states like New Hampshire, Colorado ― or Virginia.
Stewart’s success in 2018 shows how far the virus has spread. The Virginia suburbs aren’t pining for lost factories. They’re a hotbed for corporate lobbyists, political consultants and six-figure-salaried bureaucrats. And their conversion to Trumpism makes sense. Trump hasn’t delivered on any of the promises that made him distinctive in 2016 ― except his vow to treat brown people with cruelty and disdain. His tax cut was designed for rich people. He deregulated big banks instead of breaking them up, and packed his administration with Wall Street alums instead of draining the swamp. His tough talk on trade is an incoherent mess compromised by corrupt personal deals in China and Indonesia.
The United States is, however, wresting young children from the arms of their parents at the border and detaining migrant children in “tent cities.” Moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and attempting to ban people from Muslim majority countries from entering the United States were part of an Islamophobic governing agenda. Joe Arpaio is a free man.
The respectable, Atlantic-magazine-reading conservative intelligentsia is having a hard time with all of this. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, for instance, suggests that liberals are really to blame for the mess. If they would just stop calling conservative thinkers racists, then impressionable young minds wouldn’t slip into the clutches of the alt-right. Weiss is wrong. Annoying liberal hectoring probably does push some people into the wrong camp, particularly young people, but the voices that really mattered were within the conservative movement and the Republican Party, which has by and large decided that allying with Trump was a reasonable price to pay for owning the libs and getting a tax cut .
Stewart will probably lose in the fall. But this is how fascism spreads. In Europe, enthnopopulists have been allying with moderate conservative parties to secure governing coalitions ― and the neofascists get more popular with a taste of power. Even Angela Merkel, hero to American neoliberals, has ratcheted up her anti-immigrant rhetoric in partnership with an anti-gay, anti-immigrant party.
In the United States, Republicans don’t have the convenience of a coalition for cover. This is the party of Donald Trump, Roy Moore and Corey Stewart.