A unified theory of Jan. 6, Glenn Youngkin and existential dread

Glenn Youngkin. Photo (cc) 2021 by Glenn Youngkin.

The Washington Post last week published a massive investigative report on the insurrection of Jan. 6 and its aftermath. The story is filled with horrifying details, but there’s little that we didn’t already know — that Donald Trump incited the deadly violence both before and during the attack, and that the people around him as well as nearly all Republican members of Congress didn’t dare to challenge him. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell comes off as deeply cynical, a soulless shell. His House counterpart, Kevin McCarthy, is depicted as a worthless tool. Again, nothing new.

Then came the elections this past Tuesday and the triumph of Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Virginia over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. We all sensed it might be coming, but it left me with a feeling of something approaching despair. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I don’t like McAuliffe, a Big Money ally of the Clintons who represents a lot of what’s wrong with his party. I’m not a Democrat. I don’t live in Virginia.

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As I thought about it, I concluded that my reaction was connected to Jan. 6. There’s been a lot of stupid talk about how Youngkin is charting a new course for the Republicans by showing that you can distance yourself from Trump and win. The problem, though, is that he didn’t distance himself from Trumpism. He appealed to racists with his false claims that critical race theory, an obsession on the right, is being taught in public schools and by running an ad in which a white supporter talks about how her precious child was so, so disturbed at having to read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” He also benefited from a story circulating in right-wing circles that a boy in a skirt sexually assaulted a girl in a school bathroom. The story was false, but it fanned the flames of hatred toward transgender people.

More to the point, Youngkin isn’t a Republican who’s trying to tear down Trumpism and build something new, like U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. He’s a Trumper. And that wing of the party — which, let’s face it, is most of them — should be banished, shunned, defeated, consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, voters are treating them as normal politicians, and the media can’t resist their primal urge to get back to business-as-usual, both-sides political coverage. It’s nauseating. As Jon Allsop wrote in his newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review:

Youngkin was too often characterized as a passive actor who deftly rode abstract culture-war forces rather than driving them himself, and hailed for his political savviness more than scrutinized for the substance of his message. As many media watchers have argued, that lens has failed much coverage of racial issues, in particular.

We all know that democracy is in crisis. Authoritarianism looms. It doesn’t matter whether you like the Democratic Party or not. At this point, it is the one major party that, for all its flaws, is dedicated to small-“d” democracy. The Republican Party, sadly, is seeking to tear everything down. The public should consider all but the  most anti-Trump Republicans to be disqualified from public office until further notice. Instead, they’re voting for them. And the media are more interested in what that means for the politics of the reconciliation bill and the midterms than for the future of the country.