Magazine | September 11, 2017, Issue

The Uses and Abuses of Cultural Identity

Look to Corey Stewart’s near-win in Virginia

President Donald Trump’s inability thus far to translate his populist-nationalist message into a coherent policy agenda, combined with his low approval ratings, could have some Republicans convinced that a return to “normalcy” is on the horizon. For Republicans reluctant to support Trump, a return to normalcy would mean a full embrace of the traditional post-Reagan agenda of low taxes, entitlement reform, and free trade. They view this agenda as normal even though GOP primary voters and Trump himself repudiated free trade über alles and all talk of entitlement reform during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump cited these establishment policy goals after securing the GOP presidential nomination and in the early months of his presidency, but they are clearly not his focus.

These Republicans might tell you that Trump won only because too many primary candidates cluttered the field, he faced one of the worst general-election opponents in American history, and he was able to manipulate lazy mass media. And once elected, Trump has been unable to get much done, the critics note, pointing to the poor initial rollout of the so-called travel ban and to Trump’s inability to push Congress to pass populist legislation of consequence.

The apparent paralysis of the Trump administration has lured some into the comforting belief that there’s no need to rethink Republican orthodoxy. True, they say, Trump destroyed one establishment candidate after another, and he paid little heed to conservative sacred cows during the campaign, but that didn’t signify any deep-rooted changes taking place within the GOP.

Corey Stewart’s recent near-victorious gubernatorial-primary campaign in Virginia against former RNC chairman and George W. Bush White House official Ed Gillespie shows that’s just not true. Stewart’s full-throated defense of Confederate monuments and heritage has proven effective with the Republican base. In April, during the gubernatorial campaign, the Charlottesville city council decided to remove the now infamous statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In response to this, Stewart tweeted: “After they tear down Lee & Beauregard, they are coming for Washington & Jefferson. #HistoricalVandalism.”

Trump’s tweets in the wake of the recent violence in Charlottesville, tying the debate over Confederate statues to political correctness, closely resemble Stewart’s April tweet. On August 17, Trump wrote: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”

Those who dismiss the danger posed by Stewart and his ilk point to failed candidates such as Wisconsin’s Paul Nehlen, who primaried Paul Ryan in the 2016 campaign. Nehlen was trounced, losing 84 to 16 percent. In his campaign, Nehlen attacked Ryan for lacking loyalty to then-candidate Trump, and he parroted Trump’s campaign positions, such as opposition to illegal immigration and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while painting himself as a successful businessman.

Nehlen sounded like Trump, but he failed to understand why Trump was successful in the first place: Trump’s competitors generally supported immigration reform and free trade, while Republican primary voters generally were skeptical on these issues; with his trademark aggressive rhetorical flourishes, Trump emphasized this gap. Nehlen lazily copied Trump’s exact words without applying them to Wisconsin’s first congressional district. Given the length of Ryan’s tenure in Congress — he was first elected in 1998 — his views on trade and immigration are probably fairly close to his constituents’ views, or close enough to keep him in office.

By contrast, Stewart’s energetic defense of Confederate monuments and history, combined with his attacks on the media and his lack of fealty to political correctness (which both are reminiscent of Trump), perfectly fit the local Virginia context.

Traditional Republican orthodoxy has few if any means to quell the cultural unrest that drives the Trump and Stewart phenomena. Recent polling indicates that Trump’s and Stewart’s similar positions on Confederate monuments overwhelmingly resonate with the Republican base and the American populace at large. In a Marist poll conducted after the August violence in Charlottesville, 62 percent of respondents supported leaving up the statues. A similar Economist/YouGov poll found that 78 percent of self-identified Republicans either somewhat or strongly disapprove of taking down the statues.

Stewart placed Gillespie in a difficult position throughout the campaign, much as Trump is now doing to his opponents on the issue of Confederate and historical statues. Though Gillespie does not support getting rid of the monuments, he did not make their removal a centerpiece of his campaign.

He also wasn’t supposed to be in such a tight race. Gillespie very nearly upset Virginia senator Mark Warner in the 2014 Senate campaign. He has high name recognition, his pro-life views and pro-growth tax agenda perfectly align with the conservative GOP base in Virginia, and he has shown a remarkable ability to appeal to moderate suburban voters in northern counties, who are critical to winning an increasingly blue state.

Stewart is a Georgetown-educated international-trade lawyer who has held elected office in Virginia for more than a decade. The first post to which he was elected, in 2003, was that of Occoquan district supervisor on the board of supervisors in Prince William County, one of the wealthiest and most populous counties in Virginia. Stewart gained regional notoriety in 2007 when the board of supervisors ordered the county police to aggressively pursue illegal immigrants. Stewart went on to mount a failed campaign for lieutenant governor. He emerged as an unlikely statewide figure after Trump chose him to serve as his Virginia state-campaign chairman in December 2015.

Stewart’s tenure as campaign chairman came to a dramatic end in October 2016, when he mounted a pro-Trump rally outside the Republican National Committee’s D.C. headquarters to protest plans to shift resources away from Trump’s Virginia campaign. He was then summarily fired by the Trump campaign for highlighting the campaign’s conflicts with the RNC.

Stewart had announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for governor in April 2016, but after his bitter departure from the Trump campaign, he was considered a long shot by Virginia political insiders. Stewart’s statewide and national profile rose after an infamous “Ask Me Anything” Reddit dialogue in which he referred to Gillespie as a “cuckservative,” agreed with the suggestion that former president Bill Clinton is a rapist, and “CONFIRMED” the forum’s suspicion that Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe is a “cuck.” (“Cuck” is a term of abuse, based on the word “cuckold” and inspired by a genre of pornography, for Republicans seen as emasculated and too sympathetic to the interests of foreigners.)

Stewart followed his “Ask Me Anything” exchange with bellicose tweets decrying nationwide efforts to remove Confederate statues from public grounds. “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter,” he wrote, though Stewart himself is no southerner, having grown up in Duluth, Minn.

The national media pointed to polls showing Stewart down 20 points a month before the election, citing his rhetoric as the cause and mirroring their predictions about Trump during the presidential campaign. “Stewart’s campaign may be remembered as showing the limits of race-tinged attacks on ‘political correctness,’ even among a very conservative electorate,” Ed Kilgore wrote at New York magazine in May. “Racist dog whistles are one thing. Howling at the moon while defending the Lost Cause is another thing altogether.”

But Stewart came within 4,500 votes of beating Gillespie in the June 2017 primary and did not let his loss stop him from almost immediately declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Virginia in 2018. Gillespie’s supporters blame the close election on low voter turnout and note that Gillespie spent very little in the primary campaign, but Republicans should not ignore Stewart’s popularity.

Stewart says that candidates from across the South have reached out to him, seeking advice on how to tap the same cultural vein he did during the gubernatorial race. Stewart’s hammering of a cultural-identity issue comes from a dangerous new playbook that insurgent GOP candidates can employ, perhaps to great electoral benefit. Such a strategy may not depend on the political success of the Trump administration.

“We deliberately were, at times, more controversial in order to attract mainstream media, in order to attract earned media,” Stewart told the Washington Post after his narrow defeat.

In Virginia and elsewhere, politicians have long used cultural identity and anxiety as a tool to help them win elections. In 2014, Dave Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, shocked the American political scene by unseating Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader and the speaker-in-waiting. By all accounts, Cantor was a conventional conservative who had checked all of the traditional Republican ideological boxes. But Cantor’s perceived support for immigration reform — Brat depicted him as pro-amnesty in campaign speeches — left him vulnerable to an insurgent campaign from the right.

In hindsight, we can see that Brat’s campaign resembled Trump’s and Stewart’s. Brat was an underdog candidate who attacked Cantor with fiery rhetoric on his immigration policy. Perhaps unknowingly, Brat wrote the playbook for at least the next two election cycles. Once is a fluke, twice is a trend, thrice is certainty. The GOP’s reluctance to address the cultural-identity issues within its base has left an opening for Stewart-like candidates to hijack the party and the conservative movement as a whole.

While it is sound policy to let states and localities find their own responses to hot-button cultural controversies, this is simply not sufficient. The lesson of the 2010s is that the biggest mistake the GOP can make is to promote conservative orthodoxy without directly and clearly addressing issues of culture and identity.

In the meantime, Stewart and the next round of insurgents are preparing for 2018. “After I showed that you could stand up for Confederate monuments and . . . withstand the punishment from the mainstream media, I knew that others would follow,” he recently declared to BuzzFeed, in an ominous warning of things to come.

– Mr. Enjeti is a reporter for the Daily Caller News Foundation. Mr. Kosloff is a public-interest fellow at National Review.

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