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Let’s start with the obvious caveat: California is different. That’s true for many, many reasons, but this week all eyes are on its bizarre — some say unconstitutional — recall process, in which a small minority of Californians have forced today’s no-confidence vote on Gov. Gavin Newsom, despite a vast majority’s support for him.
The latest polls show that Californians overwhelmingly want him to stay, and are especially wary of his leading opponent, the conservative talk-show host Larry Elder. But this being politics in 2021, let’s also concede that there is always a chance that the polls are disastrously wrong. By tomorrow, could we all be talking about Mr. Elder’s brilliant campaign and bright future?
With those two huge caveats in mind, let’s take up the opposite question: What does Mr. Newsom’s likely cruise to victory say about American politics over the coming years?
Again, this being 2021, we can’t talk about politics, national or local, without talking about Donald J. Trump and, by extension, Trumpism. The man and the phenomenon (or is it a movement? or an ideology?) played into the race in two ways, both of which we’re going to see repeated in coming races.
First, Mr. Newsom and the Democrats seem to have persuasively argued that he was running not on his record or against a particular candidate, but against Trumpism — that the alternative to Mr. Newsom was, as this paper put in a headline, “the abyss.”
“We defeated Trump last year, and thank you, but we haven’t defeated Trumpism,” Mr. Newsom has told anyone who would listen.
Such scaremongering is a time-honored tactic, but it’s an especially salient and effective one today. Mr. Trump is always in the news, always taking the extreme position, and as long as he lays claim to being the head of the Republican Party, Democrats will try to tie their opponents to him.
And it works. Because Trumpism is so vague, opponents can make it anything they want it to be. Incipient fascism? Rampant libertarianism? White supremacy? Check, check and check. It can also mean specific things, like eviscerating climate policy or canceling mask and vaccine mandates. California has a lot of problems, but Californians generally approve of Sacramento’s pro-government, pro-regulatory approach. Rather than be forced to defend their specific policies, the Democrats can simply paint their opponents as Trump manqués bent on destruction.
Another caveat: This is California, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one, forcing the Republican Party into a corner, where it has become captive to its base. That means it’s going to behave in ways that the Republican Party of Texas or Florida, for example, might not.
“Compare it with, let’s say, the Democratic Party in Mississippi,” said Chris Stirewalt, the former digital politics editor at Fox News. “It’s probably a very weird space.”
Will the Democrats’ strategy work in purple states, or even a state like Virginia, where Republicans are more numerous and better organized — and where Terry McAuliffe is already deploying it against his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, in their race for governor?
Traditional political analysis would say no. But again, this is 2021. Following their base, many Republicans have largely (but not entirely) abandoned the political middle, where most Americans say they abide. Democrats have spent months painting their opponents as anti-democratic and anti-reality, a message that has played well among independents and moderates, starting with the Senate runoffs in Georgia, and with Mr. Trump ringing in with false claims about election fraud, expertly timed to prove their point.
Not every race is going to play out that way. Most Republicans will read the room, so to speak, and adjust their campaigns accordingly. Look at Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego who’s also running to replace Mr. Newsom. Yes, he has the requisite photo of himself standing beside Mr. Trump. But his message has been about pragmatic solutions to state problems, exactly the sort of campaign you’d expect from someone trying to put space between himself and his national party.
Then again, Mr. Faulconer is running a distant second behind Mr. Elder and barely registers in the national conversation. One reason is the uniqueness of the race. It’s a battle royal, not a primary; the candidates had little time to prepare; and as a result, name recognition, which Mr. Elder has and Mr. Faulconer doesn’t, is critical.
But another is the new dynamics of right-wing politics — and the second way in which the recall illustrates the lasting impact of Mr. Trump and Trumpism.
Mr. Newsom has been running with his “me vs. the abyss” strategy since the recall began. But it didn’t stick at first, because the recall was focused on Mr. Newsom and his performance during the pandemic — including an embarrassing maskless dinner at the French Laundry, one of California’s most exclusive restaurants, during the state’s shutdown.
“In a vacuum, there was a lot of discontentment with Newsom and ambivalence with him among Democrats,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant in California.
That started to change once “the abyss” got a name.
Mr. Elder isn’t the Trumpiest candidate imaginable, but he’s close. A novice campaigner with a background in conservative talk radio, Mr. Elder has a treasure chest full of embarrassing comments in his past — about women, about Black people — and a penchant for making more of them on the stump.
“Larry Elder has been the gift that keeps on giving,” said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant in California.
Again, Mr. Elder has been effective because this race is so much more about celebrity than policy. But he’s also effective because he, more than anyone else, is attuned to the Trumpist base, and is willing to tack accordingly.
After he drew fire from the right for telling the editorial board of The Sacramento Bee that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, he reversed himself. He has repeatedly and falsely claimed that the recall race is rife with fraud. He is crushing it among the “guys with an Uncle Sam costume in their closet” demographic, but not much else.
Arguably, Mr. Elder isn’t a serious politician; he’s running not to win, but to raise his media profile. But that very fact says something about today’s Republican Party. Many of its highest-profile figures blur the line between politician and celebrity, and act accordingly, even if their success as the latter undermines what we expect out of the former. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn — and, yes, Larry Elder — are only nominally politicians. In substance, they’re entertainers.
True, they’re entertainers who say scary things about guns, political violence, the pandemic and anyone to their political left. And true, some of them do win elections, usually in deep-red districts. And true, many people in the Republican Party are much smarter, or at least more thoughtful about elected office, than they are.
Still, Mr. Elder and Co. highlight a lasting, possibly permanent dynamic on the right: the rejection of politics as anything other than smash-mouth spectacle, in which the most outrageous and insincere figures draw the biggest crowds — and force their colleagues to play constant defense against their own party.
That’s not an insurmountable challenge. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida seems, at least for now, to have figured out a way past it. But many won’t — and many Republicans won’t even try. Remember when the party could dismiss as side shows the occasional extremist figures like Todd Akin, who made comments about “legitimate rape,” and Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell? In 2021, that’s become much, much harder to do.
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