The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin banishes Trump, but he can’t clean the stench of Trumpism

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks at a rally on Oct. 23 in Glen Allen, Va. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

GLEN ALLEN, Va. — They sanitized the event space. They scrubbed the speeches. The campaign of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin eliminated virtually any indication that Donald Trump had ever existed. Instead, Youngkin invoked George W. Bush’s line about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and stole a joke of John McCain’s.

But while Youngkin banished Trump, he could not wash away the stench of Trumpism.

At his rally here Saturday night in Richmond’s suburbs, Youngkin debuted his closing argument. It was a Trumpian blend of conspiracy theories, race-baiting and fabrications.

Conspiracy theory:

“Terry McAuliffe wants government to stand between parents and their children,” Youngkin said of his Democratic opponent. “And when parents across this great commonwealth said, ‘No, Terry, you’re wrong,’ he called his friend Joe Biden and asked the FBI to come silence us.”

PolitiFact already identified this baseless claim (that McAuliffe got U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to order the Justice Department to help combat growing threats against school-board members and educators) as a “pants on fire” lie. But Youngkin keeps repeating it.

Follow Dana Milbank's opinionsFollow


“What we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through the lens of race,” Youngkin vowed, adding that “on Day 1, I will ban critical race theory.” It was perhaps the biggest applause line of the night.

Preceding Youngkin onstage, the Republican attorney general candidate, Jason Miyares, argued that “you cannot survive as a nation if you’re raising an entire generation of children to hate their country, and that is exactly what critical race theory is.”

Critical race theory isn’t taught in Virginia schools. It’s a phantom menace, whipped up by Fox News to fill White people with racial terror. Youngkin urged his supporters to fear a “20-year high murder rate,” even though overall violent crime decreased in 2020 in Virginia, among the safest states in the country.


Youngkin complained that “Virginia ranks 50th in the nation in standards for kids to progress in math, reading,” but Virginia kids’ actual proficiency exceeds the national average.

He suggested that Virginia “children cannot pass an 8th-grade math equivalency test” because of pandemic school closures — “so we will proclaim that Virginia’s schools will never be closed again to five-day-a-week, in-person education.” In reality, Virginia’s 38 percent proficiency in 8th grade math topped the national 33 percent. And the test results to which Youngkin referred were from before the pandemic-related closures.

Youngkin claimed that McAuliffe “said there’s no place for parents in their kids’ education” (a line that prompted boos and shouts of “communist”). But McAuliffe didn’t say there’s “no place” for parents. He spoke out against vigilantism in which “parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” and “running down teachers.”

Why does Youngkin traffic in Trumpism? Because it’s the only way he can win.

The rally in Glen Allen, outside a gourmet market and across from a Best Buy, wasn’t a MAGA gathering. Many attendees were professionals. Several wore North Face. More than one brought dogs in pumpkin costumes. The pre-rally music included Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” — twice. There were no Confederate flags.

But even here in the upscale suburbs, Republican rallygoers I buttonholed overwhelmingly accepted the “big lie” about the 2020 election and expected fraud in the gubernatorial election, too. “There’s going to be cheating,” one grandmother told me confidently, holding a signpost for support because of recent back surgery.

A guy in an “FJB” cap — as in “F--- Joe Biden” — told me he’s “already” seeing cheating, and he complained about Dominion voting machines (a favorite Trump target) and “corrupt” poll monitors.

Another man, in an “I kneel to return fire” T-shirt, feared the vote would be fraudulent, “just like the presidential election.” A woman in a “SOCIALism DISTANCING” long-sleeve also lacked faith in the integrity of the process. “That’s sad,” she said.

It is sad. This is a swing congressional district, represented by firebrand House Majority Leader Eric Cantor before he was ousted in 2014 in a Republican primary by a more extreme version of himself, who later lost to a Democrat, Abigail Spanberger. If Republicans subscribe to the “big lie” here, then it prevails everywhere.

So Youngkin catered to those held captive by Trump’s lies.

He demonized the liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros.

His running mate showed up at a rally featuring Trump and former Trump aide Steve Bannon, where the crowd pledged allegiance to a flag said to have been carried on the day of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

He did an interview with Sebastian Gorka, an anti-Muslim former Trump adviser with reported ties to an antisemitic Hungarian group.

And he has encouraged the “big lie.”

Sure, he dresses it in a red-fleece vest and non-threatening platitudes: “soar and never settle,” “lift up all Virginians,” “a new day.” But underneath it’s Trumpism through and through.