The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’re already seeing what a mistake Virginia’s voters made

Glenn Youngkin (R) in Ashburn, Va., during his campaign for governor in June 2021. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Virginians are discovering — a bit late, unfortunately — that there’s no such thing as Trumpism Lite.

When voters elected Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor, Winsome Earle-Sears as lieutenant governor and Jason S. Miyares as attorney general, many doubtless thought they were following a pattern that had served the state well: The year after one of our major parties wins the White House, they almost always put the other party in power in Richmond. Arguably, that worked to produce balance and moderation — until Donald Trump transformed the GOP from a political party into a cult.

Already, we’re seeing what a mistake Virginia voters made.

This week, we learned that Miyares has fired the University of Virginia’s counsel, Timothy Heaphy, supposedly because Heaphy does not share the new attorney general’s “philosophy and legal approach.” My strong suspicion is that Heaphy’s firing has more to do with the fact that he is presently on leave from his university position, serving as chief investigative counsel for the House select committee probing the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

To the Trump cult, Jan. 6, 2021 was no more than what former vice president Mike Pence has called “one day in January.” To the rest of us, and to future historians, it was an unprecedented violent assault on the citadel of our democracy and an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.

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Surely, Virginia’s chief law enforcement officer should praise a staff member — counsels for the state’s public colleges and universities are technically assistant attorneys general — who uses his time and expertise to learn the full truth of the events of Jan. 6. Republicans who previously held Miyares’s post might have done so. But that was before the GOP lost its mind.

Youngkin, who squeaked into office with a two-point margin of victory, campaigned as an unthreatening, fleece-wearing suburbanite who was the soul of moderation. Political analysts saw his refusal to break with Trump or forthrightly deny the former president’s “big lie” about the “stolen” election as a mere tactic — not an indication of how he would behave as governor.

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But Youngkin’s first week in office showed him to be a Trumpian culture-warrior. He immediately issued an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory or any “inherently divisive concepts” in Virginia schools. Because critical race theory is not actually being taught at K-12 public schools in the commonwealth, the order could only be an attempt to ban the accurate teaching of African American history, which necessarily covers slavery, Jim Crow repression, lynchings, “massive resistance” to school desegregation, systematic discrimination and persistent disparities.

If you teach Black history without bringing up any “divisive concepts,” you’re not teaching it at all.

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Youngkin also issued an order banning mask mandates in Virginia’s public schools — although, during the campaign, he said whether to require masks in schools would be left to “localities” to decide. On Monday, seven school boards filed suit in an attempt to block Youngkin’s order, saying that the governor is trying to usurp local control of the schools; parents in Chesapeake have also sued to block the order. According to The Post, at least 58 of the roughly 130 school districts in the state say they will continue requiring that students wear face coverings.

Late last week, Youngkin issued a statement telling parents to “listen to their principal” and “trust the legal process” on the question of masks. Politically, he seems to want to have it both ways.

But his lieutenant governor, Earle-Sears, offered more definitive words to the Trumpist base. Appearing on Fox News last week, she said Youngkin “could withhold” some state funding from school districts that defy his order and continue to require that students be masked.

Another of Youngkin’s early initiatives was to expand the duties of the state’s chief diversity officer to include acting as an “ambassador for unborn children” — thus ticking the right-to-life box on the list of culture-war issues. And he pledges to seek tougher voter ID requirements in the name of “election integrity,” though he acknowledges there was no “material fraud” in 2020.

The first days of Republican executive rule in Virginia should be a lesson for independent voters — like the ones who voted for President Biden, giving him a 10-point win in the state in 2020, then turned around and voted for Youngkin.

Youngkin, Earle-Sears and Miyares might look like something new — fresh-faced and laudably diverse — but so far, at least, they act more like members in good standing within the Cult of Trump. Someday, I hope, the Republican Party will escape the grip of a certain angry pensioner in Florida. Until then, don’t be fooled — and don’t give them your votes.

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