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The Trailer: Based or cringe? A new way of explaining the same old political brawls

In this edition: A new way of looking at our most circular political debates, a tape of Virginia's Republican nominee for governor laying out his strategy, and an attempt to win a Trump endorsement goes horribly wrong.

Twitter is real life, and this is The Trailer.

Arizona's Republicans held onto the state Senate last year, which was very good news for Wendy Rogers. The Air Force veteran, who'd lost five out of five previous elections, defeated a fellow Republican by accusing her of being soft on crime. In Phoenix, Rogers cast decisive votes to alter the state's election laws and audit its 2020 vote; on Twitter, she began using a term she had never used as a private citizen.

“Based,” Rogers tweeted, after Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) pledged to oppose any immigration reform bill. “You are not ‘based,’” she tweeted in June, “if you support candidates who are not ‘based.’” When the city of Charlottesville, finally removed a statue of Robert E. Lee, she warned that anyone who did not back the defeated Confederate general was not — you guessed it — “based.”

This confused some of Rogers's followers, and thrilled the rest. “Based,” an old term usually traced to 1980s cocaine slang, was resurrected by rapper Lil B to mean “not being scared of what people think about you” and “not being afraid to do what you want to do.” Donald Trump's online supporters adopted the term during his 2016 campaign, describing a candidate who not only said what they were thinking, but what they were told it was impolite to think. The new definition survived Trump, getting applied to everything from Tucker Carlson's monologues to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.)'s signature on a trans sports ban (“BASED DeSantis bans dudes from girls' sports as podcaster and author Michael Knowles titled one video). 

The Trump-era transformation of the GOP keeps confounding its critics. Why would a mind-set that couldn't reelect Trump, or keep Republicans in power, remain so attractive to a defeated party? How did the disastrous and deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, which many in the media and the Democratic Party saw as prodding some Republicans to move on from Trump, become a proud moment for many of his supporters? 

It's not complicated, so long as you ignore the usual liberal and conservative labels and view political debate through two frames — “based” or “cringe.” Based means behaving how you want to behave, confident in the belief that you're right, and that your opposition knows it. Cringe means following rules that you did not write, hewing to norms and tradition and nuance, and broadcasting your own sensitivity to the feelings of others. The cringe politician assumes that the world is changing and he or she had better get ahead of it; the based politician assumes that he or she can stay in the old world and force everyone else to adapt. Nobody claims to be cringe, but plenty of people claim to be based. Part of the fun of declaring yourself being based is getting to label the other side as weak, wrong and pathetic — and, well, cringe.

“Are you conservative-curious, or are you a full-blown, knuckle-dragging, salt-sowing, red-pilled, based conservative?” Knowles asked in one recent episode of his show. The lowest tier, he explained, was for people who “think men are not women,” while the top tier (“based-er than Genghis Khan”) was for anyone “already banned on every social media platform.” 

When an anonymous, green-jacketed protester Jessica Starr screamed outside Trump's inauguration, she became an icon of cringe: a liberal so triggered by the election results that she succumbed to weak emotions. When Jon Stewart appeared on Stephen Colbert's late-night show and mocked critics of the coronavirus “lab leak” theory, he earned the “based” label, partly because Colbert seemed so uncomfortable with the topic. People who've claimed to be traumatized by Jan. 6 get mocked for being unsettled by an event that led to five deaths; supporters of the effort to overturn the election have gotten more comfortable defending it. Storming the Capitol was based. Complaining about it is cringe.

The 2020 Democratic campaign was a carnival of cringe, with a convention that portrayed the summer's protest movements as forces that the next president would need to adapt to. The party's convention paid tribute to them with '60s rock legend Stephen Stills joining gender-bending Broadway star Billy Porter to perform “For What It's Worth.” Joe Biden, the undisputed winner of the nomination, allowed supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to vote against him and his platform. In his acceptance speech, the oldest-ever nominee of a major party saluted the “powerful voices” of young people, and pledged above all else to bring the country together, partly by answering their demands.

“The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long,” Biden said. “Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division.”

Biden won, and as sometime Post contributor Matthew Yglesias sometimes writes, “cringe won.” More voters were ready for a calmer, more sensitive, less conflict-oriented kind of politics than for four more years of the alternative. Late-night tweets about the president's enemies have been replaced by midday tweets about the “Sunday scaries.” Lengthy rallies and violations of the Hatch Act — an inherently cringe law that requires government employees to avoid electoral work, even though most people can guess who they're voting for — have been supplanted by friendly visits to factories with pit stops at ice cream stores. While Trump would spend years humiliating ex-rivals, Biden will admit to a little “disappointment” with them, and move on. 

That has worked out well for the new president, who has signed more far-reaching legislation, and remained more broadly popular among Americans, than Trump at this point in his term. That's not very impressive to the based. Of course Biden gets credit for holding socially distanced Group of 7 meetings, for throwing out the Trump administration's “1776 Commission” report, and for canceling the Keystone pipeline. All of that satisfied the people who want pre-Trump norms restored, and what could be more cringe? To say “this is not normal” is cringe; to change what's perceived as “normal,” or even to try and fail, is based.

Ungainly as these terms can be, they're potentially more useful than the endless redefinitions of standard political terms that consume so much time in political media. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Wendy Rogers could argue endlessly about what “conservative” means, but refusing to concede an election, and demanding audits of the vote in every state, fits Rogers's based agenda. Likewise, Texas Democrats exhibited based behavior by leaving the Capitol to block a vote on a Republican election bill; their subsequent media strategy, including smiling group photos and tarmac video confessionals, has veered into cringe.

If this sounds a little ideologically inconsistent, that's because it is. The conservative push for regulation of “Big Tech,” for example, is a based demand that the universe bend in their direction; it can also be a little cringe to hear grown men and women demand better Google search results for their posts. President Biden's opponents were infuriated by Twitter's decision to block reporting on data and photos purloined from Hunter Biden, and remain furious that the president's son hasn't become a political problem for him. At this past weekend's CPAC Texas, Donald Trump Jr. called the younger Biden a “waste” and argued that no member of the Trump family would get the same light touch from the media. That's an appeal to norms and fairness, and therefore cringe. Hunter Biden's response, from mocking the ex-president in interviews to selling high-priced art despite the cries of ethics experts, is based.

What are the political limits of the based approach? We saw them in 2020, when Trump lost. But we also saw the power of that approach, because no previous ex-president retained such tight control of his party after being defeated. Being based frequently worked for Trump, even if supporters of his more norm-defying decisions, such as moving the United States' Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, do not use the term. 

“We treated the world as it is, not as we wished it were,” former secretary of state Mike Pompeo told a CPAC gathering in Florida earlier this year. “I will tell you, I walked out of some very quiet rooms in Europe.” In Ohio, author J.D. Vance has recanted his criticism of Trump, and found forgiveness in conservative media — partly because he has gone after Twitter for banning a far-right, white nationalist activist (“a giant troll and IMO dishonest… don't care”), partly because he has mocked the media for obsessing over his past statements.

“I may be a little bit surprised by how much the national media seems obsessed with me,” Vance, whose memoir was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie, said this week. Scouring everything he'd ever said for evidence of flip-flops was cringe; moving on boldly, throwing haymakers at Big Tech, was based. Debating how politicians should act, according to pre-Trump norms, is a recipe for tedium, and it misses the point by trying to cram the candidates of 2021 into the politics of some gentler, less-online era. 

“Some people who say based are not based,” Rogers tweeted in April. “Not based = cringe.”

Reading list

“An American kingdom, by Stephanie McCrummen

A new version of a conservative religious movement, and its place in post-Trump politics.

“ ‘Running against the woke left’: Can Sheriff Villanueva’s shift to the right work in L. A.?” by Alene Tchekmedyian

Democrats elected him, and they're wondering what changed.

“Trumpworld wants distance from QAnon even as the ex-president winks at it,” by Tina Nguyen and Meridith McGraw

The evolution of a conspiracy theory, after its day of reckoning didn't go as planned.

“A Texas man was arrested on charges that he voted in the 2020 Democratic primary while on parole. He could face as much as 20 years in prison,” by Amy Gardner

Throwing the book at voters who didn't realize what they were doing.

“The big question of the 2022 midterms: How will the suburbs swing?” by Trip Gabriel

The mood at the Panera counter.

“CPAC showcases resonance of Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election,” by Hannah Knowles

Recriminations, from Orlando to Dallas.

“The making and unmaking of the online left’s mayoral candidate,” by Ross Barkan

The fall of Dianne Morales.

“Inside Trump’s Election Day and the birth of the ‘big lie,’” by Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker

Buy the book.

Texas Democratic lawmakers who left the state to block restrictive voting law plead with Congress to act, by Eugene Scott and Eva Ruth Moravec

A few planes, a box of Miller Lite and a plea for H.R.1.

Ad watch

Nina Turner, “Truth.” Turner has taken hits throughout her campaign for Ohio's 11th Congressional District, but she did not run an ad directly responding to a rival until this week. “Shontel Brown and her out-of-state special interests are not telling the truth,” Turner says. The second half of that sentence refers to the Democratic Majority for Israel, which has invested nearly $500,000 in a campaign against Turner, helping narrow the spending gap between her and Brown, a Cleveland City Council member. Turner spends half of this spot defending her record as a “proud Democrat,” after Brown's and DMFI's ads portrayed her as a malcontent over her reluctance to endorse Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. The hit on Brown is mostly left to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, whose editorial board called Brown's record “undistinguished” when it endorsed Turner. 

Shontel Brown, “Left to Do.” Turner's chief rival, who released polling this week that put her just a few points behind the former state senator, continues to portray herself as the pro-Biden Democrat who'll keep working on the Democratic Party's agenda, unlike others who will go unnamed. “Some just want to attack Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” Brown says. Frankly, I'm sick of it. The ad does not refer to a specific Biden priority moving through Congress; early voting is underway in the Aug. 3 primary, though the winner will not be seated until after a November general election. (Republicans gerrymandered the district to be safely Democratic, and are not doing much to contest it.)

On the trail

“Cone of silence!” Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin told supporters at a fundraiser last month. “You just got an inside look at our strategy meeting that we had today, with a bunch of new data. So, please, keep it to yourself.”

One of Youngkin’s guests had no intention of doing that. Lauren Windsor, a self-described “advocacy journalist” with the liberal group the Undercurrent, had shown up at the Middleburg fundraiser with recording gear. When it was over, she asked Youngkin whether he’d “take it to the abortionists,” which prompted the candidate to say that while he would work against abortion rights as governor, abortion talk “won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

That clip was first aired by MSNBC last week; the full tape of the fundraiser was provided to The Trailer afterward. Over 15 minutes, Youngkin runs his audience through the campaign’s numbers, imagines how he’d debate Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, and says the Democrat gave him an opening by spending “too much” to win a primary over four rivals who never really had a shot. That left the Democrat dark — he was photographed returning from Nantucket last week, a popular stop on the liberal donor circuit — while Youngkin stayed on the air.

“Terry is sweating. There's a movement in our campaign to actually have a 'Man Crush Monday,' because he tweets about me, I mean, literally an average of about 20 tweets a day,” Youngkin said, according to the tape.

Since securing the GOP nomination at a May convention, Youngkin’s paid media has played down his conservative politics, reintroducing him to voters as a successful businessman and non-politician who’ll create a “rip-roaring economy.” In the fundraiser, he was less specific about his own agenda than he was about the agenda he expected to tie to McAuliffe.

“This isn't Republicans against Democrats,” Youngkin said of the state that has swiftly moved into the Democratic camp. “This is Virginians against progressive/left/liberal policies that are so out of bounds that two-thirds of the electorate in Virginia can't wait to vote for somebody else.” 

Youngkin did not veer far from his remarks on the campaign trail, which unlike paid media are aimed at Republican voters. Winning in November would “send a shock wave across this country that says no Democrat seat in America is safe,” he said, a line he frequently uses on the trail. He sketched out how the debates with McAuliffe would go, suggesting that the Democrat would take unpopular left-wing positions, though McAuliffe generally avoided them through the primary.

“Terry, how are we going to bring Virginia back from the brink of a crime wave that we haven't seen in 20 years, murder rates are at a 20-year high? And Terry's got to say, take away qualified immunity and defund our police,” he predicted, gaming out a debate exchange by caricaturing McAuliffe's plans. “Terry, do you think that the priority of the governor and the parole board should be victims or criminals? And he's going to have to look at everybody and say: Well, criminals, of course, because that's what I've stood for my whole life.”

Nothing Youngkin said in the room diverged from what he said during the Republican primary; he and GOP rivals always assumed they'd be facing McAuliffe. But as in his brief exchange with Windsor, Youngkin told the crowd that it was his job to win; that meant spending a lot of time appealing to independent voters, and less chopping up red meat for his base.

“We actually have a data set with 6.1 million voters in Virginia, every one by name, with between 800 and 1200 tags on each one,” Youngkin said. “So, we know what issues they care about. We know whether they're extreme left liberal progressives, or if they're forever Trumpers, or never Trumpers, or Second Amendment folks, or focused on life. And what we can do with this data set is actually figure out who we need to talk to, when. And so right now, we are running this entire campaign for the next month focused on swing voters in Virginia. So if you're not seeing me on TV or hearing me on the radio, it's not because I don't love you. It's that we've got you, and we've got we've got about a million voters in the middle that we have to communicate with and get them to know us.” 

Youngkin's campaign said that the tape showed nothing that people didn't already know about the candidate. “This is why Terry McAuliffe and his army of undercover spies are so scared of a successful business leader like Glenn Youngkin, who loves hard work, lives and breathes numbers and data, and is bringing a fresh, new approach to winning, said spokesman Matt Wolking. Glenn’s ability to solve problems is part of why he was so successful at Carlyle, a company that employed nearly 2,000 people and managed assets nearly four times the size of Virginia’s yearly budget a company that Terry McAuliffe chose to invest his own money in heavily and is still invested in today.”

McAuliffe has been working to grab earned media about Youngkin's conservative politics, and got an assist on Monday from Trump, who reiterated his support for Youngkin for the third time and suggested that the election would be rigged. But McAuliffe got friendly fire, too, with former governor Doug Wilder, whose quadrennial criticism of the Democratic nominee has become a sort of tradition. In two Facebook posts, the 90-year old Wilder reopened wounds from the 2019 scandals that briefly paralyzed the party, with Gov. Ralph Northam being accused of wearing blackface, Attorney General Mark Herring admitting that he once wore blackface for a sketch, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax being accused of sexual misconduct, which he denied. Fairfax never got traction by criticizing McAuliffe for demanding his resignation, but Wilder was happy to bring it up.

“McAuliffe demanded the immediate resignation of the entire Democratic administration, prompting him to break precedent and run again, marginalizing the field of black candidates, asking them ALL to support him,” Wilder wrote, referring to a primary where McAuliffe routed Fairfax and two Black female contenders. “Does he not believe that appearing in ‘blackface’ is racist?”

Recall watch

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is a Democrat. Now he has to hope that voters remember that without being told.

On Monday, Newsom lost his bid to have a party label added behind his name on the Sept. 14 recall ballot. It was a long-shot attempt, an effort to undo a quirk of the state's recall law — itself a bundle of quirks — that required incumbents being threatened with ousters to announce their party affiliation long before the potential election. When petitioners begin circulating recall papers, the incumbents, like Newsom, have just a week to ask for a party label. 

Newsom's legal team didn't do that 16 months ago, when this recall effort began, and California Superior Court Judge James P. Arguelles determined that the governor had lost his shot for a “D” next to his ballot line. “No one is above the law, and this ruling makes clear, that includes Gavin Newsom,” said Eric Early, the attorney for the recall's proponents, in a statement.

It was the governor's first setback after a series of campaign boosts, including the Democratic legislature's move to schedule a fairly early recall. Republicans were celebratory, while Democrats argued that the incumbent, who previously won two races for lieutenant governor, was well-enough known to avoid losing voters to the ballot snafu. 

“An embarrassment, but makes no real difference in the end,” texted Garry South, a strategist for recalled former governor Gray Davis. “Any Californian who is so oblivious they don’t know Newsom is a Democrat probably isn’t a voter anyway.”

As Trailer readers will get tired of reading, the California recall ballot contains two choices for voters: Whether to recall Newsom, and which candidate should replace him if he is recalled. A majority of voters is required to remove the governor, and if that happens, whoever gets the largest number of votes will replace him — a plurality would be enough. Candidates have until the end of this Friday to file, though dozens have already been running campaigns, and more are entering before the deadline. State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a northern California Republican, officially entered the race with a Sunday rally outside the Capitol.

“We had the strictest lockdowns, with had the longest school closures, and yet we had just about the worst public health outcomes,” Kiley told reporters, explaining why he'd announced his campaign after criticizing Newsom from the legislature. 

On Monday, Kiley was joined by Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio host and columnist, who told the Associated Press that the race was effectively “between Gavin Newsom and me,” and Ted Gaines, the only Republican on the five-member, regionally elected Board of Equalization. No well-known Democrat has entered the race, or even seriously talked about it, and the most widely covered member of Newsom's party angling for the ballot is real estate analyst and YouTuber Kevin Paffrath. He'd be one of five people named “Kevin” in the race, though a state law passed after 2003 requires recall candidates to post their five most recent years of tax records, which could convince some gadfly candidates not to run.

In the states

Every Republican angling to run for governor of Pennsylvania has questioned the integrity of the 2020 election. Former U.S. attorney William McSwain is the only contender who was in a position to investigate voter fraud in real time. And the fact that he didn’t find any has become a problem for his potential campaign.

That problem burst into the open on Monday, when Trump released a letter McSwain had sent him in June, angling for an endorsement and thanking Trump for his “consideration.” After noting that he had prosecuted voter fraud in local elections, McSwain wrote that he had his eyes out for fraud in the presidential election — but was stymied by forces out of his control.

“As part of my responsibilities as U.S. Attorney, I wanted to be transparent with the public and, of course, investigate fully any allegations,” McSwain wrote. “Attorney General Barr, however, instructed me not to make any public statements or put out any press releases regarding possible election irregularities. I was also given a directive to pass along serious allegations to the State Attorney General for investigation — the same State Attorney General who had already declared that you could not win.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, had indeed said that Biden would win the state, tweeting on Halloween last year that “if all the votes are added up in PA, Trump is going to lose.” But that wasn’t much different from Trump’s own confident predictions of victory. And missing from McSwain’s letter was any story of fraud that he was unable to pursue because of political pressure. Shapiro said in a statement that McSwain never ran anything up the chain, and in an interview with Post reporters, Barr himself disputed the letter.

“Any suggestion that McSwain was told to stand down from investigating allegations of election fraud is false. It’s just false,” Barr said, adding that the assertions “appeared to have been made to mollify President Trump to gain his support for McSwain’s planned run for governor.”


… 14 days until the special election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District 
… 21 days until primaries in Ohio’s 11th and 15th Congressional Districts 
… 63 days until California's recall election
… 112 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District