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Opinion | Trump in the Spirit Over Trump in the Flesh

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By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a professor of public policy at Duke University, the author of the forthcoming book “The Beauty of Dusk,” and a contributing Opinion writer.

What candidates don’t do can have as much impact on an election as what they do, and Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia was a triumph of omission. It’s no accident that he never beckoned Donald Trump to campaign with him. It’s no fluke that he never appeared in public with Trump, the most popular figure in the Republican Party by far.

But Youngkin, the first Republican to win a governor’s race in Virginia since 2009, also never gave any particular sense that he had much of a problem with the former president’s ethics (by which I mean the lack thereof), his lies or his efforts to undermine American democracy.

He never denounced him. Never renounced him. Never provoked him.

In no sane world and by no sound reading did Youngkin run without or away from Trump, though that’s one of the spins being applied to his election in a state that President Biden won by roughly 10 percentage points just a year ago. Youngkin simply chose Trump in spirit over Trump in the flesh, a Trump Lite tack sure to be mimicked by Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms and beyond, at least until Trump’s favor fades and his shadow shrinks.

All of them are asking the question that Youngkin just answered: Can you have your Trump and eat it, too? Can you kiss up to his voters without visibly kissing his ring? Can you capture his magic without prostrating yourself before the sorcerer?

Yes, you can — or so the Virginia outcome suggests. Political observers who say that Youngkin was a Never Trumper — proving the viability of that movement — are deluding themselves. He was a Stealth Trumper and Sorta Trumper who took pains not to offend or alienate Forever Trumpers. That was his central balancing act and one of the most fascinating aspects of his candidacy, because it distilled the prevailing Republican dilemma: to Trump or not to Trump?

He split the difference, as did Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican who has defied New Jersey’s liberal tilt to give Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, the scare of his life. And Youngkin’s victory and Ciattarelli’s strong showing raise the possibility that the cultural and racial resentments of Trumpism without the thundering monomania of Trump may be a more profitable formula for the Republican Party than unalloyed and unabashed worship of its tempestuous god.

That fealty cost Republicans in November 2020. But in November 2021? Trump is off Twitter. His rallies are fewer, so his railing is muted. His ejection from the White House translated into a partial exodus from the news, which he doesn’t dominate as he did before. That gave Youngkin a kind of breathing room that Republican candidates last year didn’t have.

I promise you that Ron DeSantis took note of how Youngkin used it. I promise you that every Republican governor, senator and House member who is up for re-election next year in a purple state or district paid heed. The same goes for every Republican eyeing a presidential run in 2024 if Trump takes a pass on the race.

They have been pondering the same challenge that Youngkin and Ciattarelli confronted. They are doing the same dance. They are testing the same proposition, which is that you needn’t choose between Trump sycophancy and Trump apostasy. There’s a halfway posture, a middle ground, and it can look to voters not like moral cowardice but like political prudence.

“You don’t have to denounce Trump,” Russ Schriefer, a strategist who has advised the campaigns of Mitt Romney, Chris Christie and other Republican luminaries, told me. “But you do have to create your own identity.”

He noted that when Larry Elder, a Republican, failed in his recall bid against California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, he failed to do that, “which gave Democrats a bit of a false positive,” making them think “that if we just say Trump, Trump, Trump, the Republican will start dropping like a stone.” Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, shouted Trump, Trump, Trump until he was hoarse, but, Schriefer said, “there was a very artful dance that Youngkin was successfully able to execute.”

That dance, though, hinged on a factor that got inadequate attention in the final weeks and days of his campaign: Trump allowed it. The former president was uncharacteristically even-tempered and restrained. Instead of taking offense at the distance that Youngkin kept from him, instead of taking the bait when journalists pointed that out, he professed to be unbothered. He claimed amity and mutual respect between the two of them.

He saw that Youngkin had a chance to win, undoubtedly wanted to be associated with that victory and apparently understood the upside of giving Youngkin a pass on flamboyant Trump idolatry. For Republicans accustomed to needier behavior from the monarch of Mar-a-Loco, that was one of the most encouraging developments of all.

Trump wasn’t the only variable in play. He probably wasn’t the main one, to the frustration of McAuliffe, who was as adamant about mentioning Trump as Youngkin wasn’t. That’s where the Trump-related lessons of Virginia have limits. The takeaway here is as much about Democrats — who, after all, have control of the White House and Congress — as it is about Republicans. Or, rather, it’s about Republicans’ ability to pin the constipation in Congress, the perpetuation of pandemic-related restrictions and a range of economic setbacks on Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. Being out of power has its perks, and chief among them is the ease of grousing versus governing.

“Gas prices have gone up, there’s inflation across the board, there are turkey shortages for Thanksgiving and predictions of delayed Christmas presents, and the Democrats’ response is, ‘Don’t worry, we’re close to banning methane,’” Corry Bliss, a prominent Republican strategist who lives in Virginia, said when I spoke with him on Tuesday. “There’s a tremendous disconnect.”

Bliss’s comments were a preview of Republicans’ talking points for the midterms, and my conversation with him was just as telling in another way: Every time I brought Trump into the discussion, he ushered Trump out of it, but never with a hint of disrespect or scintilla of disdain.

When I pressed him to analyze Youngkin’s calculations vis-à-vis Trump, Bliss said: “He campaigned as someone who was proud to have supported President Trump and someone who was focused on solving the problems of everyday Virginians.”

Notice the pivot. It’s in keeping with a dictum that Peggy Noonan, the conservative Wall Street Journal columnist, articulated recently: “Don’t insult Donald Trump but do everything to keep him away.”

Youngkin was Trumpier in the Republican primary in Virginia than in his general-election contest against McAuliffe, and that’s a strategy that will also be emulated. But he was Trumpy to the end.

Oh, sure, the suburban-dad duds and Main Street Republican demeanor amounted to an unflashy antonym to Trump’s style. But the culture wars? The portrait of school classrooms as racial re-education camps, school curriculums as commandments that white Americans apologize for themselves, school bathrooms as danger zones? Youngkin and his supporters trafficked in all of that, and it was Trumpy to a T.

Youngkin also declined to tangle with Trump and Trump’s most ardent supporters about the Big Lie, a decision that I think will become the determinant of whether Trump blesses or messes with a given Republican candidate. Youngkin stalled for months early this year to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s election, said that “election integrity” was one of the issues most important to him and indulged conspiracy-minded voters’ fantasies that courts might restore Trump to the Oval Office.

There were echoes of that in Ciattarelli’s approach. As Matt Friedman recently noted in Politico, “Ciattarelli’s campaign was silent when asked by reporters if he believed Biden won the 2020 election well after it was clear that he had.” Mustn’t antagonize Trump or his fiercest supporters.

Evading Trump’s wrath and emulating parts of him without embracing the whole of him were fundamental goals of Youngkin’s and Ciattarelli’s campaigns and are the driving forces for many Republicans as they plot their political futures. The intensity of their desire to pacify Trump is perhaps best captured in comments that Mike Pence recently made about Jan. 6. That was the day when rioters called for him to be hanged for failing to invalidate Biden’s election, but he told Sean Hannity that journalists were making far too much of it in an effort to “demean the character and intentions of 74 million Americans who believed we could be strong again.” “Strong again” equals “great again” equals genuflection before Trump.

Don’t interpret Trump’s absence from Republicans’ campaigns with an absence from their calculations. Those campaigns are political palimpsests, the scrawl of Trump still discernible beneath the tidier writing that candidates have done over it. Don’t overlook the homage to Trump in DeSantis’s flamboyant us-versus-them, own-the-libs theatrics: offering cash bonuses to unvaccinated police officers who relocate to Florida from blue cities or states, challenging cruise lines’ insistence that passengers be vaccinated. Trump has educated Republicans, and one of the lessons is to be more like him. It’s just not necessarily wise to be seen handing the teacher an apple.

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