The national flap over Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page demonstrates how the affairs of states and localities are subject to external pressures that they were more free from formerly. There is something to be said for the “nationalization” of political sentiment, in that it tends to make the states more like one another–something that the United States resists but needs. Yet citizens can only be citizens of a particular place, and they above all others are entitled to decide who their leaders should be. That Democrats outside Virginia have opined so freely on how Ralph Northam should behave at this point betrays an uneasiness about self-government that should be anathema in US society.
It’s doubly ironic that the Democratic Party, which is banking on its “zero tolerance” policy to distinguish it from the dog-whistle variety of Republicanism, should have gone so quickly for the bait that a right-wing website, Big League Politics, dangled. According to Mother Jones, Big League Politics is “a young media outlet best known for defending white nationalists.” The site is run by disgruntled Breitbart News staffers who view Breitbart as having gotten “too moderate.” BLP represents an element of Virginia’s electorate that lost out when Republican Ed Gillespie beat their favored candidate, Trump enthusiast Corey Stewart, in the gubernatorial primary.
In publicizing an old photo from Northam’s yearbook, BLP bet that Democrats would immediately throw Northam under the bus, no questions asked. How right they were. Many influential Democrats, responding almost viscerally to the “evidence” of a single old photograph (in which the governor is not identifiable), immediately called on Northam to resign. Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, DNC chair Tom Perez, and presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Julian Castro all fell into the trap, needing no further information to declare Northam suddenly and completely disqualified. The absolutism and self-righteousness of “zero tolerance” bid fair to destroy Northam, who gained office with the support of the more moderate and forward-looking part of Virginia’s population.
Though a distant observer, I followed Northam’s run for governor rather closely. A relative who lives in Virginia decided early on to canvass for Northam, as a way to work for positive politics in the wake of Trump’s election. Through her letters, I followed Northam through his primary battle with the Sanders-backed insurgent Tom Perriello, whose effort was seen as a bellwether for progressive Democrats nationally. Despite Perriello’s losing, The Nation declared that Northam had “moved left in the course of the primary and is likely the most progressive Democratic nominee in the history of Virginia.” Northam repeatedly denounced President Trump on the campaign trail, declaring that “we’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”
Was it, in fact, because of Trump that Virginia’s own home-grown strain of hate flared so dangerously in the middle of the gubernatorial campaign? In the Republican primary, George Zornick writes, “Corey Stewart ran an offensive campaign based heavily on Confederate nostalgia and almost knocked off former RNC chair Ed Gillespie for the nomination.” Gillespie staved off Stewart by less than 45,000 votes. Various publications report that Stewart’s campaign consultants, Reilly O’Neal and Noel Fritsch, became the owners of BLP soon afterward. Both men had also worked on Alabaman Roy Moore‘s US Senate campaign, which failed amid allegations that he stalked and molested underage girls. Fritsch and O’Neal are wide-ranging political troublemakers, who help the alt-right by casting aspersions on liberals and other proponents of racial and sexual equality.
The dangers of inflaming such divisions became clear at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, when a mêlée broke out between white-supremacist groups and their opponents, culminating in an act of domestic terrorism in which at least forty people were wounded and one person was killed. (See this Wikipedia page for details and videos of the event.) The assembly of so many extremists, armed and rallying around a symbol of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, left many Virginians (and the nation) painfully uneasy about the extent of militant intolerance in the state. Where was Virginia heading?
Northam’s solid victory in November 2017 represented a general rebuke to factions stoking divisiveness and hatred. On Election Day, Democrats and others opposed to Trump and alt-right extremism went to the polls in remarkably high numbers. Turnout was the highest it had been in twenty years. Nonetheless, the campaign exposed a thick sediment of bitterness over race and emancipation that had lain unresolved for many years, arguably since the time of the Civil War.
As Donald Trump joined with leading Democrats in condemning Northam as a racist, the alt-right nearly succeeded in making Northam indistinguishable from the very extremists he battled and triumphed over in the campaign. When politics makes such strange bedfellows, be wary indeed.