Virginia’s Chameleon-Like Republican Governor

Photograph Source: Glenn Youngkin – PDM-owner

Glenn Youngkin prevailed narrowly against Democrat former governor Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial election in November 2021.

Youngkin was a political novice, while McAuliffe campaigned on his record as a former neoliberal governor. He seemed unaware of the political inroads made by rightwing populism in his state since his previous term as governor. McAuliffe’s campaign simply promised a reprise of his previous term as governor, which made him look “same old, same old” in contrast to the newcomer Youngkin.

Youngkin’s campaign strategy was relatively simple: pander sufficiently to Virginia’s Trump base to keep it onside, while appealing to just enough independent voters to win the election.

Youngkin’s strategy succeeded.

Absolutely no mention was made by McAuliffe of Youngkin’s 25-year-long career with the corporate raider Carlyle Group (rising to be its co-CEO), and the trail of criminal infractions the Group has always left in its wake. McAuliffe has some murkiness in his own corporate background—this almost certainly inhibited him in exposing malfeasances in his rival’s business past.

Youngkin, whose “worth” is estimated by Forbes to be $440 million in 2021, also refrained from mentioning this corporate background, limiting himself to saying he had been a “financier”.

Youngkin harped instead on another theme: modern politics was “too toxic” and “too divisive”.

The deeply ideological import of these seemingly anodyne statements soon became clear when Youngkin took office.

During his campaign Youngkin said repeatedly that he opposed the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Virginia’s schools, while obviously knowing that CRT is not taught in schools. Once in office Youngkin set up an email tip line for people to report, anonymously, teachers who were teaching about racism “in a divisive way”.

The tip line was deluged with tips—albeit from pranksters who brought the line down with obviously fictional accounts of CRT being taught in schools. Many also emailed to say that Younkin’s schools’ agenda was itself divisive, since it made it difficult, if not impossible, to teach US history accurately without an honest rendering of slavery and its repercussions.

Virginian higher education was also targetted by Youngkin. To quote The Washington Post:

“In his first major step to shape the future of the nation’s oldest state-supported military college, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on Thursday named four White, mostly conservative members to the Board of Visitors at the Virginia Military Institute, including a former member who resigned in 2020 right before the vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson from the campus.

The 182-year-old school, whose cadets fought and died for the South during the Civil War, has been mired in allegations of racism and sexism that continue to divide alumni into rival camps of those who support change and those resisting it.

Two of the four new board members appointed by Youngkin are well-known in Republican political circles or within the conservative alumni wing”.

Youngkin’s heavy hand was also felt in Virginia’s community college system. He sent a letter calling on members of the State Board for Community Colleges to involve his administration in the search for a new chancellor or resign. The Board relented and allowed Youngkin to be take part in the search. No governor had interfered in a search for the head of this system before.

Youngkin has made other polarizing executive decisions.

He picked Dr Colin Greene to be his health commissioner.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Greene said racism was not a factor contributing to a long-recorded disparity in health care for Black Virginians.

Greene also dismissed gun violence– pronounced a public health crisis by the American Medical Association– as a mere talking-point for Democrats.

The Virginia Board of Health condemned unanimously Greene’s comments as an embarrassment. The 15-member board directed Greene and Virginia Department of Health spokespersons to refrain from making public declarations undermining the board’s “intentions regarding disparities in case and outcomes, nor make statements that carry a message of denial of basic scientific facts regarding disparities”.

Youngkin has refused to fire Greene. Youngkin does his best to cater to Trump’s base, many of whom would applaud Greene’s statements, and while Youngkin usually resorts cautiously to code in conveying sentiments similar to Greene’s, he won’t fire his health commissioner lest he alienate parts of this benighted base.

The chameleon Youngkin took advantage of Juneteenth to sign a proclamation lauding Abraham Lincoln for declaring an end to slavery.

This would not be well-received by Trumpians, but Youngkin, whose asset-stripping background enables him to do a cost-benefit analysis in his sleep, probably recognized that 42% of Virginia’s population is non-white, and that independent voters would not object in large numbers to such a proclamation. Decision made accordingly.

Youngkin appointed Corey Flores, a Republican gay activist with a history of profanity-laden posts on social media, to the state LGBTQ+ advisory board. Flores suggested that vice president Kamala Harris had advanced her political career by performing a sex act on former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Youngkin went ahead with the appointment of Flores after his office had asked the appointee to “tone it down”.

Youngkin, who said he objected to same-sex marriage during his campaign, tried to offset this by beginning the observance of Pride Month by hosting a small reception, attended by about 50 people, celebrating the Month at the Virginia Capitol. The media was barred from this event. A Youngkin supporter said this was proof of the governor’s sincerity in his campaign pledge to be a “unifier” (Youngkin’s podium slogan was “Getting it done together”).

Youngkin had earlier turned down a request for a Pride month proclamation — a symbolic recognition that’s typical for other heritage months.

The recent supreme court decision to overturn Roe v Wade poses a challenge for Youngkin.

The majority of Virginians support access to abortion, while Youngkin’s been open in his opposition to it. At the same time, he’s ducked the question of the restrictions he’ll place on abortion as a result of the supreme court’s decision. Some political commentators have speculated that Youngkin will allow hardline Virginia Republicans to take the lead on this issue while he rides on their coattails, making the usual qualifications and caveats along the way.

Youngkin is said by those around him to harbour presidential ambitions.

The approach Youngkin has used in Virginia will probably not work at the national level. While Ron DeSantis, said to be making inroads into support for Trump, is prepared to feed red-meat to the latter’s base, speaking in code to it will be declared “cowardice” by supporters of the Florida governor.

At the same time, Youngkin’s milquetoast support of LGBQT rights, and the feeble gesture in support of racial equality by signing the Abraham Lincoln proclamation, will be trumpeted by his ultra-rightwing opponents as signs of a lurking apostasy.

Another round of chameleon-inflected cost-benefit analyses beckons.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.