Treacherous terrain of Trumpian GOP politics

The breakfasters at Bob and Edith’s Diner are too preoccupied with their tasty bacon and eggs to notice the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Or perhaps, like all Americans who are more sensitive than oysters, they are in the throes of political exhaustion and are trying to ignore this year’s only competitive gubernatorial race. In any case, they seem unaware that the mild-mannered pediatric neurologist in one of the booths — he is wearing a bourgeois disguise: gray suit, maroon tie — supposedly is “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs” involving many Central American immigrants. The U.S. president says so, as does the gubernatorial candidate of his party.

In two weeks, Virginia will have America’s most consequential election since 50 weeks ago. Then, this became the only Southern state Hillary Clinton carried (by 5 points). Today’s campaign dramatizes the difficult calculation confronting people who want the Republican Party restored as a vehicle for conservatism but who know that this requires expunging the political style — exuberantly fact-free accusations and screeds — exemplified by the “MS-13” tweet.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam won the Democratic nomination by handily defeating (by 10 points) a darling of the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren (both endorsed the darling) tendency in the Democratic primary, which attracted 177,000 more voters than the Republican primary did. Now, however, Northam is benefiting from his opponent’s intractable dilemma, that of all Republicans who remember life before 2016 and want to do what they are told cannot be done: Turn the clock back. Virginia’s incumbent Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, is popular. Virginia is purple trending blue: Democrats have carried it in three consecutive presidential races, they have won three of the last four gubernatorial contests and both U.S. senators are Democrats. Barack Obama has campaigned to energize African-American voters. And the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, has a problem residing across the Potomac.

In 2014, Gillespie — former counselor to President George W. Bush, former Republican National Committee chair, adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign, lobbyist extraordinaire — came within a whisker (under 18,000 votes) of defeating an incumbent U.S. senator, Mark Warner. This year, however, Gillespie barely defeated a full-throated Trumpian in the Republican primary. Gillespie is intelligent, temperate, experienced and happiest when talking about government policies. These attributes are, in the incandescent eyes of his party’s now-Trumpian base, defects of swamp creatures. So, he is gingerly tiptoeing across the treacherous terrain of Trumpian Republican politics. This involves stoking the anger of those people who seem happiest when furious, but without infuriating everyone else.

He did the former with dishonest MS-13 ads featuring tattooed dark-skinned men (“Kill, rape, control.”) and accusing Northam of refusing to crack down on “sanctuary cities,” of which Virginia has none. Gillespie’s admirers say he is better than he sounds. Others, remembering Mark Twain (who popularized the quip “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”), say that in democratic politics — the politics of persuasive rhetoric — a candidate is the way he chooses to sound.

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George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.