Here's what the Virginia gubernatorial race will tell us about white backlash
Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia makes remarks during a "Growth and Jobs in America" discussion at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, on Feb. 23, 2014. Photo by Mike Theiler for Reuters.

Virginia's governor's race is weird in that it falls between a presidential election and the following congressional election. Naturally, the press corps is looking to see whether it tells us anything about the midterms or Joe Biden's reelection prospects. I have no idea, but it might tell us something equally important: whether the backlash is working.

The backlash is about the coalition Joe Biden put together to defeat Donald Trump. The coalition was the merging and overlapping of two forces. On the one hand, anti-Trumpists (including respectable white people). On the other, anti-racists. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white cop was the culmination of these energies. It felt so complete, I dared say in 2020 that Floyd "ended the culture war."

That was … wrong. (What can I say!) The backlash began before Trump's ignominious defeat. (Remember Tom Cotton's "Obelisk of Wokeness"?) Instead of fading, as I had hoped, the backlash has gotten stronger. There is now a profitable cottage industry of "anti-woke" propagandists, nearly all on Substack, some of them leftists, willing to say virtually anything to attack reformers while defending the status quo. (In brief, they have created a discourse about Black activism in which the voices of Black activism are absent.) The political goal of the backlash, however unconscious it might be, is peeling respectable white people away from the president's victorious antifa majority.

Glenn Youngkin is the Republican candidate for Virginia governor. He's riding the backlash. On the campaign trail, he gets hardly a peep from audiences when proposing traditional Republican policies, like tax cuts. He gets roaring applause, however, when railing against "Critical Race Theory" in schools. He's meticulous about keeping his distance from Trump. The play seems clear. To eke out a win, he must peel off just enough respectable white people who, it is presumed, are more frightened of Black activism than fascism, now that Trump is gone.

It used to be that governor's races were strictly about local politics, not national politics. Youngkin's play suggests the latter. (The backlash, after all, is national.) So does Terry McAuliffe's. The Democratic candidate, and former Virginia governor, won't let anyone forget about the former president. He's been aided by Youngkin supporters who trotted out a flag carried during the January 6 sacking and looting of the US Capitol. The Times interviewed McAuliffe voters. (Early voting started recently.) They aren't talking about local issues, like roads and property taxes. They're talking about putting the kibosh on Trump.

McAuliffe is not equivocating. His campaign could have decided to appease the backlash, for instance, by scolding local authorities who removed a giant monument to Robert E. Lee in Richmond, the state's capital and the former seat of the Confederate States of America. Instead, his campaign seems to be harnessing the grassroots energy that led to that treasonous general's removal. Given Democrats have won all statewide races in Virginia since 2009, that's a sound play.

Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg wrote recently about the race being national instead of local. He said that if Youngkin wins, the Democrats will have to face the fact that, once again, "some of the party's core constituencies, including younger voters and Blacks, never engaged," But if Youngkin loses, Rothenberg said, the Republicans will have to admit that "Trump remains a liability for the GOP among many voters and that nationalizing the midterm elections around the former president is a viable strategy for Democrats in 2022." I agree.

But I would add a critical nuance. If Terry McAuliffe loses, his defeat would demonstrate how powerful the backlash has become. In that case, we might expect the Democrats to appease it, for instance, by giving greater credence to death-threat squads harassing boards of education nationwide. That would be a race to the bottom. By chasing the votes of respectable white people afraid of Black activism, the Democrats would deepen their fears as they affirm them.

If Terry McAuliffe wins, however, his victory would demonstrate how the Democrats can neutralize, or at least minimize, the impact of the backlash. Instead of appeasing the death-threat squads, the Democrats might lean into them, assailing them, as they should, as being part of the larger forces of authoritarianism trying to bring down the republic. By making everything about Donald Trump, the Democrats could show respectable white people that being anti-racist is being pro-American.

Please don't take any of this as sooth-saying. I was certainly wrong about the culture war's end! What I do know is we've been at similar moments before. The white backlash against the achievements of the civil rights movement put in power two generations of conservatives who did enormous damage to the country and the rest of the world. Anything can happen in moments like this. Let's stay woke, friends.