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The ‘Draft Youngkin’ Conspiracy
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The ‘Draft Youngkin’ Conspiracy

When the truth hurts too much.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin addresses the Economic Club of Washington's luncheon event at the Marriott Marquis on September 26, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

I sat down to write this morning about the “Draft Youngkin” push among Republican donors and had the sense that I’d covered it before.

When you write every day, you’ve covered practically everything before.

So I checked the Dispatch archives and there it was. “Is Glenn Youngkin Running for (Vice) President?

The date was … September 29, 2022.

One year later to the day, quasi-influential people on the American right are still entertaining this dopey fantasy.

It was slightly less dopey a year ago. Even then, I didn’t like Glenn Youngkin’s chances against Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. How would the mild-mannered governor of Virginia, a thoroughly traditional conservative, overcome two demagogues in an increasingly feral party? But if you taxed your imagination, you could spitball a theory of how it might happen. DeSantis looked formidable at the time and was poised to compete aggressively for the MAGA vote. If he and Trump ended up splitting it, Youngkin could potentially have consolidated the normie minority and snuck through in a three-way race. Maybe?

It’s now September 29, 2023. Trump is well north of 50 percent in national primary polling. DeSantis no longer appears formidable. The type of normies at whom a last-second Youngkin candidacy would be aimed have taken a shine to Nikki Haley and might already be consolidating behind her. Not only is there less room for Youngkin in this primary than looked to be the case a year ago, his entry at this point could seal Trump’s victory by complicating Haley’s effort to unite conservative voters.

Which raises a question. Do Republican mega-donors … even understand politics?

I believe they do. The “Draft Youngkin” movement seems to me less a product of ignorance than a form of conspiratorial thinking.

Robert Costa of the Washington Post never uses the word “stupid” in his new report on crescendoing buzz for Youngkin among the donor class but his skepticism radiates contempt for their political acuity. And properly so.

Drafting Youngkin as a last-minute addition to the sclerotic Republican presidential field is something that has lingered for months as a donor fantasy—a whispered, can-you-imagine gambit rarely meriting much discussion because there has been widespread hope that somebody, anybody, would gain traction against former president Donald Trump. But now, fantasy talk of an audacious, break-the-glass moment for the anti-Trump faction has morphed into not-so-quiet consideration.

The thirsting for Youngkin is not a well-orchestrated power play. It is the latest slapdash scheme in a long search for a standard-bearer and a portrait of the powerlessness so many Republicans feel as Trump plows ahead, shrugging off criminal indictments and outrage over rhetoric they fear is growing dark and dangerous.

Some fat cats are planning to attend the governor’s annual “Red Vest Retreat” next month to lobby him in person about jumping into the primary. Others are already working the phones to pitch him on rescuing the party from Trump. All of which is great for Youngkin, of course, particularly with Virginia’s elections bearing down in November. If he can leverage suspense about his presidential intentions into excitement and fundraising that helps the GOP flip the statehouse, he’ll have cemented his reputation as a political miracle-worker capable of turning blue states red. That’ll be useful to him in 2028.

The “Draft Youngkin” push is also good for Jonah Goldberg’s thesis that small donors, not large ones, are now the greater threat to democracy. A post-liberal strongman with four criminal indictments and one coup attempt to his name is steaming toward the Republican nomination, bankrolled by an army of grassroots populists. The rich guys pining for center-right normie Glenn Youngkin are prepared to spend millions to try to head that strongman off at the pass. Say what you will about their “Draft Youngkin” gambit, at least it’s civically healthy.

But it’s a fantasy. Not just politically but logistically.

At National Review, Jim Geraghty runs down the many impending filing deadlines Team Youngkin would need to meet to make the ballot in certain early primary states. Nevada’s is October 15; South Carolina’s is October 31; the next Republican debate, set for November 8, will require candidates to reach 4 percent in multiple polls and 70,000 unique donors across at least 20 states before they qualify.

That’s a heavy organizational lift for Youngkin. What if he tried it—and failed?

Imagine if the governor turned his attention away from Virginia’s elections to run for the White House, local Republicans ended up losing seats in both chambers, and he missed the various deadlines facing him as a presidential candidate. It’s one thing to mount a futile campaign against Donald Trump, it’s another to squander your party’s chances at meaningful legislative power for the sake of chasing your own selfish political ambitions. He’d be a failure twice over. His reputation would never recover.

Even if he qualified for the debate, not qualifying for the ballot in Nevada and South Carolina would probably sink him. Any hope of defeating Trump depends on stopping him in the early states and denying him momentum that might lead to a runaway victory on Super Tuesday. A candidate who isn’t even technically a candidate in two of those four early states is conceding an advantage to the frontrunner that likely can’t be overcome.

Frankly, for all the media hype, I’m not even sure there’d be as much big-donor money waiting for Youngkin once he got in as he’s been led to believe. The Haley Express is leaving the station. Some fat-cat Republicans are hopping aboard.

With so many really obvious reasons to think the governor’s challenge to Trump would fall woefully short, why do some wealthy conservatives persist in believing otherwise?

Partly, I think, it’s a matter of treating political giving as an act of moral gratification. Witness the number of times in the past decade that liberal small donors have dumped oceans of cash on no-hope Democrats in red states running against the progressive base’s least favorite Republicans. There’s no easier way to sate your hatred of Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham than by smashing the “donate” button on a fundraising email sent by one of their opponents. It’s the height of idiocy as a strategic matter, as all of that wasted cash might have helped competitive Democrats win tight races in battleground states.

But most people don’t donate strategically. They donate therapeutically. They channel their contempt for a particular politician into a gift of money to a challenger who’s standing in his way, whether the race is competitive or not. Is it that hard to believe mega-rich Reaganite Republican donors might behave the same way toward Trump?

Lord knows, what they’re doing isn’t about strategy. Adding Glenn Youngkin to the field would almost certainly boost Trump’s chances of victory by further dividing the anti-Trump vote.

I think there’s more going on here.

Conspiracy theories appeal because they make disasters that otherwise seem unfathomable comprehensible. They’re a coping mechanism amid mass psychological trauma. When reality becomes too frightening and chaotic to accept, the specter of a conspiracy reassures us that “reality” isn’t what it seems. The traditional powers-that-be are still secretly in control.

Six million Jews weren’t killed in the Holocaust. That’s unimaginable. JFK wasn’t assassinated by a disaffected pinko with sniper training. The course of American history couldn’t be altered so easily. Jihadis didn’t knock down the World Trade Center. The United States, with its sophisticated security apparatus, isn’t that vulnerable. Democrats didn’t win the 2020 election. “Real American” Republican populists aren’t a minority.

The Holocaust must be Western propaganda. Kennedy must have been eliminated by a government plot. George W. Bush must have orchestrated the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for invading the Middle East. The 2020 election must have been rigged to deny Trump his rightful victory. 

The conspiratorial explanation restores a modicum of stability to a drastically destabilized order.

Isn’t that what the “Draft Youngkin” fantasy is? A bunch of rich center-right Republicans can’t accept the reality of what their party has become, and so they’ve retreated into a fantasy in which a milquetoast normie Republican remains viable in a national primary. It’s a straightforward matter of finding the right man with the right message and giving him the right amount of money. DeSantis wasn’t that guy, it turns out, but the natural order of the political universe abides.

Donald Trump isn’t inevitable. The base isn’t eager for authoritarian rule. It just seems that way because the right challenger hasn’t been found yet. The GOP’s fine, more or less.

Comforting illusions about normalcy were also the subject of yesterday’s newsletter, you’ll recall. You want to know how “normal” this party actually is right now? Per a new report in the New York Times, a right-wing outside group with ties to the Club for Growth has been testing dozens of anti-Trump ads among Republican voters to see which ones work and which don’t. The result, according to a memo the group sent to its donors: Out of more than 40 screened, none worked. Not one. Even those that included video of Trump “saying liberal or stupid comments from his own mouth.”

“Even when you show video to Republican primary voters — with complete context — of President Trump saying something otherwise objectionable to primary voters, they find a way to rationalize and dismiss it,” [David] McIntosh states in the “key learnings” section of the memo.

Examples of “failed” ads cited in the memo included attacks on Mr. Trump’s “handling of the pandemic, promotion of vaccines, praise of Dr. Fauci, insane government spending, failure to build the wall, recent attacks on pro-life legislation, refusal to fight woke issues, openness to gun control, and many others.”

When the group showed Republicans an ad highlighting Trump’s support for Anthony Fauci and the COVID vaccines, his support went … up. When it showed them an ad produced by Liz Cheney’s group showcasing Trump’s actions on January 6, his support went … up.

It’s a cult. And cults will not be reasoned with.

I understand why the donor class has trouble accepting that initially. I did too, but we’re now eight years into this. These people have the financial wherewithal to ensure that they’re impeccably informed about the state of the party, with access to data you and I can only imagine, yet somehow they still haven’t come to grips with the truth. Tim Miller of The Bulwark has been pleading with them to stop wasting obscene amounts of money on hopeless conservative candidacies and to reckon honestly and conscientiously with the nature of the institution they continue to support.

The leader of the Republican Party has mainstreamed actual physical intimidation as a political tool against his enemies and is being rewarded for it by Republican voters with a 40-point lead in the primary.

And the donor class thinks Glenn “Sweater Vest” Youngkin is going to swoop in and blow him up?

Even for Never Trumpers, the truth about what’s happened to the party can still be hard. Take, for instance, the debate that’s raged over the last few months in traditionally conservative quarters (including The Dispatch) over whether Ron DeSantis had a real chance at the nomination and blew it or whether he never had a chance to begin with.

To hold the latter view isn’t to exculpate the governor for how he’s run his campaign. In some ways, it’s been objectively bad. His decision to run to Trump’s right by touting himself as the ultimate culture warrior instead of running to the center and drawing a contrast on competence and electability will be seen as the great strategic what-if of the primary after it’s over.

One can view the “Draft Youngkin” push as a verrrrry belated (far too belated, realistically) attempt to answer that question in real time. Youngkin could jump in and try the “competence and electability” strategy that DeSantis opted not to follow, after all. He prevailed in a heavily Democratic state in 2021, which gives him electability chops. And he’s clearly a sharp guy who knows policy and has been willing to advance Republican priorities on cultural disputes, albeit not as aggressively or belligerently as DeSantis. He’s well positioned to argue that he’d get more votes than Trump would and would govern more effectively as president.

My question to those who believe “competence and electability” is the unused secret sauce that would have defeated Trump if deployed sooner is this: What have you seen from the base of this party in the past six months to make you believe they would respond to a rational argument against its hero?

He’s been indicted four times on 91 counts and polls higher now than he did before. Do we really think calling him “incompetent” a certain magical number of times will break a spell like that?

“Trump is unelectable” barely qualifies as a rational argument at this point, frankly. The polls don’t bear it out. Head-to-head in surveys against Biden, he routinely fares a bit better than DeSantis does. Sure, he has more political baggage than the rest of the Republican field, but he also has more ardent support, especially among low-propensity voters who might not turn out for any other nominee. It’s simply not true that he’s unelectable, or even that he’s the least electable candidate in the field.

As for competence, read through the Times story excerpted above and try hard to wrap your mind around the fact that Republican voters no longer have an objective standard of what’s “competent” and what isn’t, at least where Trump is involved. Whatever he thinks, whatever actions he took as president, are deemed competent per se. How are the governors of Florida and Virginia supposed to reason them out of a comically unreasonable belief like that??

Blaming DeSantis for not having run a better campaign implicitly does Trump and the GOP a favor, I think, by normalizing the party’s voters as more responsible than they are. To believe that the governor blew his chance by not running on competence and electability is necessarily to believe that the modern Republican base cares about such things—and cares about them enough that they would have thrown off their cult trappings and chosen a new leader if only the case had been made sooner and more emphatically.

Do any of us really believe that at this point?

It’s a cult. It’s an unfathomable disaster, and the psychological trauma that it’s caused understandably has led us to comforting fantasies like “Youngkin could win” or “DeSantis could have won.” But we need to see reality clearly so that the balance of American voters see it clearly too. The more clear-eyed they are next fall about the prospect of being governed by a cult, the less likely they’ll be to make that choice. The truth hurts; let’s make sure it hurts as much as it should.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.