The Republicans' racial culture war is reaching new heights in Virginia | Sidney Blumenthal

Why is the Republican running for governor of Virginia going after Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel Beloved?

Running for governor of Virginia as the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin appears to have a split personality – sometimes the generic former corporate executive in a fleece vest, the suburban dad surrounded by his sun-lit children and tail-wagging dogs, and sometimes the fierce kulturkampf warrior and racial dog-whistler. His seemingly dual personality has been filtered through a cascade of Republican consultants’ campaign images. His latest TV commercial attempts to resolve the tension by showing him as a concerned father who shares the worries of the ordinary Trumpster. In the closing hours of the campaign, he has exposed that his political identity can’t be separated from Republican identity politics in the decadent stage of Trumpism.

The Republican party has long specialized in fabricating esoteric threats, from the basements of Pizzagate to the stratosphere of “Jewish space lasers”. Youngkin’s campaign, though, has contrived a brand-new enemy within, a specter of doom to stir voters’ anxieties that only he can dispel: the Black Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and her novel Beloved.

His turn to a literary reference might seem an obscure if not a bizarre non sequitur, at odds with his pacifying image, but the ploy to suppress the greatest work by the most acclaimed Black writer has an organic past in rightwing local politics and an even deeper resonance in Virginia history.

In his first TV ad, introducing himself as a newcomer who had never before run for political office, Youngkin warned voters not to misperceive him as yet another nasty Republican and to dismiss not-yet-stated “lies about me”. They should ignore whatever negative material they might hear about how he “left dirty dishes in the sink”. “What’s next, that I hate dogs?” Big smile. Cue: cute kids and puppies. Soundtrack: bark, bark.

For a while the nice guy Youngkin tried to walk his thin line, lest he lose the party’s angry base voters. He attempted to use the soft image to cover the hard line. He is vaccinated, but against vaccine mandates. He is inspired by Donald Trump, has proclaimed his belief in the need for audits and “election integrity”; opposed to abortion, but was careful not to appear with Trump at his “Take Back Virginia” rally. He appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News in a ritual cleansing to profess that his motive is pure.

“You know, Tucker, this is why I quit my job last summer,” Youngkin said. “I actually could not recognize my home state of Virginia.” He had, he explained, left the corporate world to take up the sword for the Republican culture war.

Actually, according to Bloomberg News, he “flamed out” as co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, with a “checkered record”, losing billions on “bad bets”, and “retired after a power struggle”. In May, just before leaving the firm and speaking to Carlson, after the murder of George Floyd, Youngkin signed a statement affirming that contributions to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund would receive matching grants from Carlyle. When asked about this later, however, a campaign spokesperson fired back, “Glenn has never donated to the SPLC and does not agree with them. He is a Christian and a conservative who is pro-life and served in his church for years.”

Youngkin’s seeming confusion around controversial racial issues highlighted his conflicting roles. In Washington, while at Carlyle, he was the responsible corporate citizen practicing worthy philanthropy. In the Republican party, where that sort of non-partisan moderation is not only suspect but mocked as a source of evil, he has had to demonstrate that he is not tainted.

Soon enough, Youngkin waded into the murky waters of racial politics. He offered himself as the defender of schoolchildren from the menace of critical race theory, even though the abstruse legal doctrine is not taught in any Virginia public school. Yet he suggested that his opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe, would impose its creed on innocent minds, depriving parents of control. “On day one, I will ban critical race theory in our schools,” Youngkin has pledged.

But his brandishing of critical race theory, nonexistent in the schools’ curriculum, has been apparently insufficiently frightening to finish the job. Perhaps not enough people know what the theory is at all. He needed one more push, searched for one more issue and produced one more ad.

So, Youngkin seized upon a novel racial symbol, in fact a novel. The danger, he claimed, comes from Beloved by Toni Morrison – the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by the Nobel prize-winning author, about the psychological toll and loss of slavery, especially its sexual abuse, and considered one of the most important American literary works.

While no other Republican has ever before run against Beloved as a big closing statement, there is a history to the issue in Virginia.

“When my son showed me his reading material, my heart sunk,” Laura Murphy, identified as “Fairfax County Mother”, said in the Youngkin ad. “It was some of the most explicit reading material you can imagine.” She claimed that her son had nightmares from reading the assignment in his advanced placement literature class. “It was disgusting and gross,” her son, Blake, said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” As it happens, in 2016 Murphy had lobbied a Republican-majority general assembly to pass a bill enabling students to exempt themselves from class if they felt the material was sexually explicit. Governor McAuliffe vetoed what became known as “the Beloved bill”.

“This Mom knows – she lived through it. It’s a powerful story,” tweeted Youngkin. Ms Murphy, the “Mom”, is in fact a longtime rightwing Republican activist. Her husband, Daniel Murphy, is a lawyer-lobbyist in Washington and a large contributor to Republican candidates and organizations. Their delicate son, Blake Murphy, who complained of “night terrors”, was a Trump White House aide and is now associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which sends out fundraising emails reading: “Alert. You’re a traitor. You abandoned Trump …”

The offending novel is a fictional treatment of a true story with a Virginia background, a history that ought to be taught in Virginia schools along with the reading of Beloved. In 1850, Senator James M Mason, of Virginia, sponsored the Fugitive Slave Act. “The safety and integrity of the Southern States (to say nothing of their dignity and honor) are indissolubly bound up with domestic slavery,” he wrote. In 1856, Margaret Garner escaped from her Kentucky plantation into the free state of Ohio. She was the daughter of her owner and had been repeatedly raped by his brother, her uncle, and gave birth to four children. When she was cornered by slave hunters operating under the Fugitive Slave Act, she killed her two-year-old and attempted to kill her other children to spare them their fate. Garner was returned to slavery, where she died from typhus.

In the aftermath of her capture, Senator Charles Sumner, the abolitionist from Massachusetts, denounced Mason on the floor of the Senate for his authorship of the bill, “a special act of inhumanity and tyranny”. He also cited the case of a “pious matron who teaches little children to relieve their bondage”, sentenced to “a dungeon”. He was referring to Margaret Douglass, a southern white woman who established a school for Black children in Norfolk, Virginia. She was arrested and sent to prison for a month “as an example”, according to the judge. When she was released, she wrote a book on the cause of Black education and the culture of southern rape. “How important, then,” she wrote, “for these Southern sultans, that the objects of their criminal passions should be kept in utter ignorance and degradation.”

Virginia’s racial caste system existed for a century after the civil war. In 1956, after the supreme court’s decision in Brown v Brown of Education ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, Virginia’s general assembly, with Confederate flags flying in the gallery, declared a policy of massive resistance that shut down all public schools for two years. The growth of all-white Christian academies and new patterns of segregation date from that period. Only in 1971 did Virginia revise its state constitution to include a strong provision for public education.

Youngkin’s demonizing of Toni Morrison’s Beloved may seem unusual and even abstract, but it is the oldest tactic in the playbook. It was old when Lee Atwater, a political operative for Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, explained, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.”

Youngkin well understands the inflammatory atmosphere in Virginia in which he is dousing gasoline and lighting matches. The violence and murder at Charlottesville are still a burning issue. The trials of racist neo-Nazis have just begun there. Prominent Lost Cause statues of Robert E Lee have been removed within the past few months. Branding Beloved as sexually obscene was always an abstracted effort to avoid coming to terms with slavery, especially its sexual coercion. Parental control is Youngkin’s abstract slogan for his racial divisiveness. Beloved is his signifier to the Trump base that he is a safe member of the cult, no longer an untrustworthy corporate type.

Youngkin’s reflexive dependence on the strategy reveals more than the harsh imperatives of being a candidate in the current Republican party. It places him, whether he knows or not, cares or not, objects or not, in a long tradition in the history of Virginia that the Commonwealth has spent decades seeking to overcome.


Sidney Blumenthal

The GuardianTramp

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