What Ohio’s Republican Senate Primary Means for the Future of Trumpism

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The staff writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells recently travelled to Ohio to report on the state’s contentious, high-stakes Republican Senate primary. Ahead of Tuesday’s Election Day, the newsletter editor Ian Crouch spoke to Wallace-Wells about the latest developments in the race and what the outcome might tell us about the midterms, the future of the G.O.P., and the state of Trumpism in America.

After months of speculation, Donald Trump endorsed J. D. Vance in the race. But, as recently as Sunday, during a rally, Trump mentioned that his guy “J. D. Mandel” was doing great—so maybe he’s not so invested in the particulars. But how has his official endorsement changed things?

It’s organized the race without deciding it yet. J. D. Vance has very clearly received a bump. Also pretty clearly, the only real Trump-skeptical candidate in the race, a millionaire named Matt Dolan, received a big bump, too, and is now running second or third in recent polls. Broadly, the whole month of primaries is a really high-stakes test for how much control Trump still has over the Party—which is obviously important for Trump but also important for the rest of us because of how direct his challenge to liberal democracy remains. Right now, this fundamental thing about American democracy is being tested, which is: Is this whole party behind Trump or not? And you can see evidence pointing in both directions.

Have the candidates in Ohio been made to submit to a kind of Trump-2020-election-claims litmus test?

At the debates, all the candidates have been asked in a kind of pro-forma way—and this is true across many different Republican state primaries—whether they agree with some statement about the validity of the 2020 election. Whether Joe Biden won it legitimately or if it needs to be investigated—that kind of thing. Four of the five major candidates in the Ohio Senate primary said they thought the election was stolen, in various words. Dolan was the only one who said no, and said that this was a very bad direction to be taking the Party and the country in. And I think that’s really the thing that has made him stand out.

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I don’t want to overstate Dolan’s chances, but, in a race in which all the other candidates have been falling all over themselves trying to get Trump’s endorsement, it’s interesting that there is still some segment of the Party that is excited by someone who stands up to Trump.

As you write in your article, most of the candidates in the Ohio primary ran as some slightly different version of Trump. From what you’ve seen, what kind of new hybrid strain of Trumpism is going to be the most effective heading into the midterms this fall?

The idea of what Trump meant that was most popular at the outset of the primary season is the one embodied in Ohio by Josh Mandel. It was the idea that Trumpism represented a license to be cruder and more aggressive and more partisan—without any particular change in conservative policies or aims. To talk in a more Trumpy way about immigrants and newcomers, toeing the line and sometimes crossing it with racism. To just be more crass in your language and the way you describe your opponents, and to run a nastier campaign.

What Vance represents is perhaps a more interesting proposition, which is to embrace the ideas that Trump sometimes talked about and sometimes didn’t, but that got caught up in Trumpism, of anti-élitism—a politics that organizes itself against corporations rather than for them, against élites here and overseas, against traditional American diplomatic commitments. Vance represents a more doctrinaire America Firstism, which in some ways is traditional Republican politics on steroids and in other ways departs from those traditions. In terms of economic interests and commitments, Vance, even clearer than Trump himself, seeks to break with traditional Republican ideas.

Then there is Mike Gibbons, a candidate whom one opposing political consultant described to me as a “sloppy plutocrat,” an older businessman who tried to buy his way to the front of the race. He represents the idea that what had been essential about Trump was that he was an outsider and a businessman.

Last of all is Jane Timken, who had a kind of disastrous candidacy and who basically just seemed to understand Trumpism as being about the specific people around Trump. She hired as her consultants Corey Lewandowski, Kellyanne Conway, and David Bossie—a bunch of people who were very close to Trump specifically. That’s also a live idea in the Republican Party—maybe Trumpism didn’t really mean anything except the ascendancy of a very specific group of people close to this one man.

In different states with different candidates taking up these different strains, you might have a different outcome. What this pattern in this race does show, though, is that the question of what Trump’s dominance over the Party has meant—and what it derives from and where it goes—is still totally up for grabs.

There is special fascination with Vance in the press—in the years leading up to Trump, he was kind of identified as this wise whisperer of the disaffected white, conservative mind. But now he’s completed a full heel turn against establishment entities, including the media. What do the Ohioans you’ve spoken with make of him?

I think the answer might have been a little different before he got Trump’s endorsement. Before, he was viewed as something of an interloper. There were attacks on him that noted he hadn’t spent a lot of recent time in Ohio. He was branded as a product of Yale Law School and the part of the media that drives book sales. The amount that his reputation seems to have turned after the Trump endorsement is at least some evidence of the power that Trump still has to define who is a conservative and what it means to be one.

Vance himself has become a very effective promoter of his views on conservative media and a pretty adept user of Twitter. It seemed for a while that he was becoming a more generic culture-warrior type, just a version of Tucker Carlson in the race. After seeing him on the stump, I thought that that was not really a complete picture. I think he sees the decay of culture and community in Ohio, specifically in rural Ohio, and places the blame at the feet of powerful economic and cultural institutions. I think that’s all there, that it’s sincere. I don’t think it’s just a type of culture-war posturing. It was interesting for me to see him campaigning and to see that those themes that have been woven through his writing and politics for several years are still present. He hasn’t been quite as flattened as you might think from reading Twitter.

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