The blue wave versus the cult of Trump: Virginia’s bizarre primaries give a taste of what’s to come this election season | The Monthly

Virginia’s bizarre primaries give a taste of what’s to come this election season


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

June 20, 2018

The blue wave versus the cult of Trump

By Richard Cooke
Virginia’s bizarre primaries give a taste of what’s to come this election season


Listen to Richard read this week’s dispatch here:


It’s difficult to appreciate, until you see it up close – say, in the confines of a Virginia high school hall on primary day – how deeply eccentric the American electoral system is. Nowadays the candidates are just as eccentric, and the whole enterprise has taken on a quality that is both solemn and farcical at the same time.

Under duress, the system must be shown to work, but under questioning, the electoral officials themselves turn a bit uncertain about some of the logistics. Yes, voters have to register before they can vote in the primaries that pick the candidates. No, they don’t have to vote in the same party primary that they registered for, but they can only vote once. Or once each in the senatorial primary and the congressional primary. Is that right? Even the machinery here has changed many times in just a few years: first there were tear-books, then laptops, now iPads. But in the event of a tie (as has happened in the past), the winner’s name gets plucked out of a bowl.

“Virginia is a very complicated state, and this is a very complicated district,” said the precinct captain, a volunteer with a masochistic streak. “We have a very dedicated turnout. They are mainly older voters here,” and as she spoke I watched a man, one of the oldest-looking ambulatory humans I have ever seen, make a hesitant path past the booths and towards the exit. He turned out to be Justice Anthony Kennedy, the judge who hates being called “the swing vote” on the Supreme Court of the United States. (He is the man responsible for gay marriage becoming federal law.) Kennedy’s face was an alarming colour, almost the same hue as his blue-grey suit, and some supernatural force, perhaps anxious liberal willpower, seemed to be keeping him upright. His bodyguard took him away from the media and into a car before anyone could ask who he voted for. He is a Republican, though, or at least was put in place by Republicans, and it’s hard to believe that he would cast a ballot in the congressional primary for anyone but the incumbent, Barbara Comstock.

Virginia is a “purple state”, closely contested between Republican red and Democratic blue, and moderating every year. This district, the 10th, voted for Hillary Clinton for president, but returned a Republican congresswoman, who is very moderate and briefly criticised Trump after the Access Hollywood “grab them by the pussy” tape was released. Ordinarily, someone like Barbara Comstock would be safe from a primary challenger for this seat, but these are not ordinary times. An effect that some commentators termed “the cult of Trump” (Charles P. Pierce writing in Esquire likened it to an infectious “prion disease”) is taking effect, and any Republicans who criticise the president, no matter how well credentialed, are at risk.

Over in South Carolina, the former governor, Mark Sanford, got chucked out of his seat for going against Trump; afterwards, he said his allegiance lay with the flag only. In Nevada, the brothel owner and pimp Dennis Hof, star of the reality TV show Cathouse, became the house candidate for the party of family values, after christening himself the “Trump of Pahrump”, a nickname understood as an homage rather than a sacrilege.

Comstock’s own challenger was a long-term conservative activist called Shak Hill (his “SHAK!” badges recalled the failed presidential run of Jeb! Bush). Comstock herself turned up at the booth, and looked chagrined to see more reporters than voters. In fairness, it was hard to see what good talking to 24-hour Spanish business news would do her, but she gave them a grab, saying (in English) that while Democrats only wanted to talk about the president, she wanted to talk about the economy. The Democratic volunteers there even seemed to feel sorry for Comstock – “she doesn’t like the president, deep down”, one said – and she radiated a studied moderation that might have been less wasted in another era. One of the campaign pledges on her pamphlets was “Stopping Congress from Using Tax Dollars for Sexual Harassment Claims”, alongside endorsements from the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, and the National Rifle Association.

On the Democratic side, the house seat attracted six prospective candidates, four of them women, part of a groundswell of pissed-off female doctors, lawyers, scientists, veterans and women of colour, compelled into politics by Trump. “At first they were in shock, now they’re animated,” a volunteer named Betsy Costal told me. She was a former lawyer brought up by New Dealer parents. “I worked alongside Republicans in the past,” she said, “and respected them. It’s hard to imagine that happening again.” The Virginia Senate seat is held, safely and unopposed, by Tim Kaine, the man who would have been Hillary Clinton’s vice-president. But Democratic voter enthusiasm is so intense that some voters complained that there was no one to vote for in the Senate primary, as though any vote would do.

The Republican party, already facing a potential “blue wave” in the November midterm elections, wanted to expend its resources elsewhere, and discouraged contestation of the Senate spot. The race offered an irresistible grandstand to a local county official, though, a notorious racist called Corey A. Stewart. Stewart has been described as a “neo-Confederate”: he refused to condemn the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march (he called Republicans who did “weak”), and has a hysterically expressed enthusiasm for “Southern heritage” in the form of southern Civil War monuments. He is in fact from Minnesota, near the Canadian border.

Few districts in America could throw up a worse politician than Corey A. Stewart, but Virginia’s 10th is exceptional in this regard. There was a bleak joke at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner this year, where the comic host Michelle Wolf said the Democrats would somehow lose by 12 points to a candidate called “Jeff Pedophile, Nazi Doctor”. At first, the independent candidate Nathan D. Larson – a self-confessed Nazi paedophile who wants to legalise incest and rape – seems like a piece of virulent trolling, a nihilistic internet forum prank gone wrong. But he is serious, or at least psychopathically invested in his campaign. He’s also a former felon imprisoned for making threats to the life of President Obama. One curiosity of US election law: some states bar felons from voting for life, but not from seeking office.

The electoral workers in the 10th knew of Nathan D. Larson – like Corey A. Stewart, he had received international media attention – and some were waiting to see if he would reach the petition threshold of 1000 signatures and have his name put on the ballot. It was likely, but they were managing to remain professional. A Republican official called Steve Hunt seemed to be in charge. He was wearing a decrepit green suit adorned with two pins: one was Navy pilot wings (“Ever see Top Gun? I was the ‘Goose’ role,” he said). The other was a tiny, silver pair of feet – he said they were the size of a ten-week-old fetus’s.

The beauty of the American electoral system, Hunt said, was that anyone could be a candidate. “Larson will get only as much attention as the press gives him,” Hunt hoped, a hope that has not enjoyed good results before. Around the counting rooms, volunteer Girl Guides worked as runners, passing along messages from the booths. “We think they give a community feel,” another official said. A sullen Boy Scout pushed a pallet of ballots with glacial effort. He was wearing a blue mesh workman’s vest on top of his uniform. The word “ELECTIONS” was printed on it.

By the end of the evening, it was clear that Corey A. Stewart, neo-Confederate, had won the unauthorised nomination, with a low turnout. In his acceptance speech, he said that Tim Kaine should be in jail. “Virginia Governor Candidate Corey Stewart Is Just a Guy Who Likes Free Attention”, the Washingtonian reported. The report said that he had “very little shot of actually winning through his love of the Confederacy”. Comforting, but by now America is realising that free attention ain’t free.



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Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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