Home 2021 Elections A Virginian’s Guide to Glenn Youngkin’s Exploitation of the Culture Wars in the...

A Virginian’s Guide to Glenn Youngkin’s Exploitation of the Culture Wars in the Commonwealth

We are seeing first hand the damage that can be done to civility and civil society by the likes of a Greg Abbott, a Ron DeSantis or a Glenn Youngkin

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by Glen Besa

To the casual observer of the 2021 campaign for Virginia governor – e.g., those whose primary source of information on politics was TV news and/or ads – Glenn Youngkin probably appeared to be a “moderate” suburban dad who wanted to cut taxes and give parents a greater voice in their schools. A voter would have had to look a little deeper, by doing some research on Youngkin, to hear the darker, right-wing, Trumpian messages related to “election integrity” and “critical race theory” – delivered with a smile and a sweater vest rather than Trump’s snarling nastiness.  

Assiduously avoiding the questions of pesky reporters, while keeping his more noxious views confined to right-wing media outlets, Youngkin was pretty much a blank slate to most voters – although he shouldn’t have been, if they had paid careful attention (or read this blog regularly!) throughout the campaign. Starting before Inauguration Day, however, Youngkin’s true character as a Trump/DeSantis-style culture warrior became undeniable, as he went with several hard-right and/or anti-environmental picks for his Cabinet, along with a host of executive orders that were clearly geared towards the Fox “News”-viewing, hard-core Republican base. Consider Youngkin’s initial Executive Orders, issued on Day One of his administration, as well as EO-10 issued four days later: 

Executive Order 1. ENDING THE USE OF INHERENTLY DIVISIVE CONCEPTS, INCLUDING CRITICAL RACE THEORY, AND RESTORING EXCELLENCE IN K-12 PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE COMMONWEALTH  –  In fact, as has been pointed out repeatedly, Virginia doesn’t teach “critical race theory” in our public schools.  So what’s this order all about? Apparently, burying America’s original sin of slavery, along with centuries of racism – “Jim Crow,” “Massive Resistance” right here in Virginia, etc. – appears to be Youngkin’s #1 priority.  That’s right – less than two years after Americans witnessed systemic racism in its most brutal form, with the murder of George Floyd, Gov. Youngkin and Republican message gurus want to convince us that racism no longer exists. To accomplish that, they are arguing that teaching actual history about the institution of slavery enshrined in the US Constitution, “Jim Crow” enshrined in state laws across the country, and the persistent racial discrimination in our society is too divisive and upsetting for young (white?) students to bear.   Apparently, “Excellence in Education” necessitates state-sponsored historical amnesia, with an Orwellian hotline to the Governor’s desk as the enforcement tool.  If book banning, revisionist history and a snitch line are not enough, then quasi-privatization of public education should keep “those people” out of their children’s classrooms. The last time Virginia went down that path in the 1950s, at least the segregationists were honest as to their intentions.

Executive Order 2.  REAFFIRMING THE RIGHTS OF PARENTS IN THE UPBRINGING, EDUCATION, AND CARE OF THEIR CHILDREN   It’s hard to tell from the title, but this order is all about masks. It has set off intense debate, argument and dissension in schools and at school board meetings across the state. Too many conservatives, including Christian nationalists, appear to have abandoned the Golden Rule in favor of elevating selfishness as their most cherished value.  We know that masks are just as important or more so in preventing infected people from spreading Covid as in protecting us from contracting it. But apparently, in Youngkin’s view, the right of a child to be free of the shared burden of masking trumps others’ concerns for the safety of their children.  And so it goes for vaccines as well.  

Executive Order 6. REINVIGORATING JOB GROWTH BY REMOVING BURDENSOME REGULATIONS FROM VIRGINIA’S BUSINESS COMMUNITY   When you are already the #1 state for business in the United States, what exactly are these supposedly “burdensome regulations” Youngkin’s referring to? Of course, while this EO is primarily focused on COVID-19 regulations, Youngkin and Republican legislators wrongly consider environmental regulations – aka, protections – to be overly burdensome as well. In other words, laws and regulations ensuring us clean air and water and a safer climate are too much to ask of those corporate interests backing Glenn Youngkin. That’s how we end up with Republican bills gutting the permitting authority of the citizen air and water boards and pulling Virginia from a regional cap and trade program to reduce carbon pollution harming our planet. Apparently, that’s what Trump Republicans like Youngkin (falsely) believe will keep Virginia at the top of the leaderboard, at least in the eyes of their members-only-country-club buddies.

Executive Order 7. ESTABLISHING THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING PREVENTION AND SURVIVOR SUPPORT  Yes, this is a serious problem that requires government action, as is evidenced by the ongoing investigation of Congressman Matt Gaetz (R, FL) and the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.  But with all the culture war tropes spouting from Youngkin’s talking head, doesn’t this sound like a dog whistle to the QAnon conspiracists’ (wildly false) contention that prominent Democrats (e.g., Hillary Clinton) and Jews (e.g., George Soros) are trafficking children to serve their desires as a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles? Anyway stay tuned for who Youngkin appoints to his commission, and if any of them have ties to QAnon. 

Executive Order 8. ESTABLISHING THE COMMISSION TO COMBAT ANTISEMITISM   Yes, the rise of white supremacists in this country is more than worrisome – consider their prominent role in Trump’s January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and what happened in Charlottesville at the “Unite the Right,” “Jews will not Replace Us” Rally.  You can call me cynical, but I believe Executive Order 8 is more intended as a sop for the “End Times” Christian nationalists who support Youngkin and Trump than as an honest concern for the well-being of Jews.  Remember, you can’t get to the End Times if peace comes to the Middle East, and if “Armageddon” never occurs. Also, when you think about it for a minute, this commission is coming from someone who was endorsed by the guy (Trump) who has helped fuel the rise of racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, etc. hatred and even violence in recent years.  Then there’s the role of right-wing media, which Youngkin frequently appears on. Is Youngkin’s commission going to “study” Trump and right wing media and report on how they’ve contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism?  Something tells me the answer to that is no. Also, in the context of the sophisticated divisiveness emanating from this suburban dad in a red vest, I am reminded of that famous quote by Martin Niemöller regarding the Nazis: “First they came for the socialists, and I didn’t do anything because I wasn’t a socialist…”  In his case, Youngkin went after Blacks first – as has, sadly, been the American way for centuries.  But the movement that Youngkin is playing footsies with is already chock full of antisemites.  And gays are on that list right after Blacks. During the campaign, who knew that Youngkin opposes gay marriage?   I am not calling Youngkin a Nazi or an anti-Semite, of course; but since he is more than willing to use racism to advance his political career, just how far is he willing to go with this divide-and-conquer strategy?  Here again, we will judge Youngkin’s sincerity by the quality of his appointments to this commission, and by whatever conclusions they come to.

Executive Order 9. PROTECTING RATEPAYERS FROM THE RISING COST OF LIVING DUE TO THE REGIONAL GREENHOUSE GAS INITIATIVE   It would be different if Youngkin and Republicans, in general, agreed that climate change posed an existential threat to society (which it obviously does!). Then we could have an honest debate as to what policies are best to address it. Tragically, that is not the case here. Instead, Youngkin made it clear in the second gubernatorial debate that he wouldn’t even say the words “climate change” or “global warming,” while he aiming to bring back coal and expand reliance on fracked gas.  Even worse, Youngkin has announced his intentions to dismantle the modest steps Virginia has taken to address climate change, by withdrawing from RGGI and gutting the Virginia Clean Economy Act. All of this makes it crystal clear  that Youngkin, like Trump, has no intention of addressing this crisis at all, other than to make it *worse*.  And like the Republicans in Hampton Roads who are all-in on spending billions of tax dollars for adaptation to “recurrent flooding,” Youngkin has no plan to address the root cause (global heating) of the flooding.

Executive Order 10. FOCUSING VIRGINIA’S DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION OFFICE AND DESIGNATING A COMMONWEALTH CHIEF DIVERSITY, OPPORTUNITY, & INCLUSION OFFICER     It is appropriate that I begin and end this guide on the topic of race.  Youngkin’s victory was attributable, in part, to his artful use of the Republicans’ newest racist dog whistle, Critical Race Theory – “CRT,” for short.  Amoral (or immoral) Republican strategists across the country are salivating at how they can model Youngkin’s campaign use of “CRT” to scare suburban white women into voting Republican in the upcoming midterm elections.  Dropping “Equity” from the title of Virginia’s Chief Diversity officer and substituting “Opportunity” is one more way of undermining progress on the gross financial inequities that break along racial lines.  “Equity” or fairness is anathema to Republicans and the Christian nationalists who adhere to the prosperity gospel.  In their view, if you’re born poor, that’s your tough luck. If you have a hard time advancing in a neighborhood plagued by drugs and guns and underfunded schools, then once again, the fault lies with you.  And in these people’s view, whether a kid is raised in an inner city public housing project or toney Great Falls, he or she has the same “opportunity” to succeed, which is a convenient perspective for a guy who sent his kids to private school. “Equity” would mean that the very privileged, like Youngkin, would have to pay more taxes to actually equalize the opportunity for kids. Of course, Youngkin will have none of that.  Additionally, if you care about women’s reproductive rights consider that the new “Chief Diversity, Opportunity & Inclusion Officer will … be an ambassador for unborn children.” Past experience tells me that the Youngkin administration will care a whole lot more about the “unborn children” than the children living in poverty today.

Where we go from here

As Virginians, we now find ourselves thrust into the culture wars common in Red State politics. Eight years of Democrats in the Governor’s mansion had somewhat insulated many – but not all – of us from dealing with it up close and personal, even as Trump misgoverned our nation.  Now, we are seeing first hand the damage that can be done to civility and civil society by the likes of a Greg Abbott, a Ron DeSantis or a Glenn Youngkin.  All three of those governors, and many others, are using Trump’s right-wing “populist” playbook, with ambitions to be the president of the United States.  It’s up to us to stop them – to stop Glenn Youngkin and RESIST! 

Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author, and are not intended to reflect the opinion or the positions of any organizations with which he may be associated.

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