When Republican Glenn Youngkin narrowly defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe to become Virginia governor, the media roundly hailed him as an avatar of the “post-Trump” GOP. Youngkin had made hay out of a McAuliffe debate misstep—“Parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach”—that was in truth only talking about white parents’ efforts to get Toni Morrison’s Beloved out of advanced-placement English classes, not a declaration of intent to Sovietize public education. Youngkin and the GOP depicted it as the latter.
In an age of Covid fatigue and frustration with school closures and changing education guidance about the pandemic, Younkin played the reassuring Suburban Fleece Daddy, promising parents he would listen to them and restore sanity to the state’s Covid policies, especially regarding schools. It seemed to work: Youngkin outperformed Donald Trump by 14 points, and made inroads even in liberal Northern Virginia counties like Loudon and Fairfax. Henrico County resident Laurel Wise, who told The Washington Post she normally backs Democrats, went for Youngkin: “I never thought I’d vote for Youngkin, and then really liked what he started saying about the economy and education, and getting rid of mandates.”
She went on: “Youngkin distanced himself from Trump. That was a very clear delineation that he very smartly made and I, whether or not I was naive, I bought it. I think that there’s a new Republican Party that’s going to come around.”
Democrats who voted for Youngkin were indeed naive. In his very first day as governor, Youngkin issued a raft of divisive executive orders that would make Trump proud. One violated a campaign promise. While candidate Youngkin said he opposed a statewide mask mandate for schools, he also said he would not ban them. “Localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works.” One of his first acts was to ban them instead. Seven school boards have sued to keep their mandates in place.
Youngkin delivered on his promise to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in Virginia schools (which don’t teach it), along with other “divisive concepts.” And he made his first moves to pull the state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, established to combat climate change. Even worse, he appointed Trump’s own former Environmental Protection Agency director Andrew Wheeler, an erstwhile coal lobbyist, as his secretary of natural and historic resources.
Attorney General Jason Miyares, a Youngkin campaign ally, might be even Trumpier. Before he was even sworn in, he fired 30 staffers in his office, including 17 attorneys, curtailing civil rights enforcement. He dumped the counsels for two universities, the University of Virginia and George Mason University; one is currently part of the House Select Committee on January 6 investigation, and the other headed up the inquiry into the August 2017 white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. (A spokeswoman insisted that neither factor was behind his moves.) And he reversed Virginia’s formal opposition to Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, represented by a friend-of-the-court brief his Democratic predecessor filed along with 23 other attorneys general, instead urging the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Youngkin publicly backed Miyares’s decision, and on the same day tweeted his support for the anti-abortion March for Life attendees crowding Washington, D.C.
Youngkin’s sudden doubling down on his right-wing abortion stance ought to rankle any Democratic women who voted for him because of Covid fatigue and McAuliffe’s real or imagined education missteps. He played cagey on the issue during the campaign, describing himself as “pro-life” but refusing to say whether he supported overturning Roe. “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense [on abortion restrictions],” he told an undercover pro-choice activist, who taped the conversation. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get…. I will not go squishy, but I got to win in order to stand up for the unborn.” He won, and now we see that the real Glenn Youngkin is no “squish” on abortion but an anti-choice crusader.
He might have overreached in banning mask mandates, however. “The governor [is] throwing jet fuel on an already divisive culture clash in Virginia,” Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, told The Washington Post, “and inviting lawsuits that will now consume much of his administration.” He’s also throwing jet fuel on the often violent anti-mask rebellion: On Friday, a mother in rural Page County threatened to bring “every single gun loaded and ready” to her kids’ school if the board continued its mask mandate.
Nationally, Republicans have hailed Youngkin as a model for post-Trump success. He campaigned as comparatively moderate, but in his first few days he’s made sure to govern from the hard right. We’ll see what kind of model he turns out to be in the November midterms. Here’s hoping that Biden-to-Youngkin Democrats, at least, see that they elected a Trumpy wolf in fleece clothing.