Corey Stewart’s Perpetual Anger Machine
The four GOP candidates for governor gathered earlier this week at Smith Mountain Lake for the second in a lengthy series of six debates. If you are looking for a general recap of what happened, I’ll gladly direct you to this Roanoke Times rundown, because I have a different concern in mind: how one candidate is happy to trample over the rights and expertise of local governments as part of an attempt to scare his way into office.
In some ways I feel guilty about giving a candidate attention for this kind of behavior – the three other contenders have broadly displayed the sense of basic civility most people would hope for in a leader. But as the old saying goes, sometimes the irrationally angry and eternally victimized fear-mongering wheel gets the grease.
As with any debate, the conversation ranged across a wide number of topics, from job creation to transportation to immigration policy. So how did the Stewart campaign decide to present things afterwards? By recycling the apocalyptic rhetoric which was the hallmark of both his debate performance and his campaign in general.
Last month it was Tyranny! which threatened the commonwealth, and the yelling was directed at a “particularly heinous individual” who played a part in the decision by Charlottesville to remove a Robert E. Lee statue. The fact this mainly led to coverage of Stewart as a hypocrite did not dissuade him from banging the drum of Amnesty! this time around, attempting to vilify Ed Gillespie with various insults for being insufficiently zealous in pursuing every last imaginable policy to rid the commonwealth of those who arrived illegally. Yet those policies have consequences which both violate conservative principles and may cause far more problems than they solve.
As noted by Gillespie during the debate, you can disagree with a local decision (e.g. to remove the statue) and still recognize that having state leaders trample over it is a bad idea. As a sitting chairman of a Board of Supervisors, this argument should resonate with Stewart. But certain people only recognize the virtue of limiting power when it belongs to somebody else.
The same thing is happening on illegal immigration, where Stewart threatens to strip localities of law enforcement aid (known as “599 funding”) if they don’t obey his commands from on high. Never mind that local leaders, including police departments and sheriff’s offices, know how to best protect the people they serve. In some places, illegal immigrants may be a source of crime and federal cooperation will make sense. In others, these immigrants may be in a position to help solve more serious crimes by coming forward as witnesses. Every minute and dollar spent on immigration is not spent on drug enforcement, stopping violent crime, or other pressing needs a community may have. Illegal immigration is a problem, but it is not always the problem.
Nobody in Virginia is engaging in tyranny or proposing amnesty, and local law enforcement refusing to take on an unfunded mandate to do the federal government’s job isn’t an example of “flouting the law.” But it is hard to appoint yourself as hero without a villain to save people from, so somebody – or some group of people – must be vilified.
It’s easy to assume that Stewart isn’t angry because the commonwealth is headed for ruin; he’s angry because his own campaign is headed for ruin unless he can convince enough people to be afraid of enough things in a short enough time. The substance here isn’t entirely new; I still recall listening to him defend his county-level actions on immigration at the 2013 state GOP convention while trying unsuccessfully to fight his way out of a crowded pack of LG candidates. But I don’t recall anything resembling this relentless kind of hatred and nastiness. Even if Stewart were correct on the threat posed by such immigrants (and he isn’t), the spitefulness he relies on is both counterproductive to his goals and beneath the offices he seeks.
Did the rise of populism during the presidential campaign unleash a side of Stewart he had previously kept restrained for fear of harming his career? If so, he should remember that he is not Donald Trump (and his opponents are not Hillary Clinton). Or is he just trying to mimic someone else because they were successful? Neither of these is a very good answer, and if this approach is the only way he can draw a meaningful contrast with his opponents, then perhaps he shouldn’t be running against them.