TUCSON, Ariz. — It can be hard to make sense of endings and beginnings in politics and history, but what if we’ve already reached the post-Trump era?
Consider the case of Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s former private equity co-C.E.O. governor with a sunshine demeanor, and Kari Lake, Arizona’s Republican nominee for governor, a wild proponent of Donald Trump’s claims that the election was stolen from him. Theoretically, a Youngkin-Lake event would be a clash of vibes, an effort to mainstream Ms. Lake. But Mr. Youngkin campaigned for her last week, across several events — a decision that drew anguish from a segment of conservatives and hard questions from reporters in televised settings. In real life, there was no clash. It wasn’t one of those awkward, painful episodes in which a more traditional Republican makes an explicit transaction with a party dominated by Mr. Trump. Everything was smooth and cohesive — a joint case about the Republican Party of today.
Mr. Youngkin cheerily warned the crowd that everything — our American values and institutions — could fall apart just like that, bam. “You take your eye off the ball and you lose an election, because remember, elections have consequences, and the next thing you know, everything can change.” And Ms. Lake is smooth as hell, a real pro after decades on TV, fluidly moving from offhandedly claiming that Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and the founding fathers would have been America First Republicans to offering a self-deprecating joke to giving advice on persuading independent voters to telling a nighttime crowd to “vote these bastards out,” dialing it up or down, depending on the situation.
Looking at this pair one way, you could see Donald Trump’s endless influence over the Republican Party. But if you zoomed out, neither of these people has that much to do with Mr. Trump personally. Neither Mr. Youngkin nor Ms. Lake owes him an inarguable debt for name recognition, neither particularly mimics his mannerisms, neither cropped up in the background of surreal scenes at the White House, neither has lived some embarrassed, poisoned-in-real-time transition from Trump critic to supporter before a national audience. Really, neither Mr. Youngkin nor Ms. Lake had much to do with anything that happened nationally between June 2015 and January 2021.
This observation — about their distance from a formative era of American life, and its centerpiece — felt very true in Arizona last week, and like a real break from other things in Republican politics. It also coexists with another possibility: that Mr. Trump could be fading politically at the same time that his core support is hardening. This dual reality would not necessarily diminish the force and reverb of his actions, but it might produce asymmetrical results. When people talk about a post-Trump era, there’s usually a subtext that it would involve a clean break and his permanent exit from political life. If we are entering a post-Trump period, though, rather than Mr. Trump being something to get past, he could remain a major factor in politics but no longer the sole reference point around which each development moves.
So much in the political conversation still centers on the prospective choices of Mr. Trump and people’s responses to them, as if we were forever in the loop of the period when Mr. Trump’s prominence still felt surreal. But time has passed, and people’s lives have continued — and things have already changed. Arguably, you can see this in some conservatives’ intense focus on restricting trans health care or avoiding Covid recommendations, two issues that have outpaced Mr. Trump’s promotion of them, even if he opened the portal to their prominence.
Consider Ms. Lake and Mr. Youngkin, there in the morning light of a Tucson sports bar. Their political careers would probably not exist without Mr. Trump, but their appeal to Republicans rests on a post-Trump political foundation.
For a segment of Republicans — and particularly conservative writers and operatives — Mr. Youngkin reflects a fusionist dream, in which a Republican can win without entirely handing himself over to Mr. Trump while adopting MAGA’s aggressive education politics, including on gender identity. Ms. Lake has taken up Mr. Trump’s principal cause, that of the 2020 election result — and she continues to allege fraud — but sets that aside when she wants to, in favor of talking at her rallies last week about fentanyl, the intense anti-Covid-vax vibes she’s embraced, taxes or an idea to two-track high school so juniors have the option of switching into vocational training.
You can see the possible fissures between Mr. Trump and Republican politics, in the efforts, too, of Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis. Like Mr. Youngkin, he has undertaken a similar pre-presidential-campaign trip around the country to rally for midterm Republicans, even Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee for governor, who was in Washington on Jan. 6 and whom many national Republicans have avoided. Mr. DeSantis exists in a more transitional space between the initial Trump era and wanting to challenge him in 2024. But he has also isolated and advanced a strain of Trumpism: a kind of power politics that emphasizes public displays of, depending on your vantage point, accountability or retribution. In Pittsburgh at the event for Mr. Mastriano, after detailing various accomplishments and fights, Mr. DeSantis moved into a segment on restricting trans health care for minors and ideology. “We must fight the woke in our schools,” he said. “We must fight the woke in our businesses. We must fight the woke in government agencies. We can never ever surrender to woke ideology. And I’ll tell you this, the state of Florida is where woke goes to die.”
The Lake-Youngkin events involved a looser vibe — one featured vintage airplanes on display and Abba’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” blasting. Both public events also involved Mr. Youngkin leading a crowd in reciting the opening of the Declaration of Independence — the kind of slightly sentimental thing that draws a certain kind of conservative to Mr. Youngkin, the type of conservative who flipped out when Mr. Youngkin announced he would campaign for Ms. Lake, who is maybe the most prominent stop-the-steal type on the ballot this year, running to oversee a battleground state.
On the question of the 2020 election, there are a few ways to look at the Lake campaign. One is that it doesn’t matter what she believes, only what she says, because people straight up listen to what politicians say, without the metatextual strategic filter often applied by political operatives and the media. Over the past year, a lot of Republican discourse centered on ballot drop boxes, and now in Arizona, guys in tactical gear are reportedly staking them out.
If Ms. Lake is elected, though, the belief question matters, given that she would help oversee a state’s next elections. Maybe she really does believe fraud corrupted the 2020 election. A third way to consider it is that she’s playing it up with laser focus on the Republican base. This seems to have been the opinion of Jan Brewer, a former Arizona governor and a proto-Trump politician herself. “I want to hear her tell me she did all this because she wanted to win and that it got a little bit out of control,” Ms. Brewer told The Times this summer.
Mr. Trump has reportedly told donors that you can ask Ms. Lake about anything — the weather, the family — and she’ll work it back to the 2020 election: “Oh, the weather in Phoenix is OK, but you can never have great weather unless the election is fair.” You can even hear him tell Blake Masters a version of this line over the phone. Anecdotes like this capture Mr. Trump’s central destabilizing essence: compulsively advancing something wild or false even as he comments on those who go along with it. Then again: Ms. Lake told this exact anecdote herself, in public.
In Scottsdale, after Mr. Youngkin and Ms. Lake’s last event of the day, a Swiss reporter brought up confidence in the voting process, citing local Republicans’ concerns that some candidates might not accept the results of the election. (“I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result,” Ms. Lake recently said on TV.) “People in Switzerland also feel like,” the reporter said, “does democracy work if you don’t accept the outcome?”
Ms. Lake responded by calling her opponent, the current secretary of state, incompetent and unprepared for the upcoming election. Then Mr. Youngkin, unprompted, jumped in to talk about his own record on election processes — arguing that it isn’t just Republicans who doubt elections, citing 2000 and 2016. “This is not a Republican problem; it’s an American challenge,” he announced, sitting next to someone who last year said the Arizona secretary of state “should be locked up.”
Ms. Lake then pulled out a printed stack of news stories from over the years in which, e.g., Jimmy Carter suggested Mr. Trump was an illegitimate president and Russians tried to hack voting machines. One reporter shouted several times, “Governor, has any other president besides Donald Trump tried to overturn an election?” with Mr. Youngkin defaulting to the things he’d already said, avoiding mention of Mr. Trump. Multiple aides called the next question as the last, which Ms. Lake disregarded and continued calling on people until some staffer finally cranked up Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.”
In the cold light of politics, for Ms. Lake, in a country where a sizable chunk of voters say they would consider supporting a candidate who doesn’t believe Joe Biden won the election he won, transforming voter fraud concerns into an atmospheric, passive problem would be a way to crab-walk out of a year spent personally amping up the idea that the election was stolen. And for Mr. Youngkin, it’s a way to commit to the Republican Party such as it is, as though time had begun in 2021.
Mr. Trump has become predictable in a certain way: You can usually anticipate what his reaction will be to things and what he’ll demand from people, no matter how staggering and corrosive. What happens if a party that orbited him starts to detach from him a little bit and becomes, therefore, even more unpredictable? It’s hard to truly know what will happen if Ms. Lake becomes governor of a large state and how she’d govern.
And in politics more broadly, it might still come to pass that Mr. Trump rolls through a presidential primary and straight into 2024, ushering in an eternal Trump era. But you can also imagine, in a party that has reshaped itself to Mr. Trump, his own obsession with the past puts him at a disadvantage with people who, unlike him, can discard it when they want.
Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.
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