(CNN)On Monday afternoon, the conservative writer Rich Lowry tweeted out an image of a brief, personally addressed missive from President Donald Trump.
Why Trump loved a column that definitely didn't love him
Trump's note of approval was scrawled across a Lowry column published in the New York Post after the Democratic election rout in Virginia earlier this month -- a piece headlined in print, "There Is Only Trump."
Perhaps the President stopped reading there. If that's the case, well, his effusive reply makes a lot more sense. Trump is fond of presenting himself as a singular character and famously enjoys the work of commentators who share and promote that view. But even a light reading of this piece -- just a few paragraphs down! -- reveals a less cheerful assessment.
The text below, as it appears on the Post's website, appears to match precisely what Trump was given to read. Only the headline is different. Online it reads: "Sorry, GOP: There's no running away from Trump."
OK, here's Lowry in bold, with my annotations in italics:
Ed Gillespie, campaigning in a treacherous political environment defined by an unpopular president of his own party, ran the only race he reasonably could. He distanced himself from Donald Trump personally, hoping to lessen his losses in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia, while hitting some Trumpian notes on crime and immigration to appeal to the president's base.
In the first sentence(!), Lowry depicts Gillespie, the failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate, as being hamstrung by a "treacherous political environment defined by an unpopular president." This might not be worth noting if Trump hadn't repeatedly insisted, usually in tweets, that polls suggesting poor approval ratings were fake or wrong.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the self-declared keeper of the Trumpist flame, believed Gillespie had cracked the code by fashioning a "Trumpism without Trump." He managed, per Bannon, to close the enthusiasm gap "by rallying around the Trump agenda," and Democrats needed to be "very, very worried."
At least that was the party line until the race was called soon after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Then, Gillespie became an establishment tool who had betrayed Trumpism and the president. A Bannon spokesman blasted Gillespie for allegedly having no message and being inauthentic, which is quite the charge coming from people who will change what they are saying on a dime, depending on the imperatives of the political spin of the hour.
Perhaps Trump doesn't count himself as part of Bannon's team (or vice versa), but these paragraphs are a pretty damning take on the movement Trump claims to be leading. Counterpoint: He's just happy that "Trumpism without Trump" failed because that would make him expendable.
That aside, the Virginia race revealed a problem with the Trumpism-without-Trump construct — namely, that it's not really possible.
First, it's not going to be convincing to Trump-haters. Gillespie — even when talking about cracking down on MS-13 — isn't the slightest bit Trumpy. He's earnest, wonky and friendly.
It's not that Trump wants (or should want) to be viewed as "earnest, wonky and friendly," but the alternative in mind here is definitely not positive.
When he distanced himself from Trump, it was credible because he hadn't been close to Trump to begin with. He had never met him, and all of Trump's support on Twitter was unsolicited.
None of this made the slightest difference to voters in Northern Virginia, where Democrat Ralph Northam racked up margins bigger than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
These people weren't showing up to send a message to Gillespie. They were showing up to send a message to Trump, who they believe is a clear and present danger to all that they hold dear.
One way of reading this suggests Gillespie failed because he couldn't effectively channel Trump and paid on Election Day for downplaying the President's support. There are a bunch of others. Trump seems to have gone with the former. (That he wouldn't be thrown off by being described as a "clear and present danger" to all that a subset of people "hold dear" isn't especially surprising.)
Gillespie could've revealed himself to be a secret member of #TheResistance, and these mobilized suburbanites still would've voted against him as the best way to make a gigantic rude gesture toward the president.
Lowry: A lot of people really dislike Trump. Trump, maybe: "Haters and losers."
So as a sheer political matter, there can be no such thing as Trumpism without Trump, or Anti-Trumpism without Trump, or Anything Else without Trump.
Bingo! This comes close to matching the print headline. Ignore the critical nuance and it plays right into how Trump wants to view himself.
It's hard enough for a candidate to run away from a conventional president of his own party. (Democrats couldn't do it during midterm drubbings while Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were presidents.)
But it's going to be even harder with a president who dominates the media to an extent no other president has, and courts — nay, enjoys — radioactive controversies.
A note on Democratic "drubbings" suffered under Clinton and Obama, then a line about Trump dominating the media? Gold. Never mind the clear suggestion that Republicans will want to sprint from Trump and his "radioactive controversies."
Until further notice, the phenomenon we saw in 2016 of Republicans running successful, traditional campaigns at a polite remove from Trump has to be considered inoperative.
Then there is the other, opposite problem: that Trumpism without Trump won't be fully acceptable to Trumpists. They talk a lot about the "Trump agenda," although what this means is vague.
Trump routinely tweets (in vague or misleading terms, but anyway) about his accomplishments and desire/plan/success in bringing back jobs to the US. Lowry here mocks the concept. Moving along...
How could Gillespie have run on it more to their satisfaction? Promise to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it? To implement extreme vetting? To hire the best people and make the best deals? To work with Chuck and Nancy as the mood strikes him?
Fact is, the Trump legislative agenda is entirely conventional (certainly Gillespie has no problem with it) and what sets Trump apart is his populist, guy-on-a-barstool persona and perpetual combativeness.
This feels like an apt place to (again) point out that it's really, really hard to believe Trump actually read past the headline, much less this far down.
This is what his loyalists ultimately want everyone to sign up for, the personality. The idea that this would have juiced turnout in Trump country enough to overcome Northam's 9-point margin — Gillespie already did quite well in rural areas — is hard to credit.
In theory, Trumpism without Trump is the right direction for the GOP. It should learn from his populist, nationalistic appeal while avoiding its (and his) excesses.
Here again Lowry acknowledges Trump's appeal, perhaps blotting out the subsequent point, in which he describes the President as a deeply flawed person, mostly ineffectual in convincing the public to back his allies and consistently self-defeating as a political actor.
In practice, Trump himself is going to loom all the larger in the party. He's the main issue in American politics, and he may be the only Republican fit to weather the storm — he has a proven ability to turn out his voters, he doesn't have to win elections in nonpresidential years and his persona works for him, if not for anyone else.
With a tweak here and there this could read like the kind of self-assessment Trump would make during a freewheeling press conference.
If the worst comes and Republicans lose both houses of Congress next year, Trump's importance will be further magnified as the only Republican standing between Democrats and unified control of the federal government.
In that circumstance, Republican voters would probably be much more willing to embrace Trump without Trumpism, rather than the opposite.
Oh? Maybe he did read the whole thing! This depiction of a future where it's even more difficult for Americans to avoid or ignore Donald J. Trump -- even if it's only because his party gets poleaxed in the midterms -- is surely one Trump would relish.