State Sen. Jill Vogel (right), Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia, gestures during a debate with Democratic candidate Justin Fairfax at the University of Richmond in Virginia on Oct. 5, 2017. (Steve Helber/AP Images)
It really doesn’t take much to trigger a Donald Trump supporter. Mention Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Russia or George Soros and they’re off, screaming about “pizzagate” and wiretapped microwaves.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take that much; sometimes all you have to do is be black on a sunny day to trigger a deplorable’s “T-Gene” (similar to the mutant X-Gene but lacking all of the humility, altruism and superpowers), transforming him or her into a snarling, racial-grievance-spewing, “alt-right” anger Muppet.
That’s what happened during Thursday night’s lieutenant gubernatorial debate in Virginia between lawyer Justin Fairfax and Virginia state Sen. Jill Vogel. It was a master’s course in conservative white female racial rage in the age of Trump.
The 2017 Virginia elections in November are a preview of the 2018 midterms. Either the polls are correct, and Democrats will win the governor’s race and pick up some state legislative seats, or the polls are wrong and America will have four more years of political winter.
While the top of the ticket has been relatively stable (Democrat Ralph Northam has a comfortable lead over Republican Ed Gillespie), the real action is the lieutenant governor’s race. The Democrat Fairfax is on his way to becoming only the second African-American lieutenant governor in Virginia history, and his Trump-supporting Republican opponent, Vogel, does not want to see that happen.
Political science research into campaign debates and messages shows that white candidates often have trouble staying on message when they’re debating black candidates. They just can’t seem to help themselves and often end up blurting out whatever pre-existing racial tic they’ve got going in their heads no matter the actual subject at hand.
The question could be about school funding, and the white candidate will mention “violence in Chicago”; the question could be about tax levies for a local river cleanup, and the white candidate talks about Black Lives Matter. Sometimes this is subconscious and accidental, sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes it’s just the rage of a wealthy, white conservative woman who can’t believe she’s losing to a black guy.
On Thursday the moderator of their debate asked Fairfax and Vogel to comment on Vogel’s “transvaginal ultrasound” bill from 2012.
Nevertheless, when her African-American opponent brought up how the bill showed Vogel’s poor record on women’s health issues, she lost it and went full Beckzilla with a slight garnish of Tracy Flick. Watch the short clip below:
You can almost pinpoint the exact moment when Vogel lost it (I’d say it was about the 14-second mark as she leans in), when she just couldn’t bear being outsmarted and outmaneuvered by a black man.
The expression on Vogel’s face was pretty familiar to any African American who has ever crossed a conservative white woman who felt that she should be thanked for tolerating his or her presence. It was the look of a white middle school teacher when a 12-year-old black prodigy corrects her spelling. It was the look of a white cop when a black woman pulls out her cellphone and asks, “Name and badge number.” It’s the look Hillary Clinton gave Barack Obama when she realized that he wasn’t going to just roll over and let her win the nomination. That look.
Vogel pulled out her angry air guitar and played a greatest hits of racial and gender innuendo. She accused Fairfax of attacking her “personally” (translation: This black brute is threatening me), then she sought praise for being “gracious and polite” (translation: He should be thankful I don’t go all Paula Deen on him) and then she went hard in the white paint.
“He brings this [ultrasound bill] up every chance he gets because there are other issues that he could talk about, but I clearly think he is not informed enough on those issues to talk intelligently about them. I just have to put that out there.”
We have officially hit “triggered.” To suggest that Fairfax isn’t smart enough to debate policy is just this side of calling him an unfit n-word, but Vogel couldn’t help herself. According to her, she “just had to put that out there.” Well, she didn’t, but she wanted to because she couldn’t handle a debate on the merits without relying on trite racial tropes.
Vogel tried to backtrack after the debate, but everybody had seen her rant for what it was. From Virginia state Rep. Sam Rasoul:
Virginia Democratic Party leader Susan Swecker said:
To question his ability to ‘talk intelligently’ is more like something from 1957 than 2017. I can’t speak to what was inside Jill Vogel’s head. But the optics of a white woman saying that a black man—with extraordinary credentials who last night spoke with substance and with great command of the issues—those optics aren’t good. As we say in Highland County, if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck it’s probably a duck.
Of course, Vogel denied that there was any racial animus in what she said, and to be honest, she may really believe that on some level. Which doesn’t make her attack on a Columbia- and Duke-educated lawyer any less racist. It’s just par for the course in American politics, where questioning a black man’s credentials, citizenship and even his intelligence is somehow nonracial, even if the attacker can’t come up with any other motivation or explanation.
Should Fairfax actually win the lieutenant governor’s office (and the numbers look good now), I’m sure he’ll have at least four years to intelligently explain policy to Vogel as she remains in the state Legislature. Assuming she doesn’t take such an overture too personally.