Herschel Walker’s campaign in Georgia for U.S. Senate, now in its fifteenth month without much of a reduction in the general confusion it’s caused, has been a gold mine for opposition researchers of all types. The hard-nosed operatives who usually dig through old court records and track down a candidate’s acquaintances didn’t have much work to do: his ex-wife had publicly accused him of threatening to kill her while holding a gun to her temple, and he had described his struggles with multiple-personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder); during the campaign, two other women alleged that Walker had paid for their abortions, despite taking a hard line against the procedure. (Walker has denied all claims that he paid for an abortion; he says he doesn’t remember threatening his ex-wife with a gun, but he hasn’t denied her accusations of violent behavior.)
The Walker candidacy has also been fruitful for the younger political staffers who simply record public appearances, hoping that a candidate will say something weird or batty. He asked, in March, if evolution were true, “Why are there still apes?” In July, speculating about air pollution, he suggested that reforms were futile, since “our good air” would simply “float over to China’s bad air,” which in turn would migrate over to “our good airspace,” which we then would need to “clean back up.” Statements like these probably damaged his candidacy, though less than you might think. In last month’s election, he held Senator Raphael Warnock, one of the singular political talents in the Democratic party, under fifty per cent, so the outcome will be decided in a runoff on Tuesday.
Walker is an affable, jokey presence on the stump, which makes it a little tricky to decode what’s actually going on up there. He isn’t making an argument so much as delineating a character—is he doing a bit? (On Fox News in September, face as stony as Andy Kaufman’s: “This erection is about the people.”) Not exactly—the ignorance is too earnest for that—but he is running a kind of hillbilly charm offensive, a throwback in certain ways to the Huey Long-era Democratic populists in the South. “I’m not that smart,” Walker said, ahead of his lone debate against Warnock. “He’s a smart man, wears these nice suits, so he is going to show up and embarrass me.” Warnock probably did out-debate the Republican, but, again, not by as much as you might think.
Walker’s candidacy was at first treated as a test of Donald Trump’s dominance of the Party, another round of the ex-President’s years-long arm wrestling with Mitch McConnell, but it has become something more interesting: a pretty undiluted example of the populism Trump once seemed to augur—which also suggests some of its limitations. No one seems to like politicians much, so if your goal is to win elections and your policy preferences are a little fuzzy, maybe instead of nominating a bunch of state senators and lawyers you should run some charismatic celebrities who are liked and well known, and who will make more believable outsiders anyway. On paper it makes sense. Celebrity was an essential component of the Trump phenomenon, and, this year, along with Walker, the TV doctor Mehmet Oz and the former news anchor Kari Lake emerged as statewide candidates and national figures. Celebrity candidates have also been a big part of populist turns across the political spectrum in Europe (among others, the comedians Beppe Grillo in Italy and Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine, and the singer Slavi Trifonov in Bulgaria). When I was on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania earlier this year, I heard often about the suburban women who watched daytime television and were supposedly in thrall to Oz. When I was on the campaign trail in Georgia this spring and fall, I heard even more frequently about the college-football fanatics for whom Walker could do no wrong. Post-Trump Republicans have been happy to emphasize anti-élitism, as the COVID-era challenges to medical authority and the ascent of Ron DeSantis showed. Why not nominate some outsider candidates whom people might actually like?
I don’t think that there’s anybody in U.S. politics right now who believes these experiments have gone well. One part of the problem has been that wealthy celebrities don’t generally make very convincing down-home populists: Walker is currently embroiled in controversy after appearing to confess that he lives in Texas, not Georgia, and Oz’s campaign was dogged throughout by the obvious problem that, when he declared his candidacy, in late 2021, none of his many real-estate holdings was in Pennsylvania, the place he hoped to represent.
Just as much, though, these candidates have struggled with the extremism that is part of the Trumpist package. The Trump model is to be outré all the time, as a way to grab attention, as a taunt to the establishment and a signal to the base—but how far to go, exactly, and where? Oz said he had questions about the 2020 election without directly calling it illegitimate, a middle position that pleased no one. Lake refused to give up on the stop-the-steal platform, and lost her race because she alienated independent and moderate Republican voters. After Trump dined at Mar-a-Lago last week with the white supremacist Nick Fuentes, Walker declined to criticize the meeting, even as Georgia’s quite conservative governor, Brian Kemp, issued a full-throated condemnation.
These campaigns probably would have gone better if they’d taken place in more deeply red states, where the margin of error for a right-wing candidate might have been bigger. Then again, the hope was that the celebrity candidates could win where ordinary conservatives couldn’t. One interpretation is that the Trumpist shock-and-terror maneuver requires a domination of the press that only a President or Presidential candidate can achieve. But another explanation is that the celebrity Republicans, having been elevated by Trump, are stuck in the Trump mold, and have not been able to deliver the outsider insurgency that voters may still want, without the right-wing extremism that they seem sick of.
Take a breath, settle in: since November, things have been more or less as they were pre-Trump. In Washington, Kevin McCarthy is struggling to line up enough right-wing congresspeople to confirm that he will be the Speaker, Democrats had to scramble to avert a rail strike, the President is meeting with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, and everyone is watching the inflation numbers and the scandal that has consumed speculative finance. Reporters are ominously murmuring the words “debt ceiling.” In Georgia on Tuesday, Walker, who this week faced new allegations of domestic violence (his campaign did not respond to a request for comment), might pull off an upset, which would quickly end this period of apparent sedate stability. But if Walker loses a winnable race, as Oz and Lake did, then something else is ending: not Trumpism, exactly, but the idea that know-nothing celebrities might easily follow in his footsteps, and that the future of the right belonged to its famous outsiders. ♦