Conservatives love to mock liberals as soft, wimpy, and insistent that everyone take account of their feelings. But as they whip up anger and fear over what students are taught in schools about race, something unexpected is happening to Republicans: They’re getting in touch with their own emotional vulnerability, and making policy demands based on ensuring that people’s feelings don’t get hurt.

That’s one of the messages underlying the culture war conflict that has taken over the Virginia governor’s race, as Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin has centered his pitch on the supposed dangers of critical race theory (which he promises to ban “on day one” of his governorship) and the need for conservative parents to protect their children from dangerous ideas.

On Thursday, Mike Pence will deliver a speech in Virginia on “educational freedom” (which probably doesn’t mean what those words would imply). And this ad is the latest salvo in Youngkin’s reinvention from private equity plutocrat to culture war crusader:

Though it goes unmentioned in the ad, this is about a 2013 controversy in which this Republican activist, Laura Murphy, went after the Fairfax County school district when her son was assigned “Beloved” by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison.

It’s a book about slavery that in parts is indeed difficult to read (though if Murphy thinks it offers “some of the most explicit material you can imagine,” she might want to learn about this thing called “the internet”). She wanted the book banned until a policy could be created to deal with all explicit material.

“Beloved” is not a book for little kids — but Murphy’s son was a senior in high school when he was assigned the book. Nevertheless, she says he couldn’t handle it; the material was just too upsetting, and reading it was traumatizing for him.

Youngkin has revealed himself to be boundlessly cynical in appealing to the GOP base, but let’s do something radical and take this seriously. What’s the solution to the problem some people have with a book like “Beloved”?

One solution is that rather than having educators decide what to assign to students, your state legislature — which may not comprise the most thoughtful and enlightened group of people — should make granular decisions about what should and shouldn’t be assigned in schools, down to choosing the books students read.

The current Republican vogue is to have those legislators enact sweeping bans on whole classes of material — such as anything that implies racism was ever anything other than the product of a few individual racists with bad intentions, a problem that has essentially been solved.

For instance, the Republican legislature in Wisconsin recently passed a bill banning certain concepts relating to race from schools; the bill’s sponsor helpfully provided a list of words that if uttered in the classroom would violate the law. They included “cultural awareness,” “institutional bias,” “racial prejudice,” and “patriarchy.”

Having passed another law ostensibly meant to ban discussion of critical race theory, a key member of the Texas House (and a candidate for attorney general) is now demanding that superintendents inform the legislature of the presence in their schools of any “material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” He even included a list of 850 suspect books, from “The Handmaid’s Tale” to “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”

Could reading a book like “Beloved” make white students feel discomfort? Quite possibly. They might be disturbed. They might even feel implicated in systems of oppression.

So the solution for Republicans is to make sure schools are a safe space, where either discussions about race don’t happen at all lest white kids feel uncomfortable, or the discussions occur but are sanitized through a particular state-approved narrative of white innocence to ensure there will be no risk of emotional trauma. For some kids, anyway.

One could take another approach that wouldn’t require the state to get so particular in its instructions. They could leave the decisions in educators’ hands, but insist that when potentially distressing material is introduced, the teachers explain what kids might be exposed to, and allow them, or their parents, to opt out. That’s a fair description of the legislation Laura Murphy pushed for.

It’s commonly known as a “trigger warning,” and it’s something conservatives have mocked for years as evidence of how fragile liberal institutions (especially universities) have made today’s young people.

At the time Murphy waged her crusade against “Beloved” in 2013, historian Rick Perlstein wrote that the controversy aligned neatly with a long history of conservative parents — often with the behind-the-scenes help of national political organizations — seeking to ban books they found upsetting. Then as now, conservatives feared that their children would be exposed to ideas that challenged their parents’ worldview. The answer was to assert control.

What politicians like Youngkin are interested in is the fear itself, whether it can be stoked and heightened and turned into votes. But put that aside. What if we could all agree that context is important, that it can be useful to warn people about what they’re going to read or see, and that even so, sometimes you’ll be disturbed by material you’re exposed to?

That is what liberals have long believed, and it’s what conservatives now claim to believe as they advocate for safe spaces and trigger warnings. If only their newfound interest in people’s feelings wasn’t being used as a weapon.