The unspeakable and the unbelievable battled it out in the Yellowhammer State, and we all lost. Last night, Alabama’s GOP decided Roy Moore would be their candidate for the Senate, which all but guarantees he will be shipped up to Washington after the general election.
The run-off centered on the incumbent, Senator Luther Strange, defending his seat against challenger Roy Moore. And what a show it was. Why, it was only the other day that Moore pulled out a revolver during a campaign stop. That seemed normal, given the circumstances.
The Alabama GOP Senate runoff was a referendum on so many levels: on the national party’s strength, on the Republican establishment’s powers of self-defense, and on Donald Trump himself. Despite the fact that both Moore and Strange swore by Trump, the President backed Strange for reasons which are not entirely clear. Moore’s win is both a victory and a defeat for an unpopular, polarizing White House. The surest loser—aside from Strange—is the establishment Republicans. Their power is lessened with every strike of the populist axe. If their will can be frustrated in Alabama, it can be checked anywhere.
We come to the Strange-Moore war by a twisting path. After Jeff Sessions was elevated to the role of Attorney General back in February, his vacant Senate seat was temporarily handed over to Strange. When Luther was attorney general of Alabama, he defended ExxonMobil and sued the government over Obama’s transgender policies. In an ordinary world, Strange would have probably kept his comfy berth. Here on Earth Prime, where up is down and day is night, there are no such guarantees. Moore had other plans for the seat.
Judge Moore is a hero to right-wing populists. He became famous back in 2003 for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery. He was ousted that same year, but was elected Chief Justice in 2012. After he refused to enforce the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Moore was suspended … and now he will probably sit in the United States Senate. Failing upwards is Judge Moore’s unique gift. He has that in common with Donald.
Which raises the question: why did Trump support the incumbent? Odd; you’d expect the President to land squarely on the side of, to quote ABC News, “the folks who helped him win the White House”:
Strange has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the Senate Leadership Fund has pumped $7 million into the race. In the past week Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have traveled to Alabama to stump with Strange. Moore has been endorsed by several Trump supporters and former White House officials, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
The President injected himself into the race back in August, when he tweeted a surprise endorsement of Strange. What can Trump be thinking, if indeed he is thinking at all? His endorsement counts for a lot in the state—he carried Alabama by a two to one margin last November. A loss by Strange would dent the Trump brand. All in all, backing Strange was an unnecessary risk, and Trump took it.
Not that it mattered much to Judge Roy. Before and after the Strange endorsement, Moore tried to ingratiate himself with the Commander-in-Chief, claiming that God sent Trump into the White House. That was barely a step ahead of Strange, who labeled Donald’s ascension a biblical miracle. If I recall, the Good Book does not endorse deluded man-child monarchs, but Luther may possess a personally-translated version of the Gospel I have yet to read.
It’s possible, even probable, that this is Trump’s version of twelfth-dimensional chess—I’ll support Strange because Majority Leader McConnell needs all the help he can get! It could be that Sessions privately asked Trump to appoint Moore, and Trump is sticking by his guy. From all reports, nobody gave the state GOP the heads-up before Trump sent his recommendation to the public. That’s hardly a shock: after all, when has the Donald ever planned ahead?
Indeed, it could be that Trump decided on the spur of the moment to back Strange. Who can fathom the attention span of a Manhattan billionaire in an oval room without a television?
What does this mean for the Kingdom of Trump? Given how popular the President is among Alabama Republicans, it’s unlikely the conservative rank and file voted against him. Moore and Strange talked of little else but Trump. The President’s media stand-ins, the race-baiting all-stars of Breitbart, were on call for Moore twenty-four seven. The self-aware beefsteak and white nationalist Steve Bannon, backing Judge Roy, informed conservative crowds that by supporting Moore over Strange, he wasn’t trying to fight his former boss. Bannon said that “We did not come here to defy Donald Trump. We came here to praise and honor him.” It was a weird kind of family squabble.
What can we say about the Republican Party in the age of Roy Moore? First, it is clear that the establishment Republicans have been diminished yet again. The national GOP just failed to gut Obamacare, for the second time. Whatever they’re doing isn’t working—in part because proposed reforms of Obamacare are not harsh enough for the ultra-right of Congress. Every day sees old-school conservatives weakening, and the alt-right waxing in influence. To Trump’s supporters, it doesn’t matter that the Orangeman is directing a failed Presidency. The takeover of the Grand Old Party by the fringe team will continue.
Second, in classic Trump fashion, the President has managed to yoink defeat from the jaws of victory. Even if Moore keeps praising Trump night and day, Strange’s rejection is still a loss for the Donald, for this President who fetishizes victory above all else. As the Times reported:
Mr. Trump had tweeted his support for Mr. Strange several times in recent days, but tweets appeared to be deleted on Tuesday night. Mr. Trump offered congratulations to Mr. Moore in a tweet. “Luther Strange started way back & ran a good race. Roy, WIN in Dec!” he wrote.
Third, the American Republican Party has become a machine for turning out worst-case scenarios. The strategist Bail Liddell-Hart said that the art of generalship was to place your opponent on the horns of a dilemma. Make it so that no matter what the enemy commander does, he loses. This is the art of manufacturing double binds.
That’s what the Age of Trump brings to the people of America: damned if you do … and damned if you do. Turn and face the Strange, or get Moore of what we’ve already had. In the Heart of Dixie, there’s no lesser evil, just the wickedness we know and the wickedness we don’t. They say familiarity breeds contempt—but when it comes to regressive politics, contempt breeds its own familiars. If Moore quit tomorrow, there would be a dozen more of his make coming off the assembly line. If the last eight years have proven anything, it’s that the salvation of the American government cannot come from a single figure—or from the defeat of a single bogeyman. Rather, the reform of our Republic will come from movements, from group effort. The point is not to defeat this Moore or this Strange, but to make a country where two Trump-flatterers could not get within striking distance of elected office.
We have to bring up the moral batting average of whomever represents Alabama, Republican or Democrat. In politics, as with growing cotton, the only worthy direction is up.