On the night before former Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore won his runoff contest against Republican Sen. Luther Strange, Moore held a campaign rally at which the biggest applause lines were those attacking Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader. One of those lines came from Stephen Bannon, President Trump's former White House chief strategist, who described McConnell and the "permanent political class" of which he is a part as "the most corrupt, incompetent group of individuals in this country.”
This is the vicious civil war the Republican Party is locked in. On one side are those like McConnell, who uphold Zombie Reaganism, applying to every area of domestic and foreign policy precisely the same ideological formula that has guided the party for the past 37 years. On the other side are the revolutionaries (Bannon has described himself as a "Leninist," and the term is apt) who have turned Reaganite skepticism of big government against the institutional Republican Party itself.
Which of these factions ultimately prevails will have momentous consequences not just for the GOP but also for the future of the United States. The 2016 presidential election proved that the rabid faction of the Republican Party can prevail in a national election even when it falls significantly short in the popular vote. It could happen again, and this time with a tribune who actually grasps the nature of governing, believes in the anti-liberal (nationalist) alternative to Reaganism, and acts competently to institute it.
President Trump is not that person. If he understood the first thing about policy and governing, if he believed in anything at all beyond satisfying his boundless craving for attention, he might have become something more ominous than a merely disjunctive force in American political life, incoherently straddling the line separating the warring factions in his party. But that's not him.
Nothing is more indicative of this incoherence than Trump's behavior over the past two weeks. On the one hand, he sided with McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment in falling in behind Strange's Senate campaign when Moore was the clear preference of the rabid faction of the party that most passionately backed Trump's own insurgent campaign for the White House. On the other hand, it was at Strange's campaign rally last Friday night that the president lashed out at NFL players like Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against African Americans. It was precisely the kind of culturally populist demagoguery that propelled Trump to victory last year, only now he was deploying it in a futile effort to advance the preferences of the Republican establishment.
The GOP has been trying variations on this tactic for decades now — using populist rhetoric (on the stump no less than on right-wing cable news and talk radio) to win elections, after which the party enacts an agenda favored by its establishment and wealthiest donors. Beginning in 2008, this approach began to misfire, not because the rhetoric became ineffective but because the rhetoric became the reality. Once Republican voters got a taste of a purer cultural populism in the form of Sarah Palin's salty and insulting speeches on the stump, they would settle for nothing less.
That's how we ended up with six months of chaos during the 2012 Republican primary contest, with Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum each taking a turn at the top, as the base of the party cast about for someone, anyone who might tear down the establishment once and for all. In the end, the voters couldn't reach a consensus, so the powers that be got their way, with Mitt Romney, Mr. Establishment, getting the nod — and then going down to defeat.
Enter Donald Trump, the purest distillation of and perfect conduit for the rage of the Republican base. From birther conspiracies about the sitting African American president on through Mexican "rapists," the promised deportation of millions, and insults thrown at his rivals for the Republican nomination, Trump was a crudely masculine and seemingly fearless successor to Palin, flattering the prejudices of white voters and directing furious volleys of rhetorical live ammunition at the establishments of both parties.
There was just one problem: Trump had no idea what he was doing. It was all instinct. A reality show — one that gave him incredible ratings and catapulted him to the most powerful office on the planet, but with no conception what to do or how to get it done if he managed, somehow, to win. That's why the Trump administration has been a dizzying swirl of scandal, incompetence, and incoherence, with his base getting a cloddishly ineffectual travel ban and little else besides trash talk and nasty tweets.
Which brings us back to Roy Moore and what his victory over Luther Strange portends.
The most consequential thing about Trump's implausible victory in 2016 may end up being its effect on the most rabid faction of the Republican base, which now knows it can win and has finally tasted political power. That might sound strange for liberals who spent much of the 2000s worrying about the power of extremists in the Bush administration. In retrospect, what did Bush do to advance the agenda of those most passionately committed to the culture war against modern liberalism? Besides some speeches and the appointment of conservative judges, not much.
Moore is the choice of those who are fed up with empty promises, who take the GOP's decades-long attack on the federal government with utmost seriousness and yearn for it to be more than empty talk, who long to confront and vanquish liberalism from American public life, once and for all. At least they know that Moore means what he says and is willing to accept the consequences of standing his ground — as he did in 2003, when he disobeyed orders from a federal court to remove a 5,000-pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments that he'd placed inside Alabama's state Supreme Court building, and again in 2016, when he refused to abide by a federal ruling striking down state laws banning same-sex marriage. On both occasions, he lost his position as chief justice, which is a greater display of political valor than Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment has ever shown.
Trump is a huge problem, but he's not biggest problem, or the root of the problem — which is the rabid faction of the Republican electorate. It wants nothing short of a revolution in the GOP and a political sea change in the country. Thanks to Trump, it believes both are in reach.
And it may well be right.