Roy Moore's Alabama victory shows Trumpism might not actually need Trump
A movement gets a mind of its own
The Senate Republican primary runoff in Alabama presented a thoroughly bizarre test of President Trump's political clout given that no one could quite figure out who the "pro-Trump" candidate was. On paper, at least, that designation belonged to Sen. Luther Strange, who received Trump's enthusiastic endorsement. The president went down to Alabama to campaign for Strange, tweeted incessantly about his appreciation for "Big Luther," and even boasted (in a since-deleted tweet) that Strange "has been shooting up in the Alabama polls since my endorsement."
As with so many of Trump's pronouncements, that turned out to be nonsense. Strange lost badly on Tuesday night to former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. A committed birther who rails against the political establishment and vents irrational hatred toward Muslims, Moore was clearly the Trumpier of the two candidates. Moore didn't get Trump's endorsement, but he got the backing of pretty much every other cog in the ramshackle Trump political machine, including recently ousted White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
The primary victory means Roy Moore is almost certainly going to the Senate, which is an objectively terrible outcome. Moore is a performative extremist and bigot who specializes in fomenting controversy to draw attention to himself. He was famously kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a judicial order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments he'd installed at his courthouse. After being re-elected to the court, he was subsequently suspended for illegally ordering state judges to disregard the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage.
One might be tempted to think that Moore's nomination could give Democrats a narrow opening to snatch the seat. After all, recent electoral history is littered with examples of Republicans blowing Senate races by nominating far-right cranks over establishment favorites — Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, and Richard Mourdock in Indiana come to mind. But that seems unlikely in Alabama's case. The state is deeply red and very much in the throes of the Trumpian revolt against anything perceived to be tainted by establishment politics.
As for Trump himself, it's mildly embarrassing that his stumping for Strange didn't carry the incumbent over the finish line. But Moore has already demonstrated that he's in tune with Trump's base and is strongly aligned with the president's agenda. So while Trump's preferred candidate didn't win, Trumpism nonetheless came out ahead.
And that brings us to the key question raised by this bizarre primary: How much does Trumpism actually require Trump? He clearly wasn't able to tilt his core group of voters towards his preferred candidate, but even then, Trump himself was at times circumspect about his endorsement of Strange. Speaking at a campaign rally for the incumbent, Trump allowed that he "might have made a mistake" in endorsing Strange because a loss would be cast as an "embarrassment." At the same time, he promised to "campaign like hell" for Moore if he won. A lot of Alabama voters felt that Trump had erred in backing Strange, and Trump's own messaging basically confirmed that suspicion.
The whole campaign was tinged with this weird question of what, exactly, Trump thought he was doing. Bannon himself even raised the possibility that Trump had been manipulated into backing Strange by some malicious cabal of Republican establishment insiders. Trump is fond of describing his base as a "movement," but in this case the movement acted directly against the wishes of its leader, who may or may not have been acting as a puppet of their enemies. Moore's victory shows us that Trumpism will outlast Trump because it doesn't need him.
One big loser in the Alabama runoff is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who found himself under attack by both candidates as an obstacle to the Trump agenda. The Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-allied super PAC, dumped millions of dollars into the race in support of Luther Strange, and in return Strange promised to "stand up to Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and even our Republican so-called conservatives who stand in the way of the president's agenda." Trump went on Alabama radio and said that Strange's opponents "like to label him as Mitch's best friend but he's not. He hardly even knows him. He'll be fighting Mitch."
Moore, for his part, campaigned on the promise that his election would end McConnell's tenure in the Senate leadership. Everything about Moore's time in public life indicates that, as a senator, he'll be an extremist and an agent of chaos, as well as a national embarrassment. He'll cause McConnell endless grief and be a self-sabotaging hindrance to the Republican agenda. And even though Trump didn't back Moore in the primary, there's nothing Trumpier than that.