For forty years, the Republican party has lurched steadily to the right and carried all of American politics with it.
In attempts to attract voters to a deeply unpopular economic agenda, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan began the transformation of the Republican party into a vehicle of white resentment. This gave us Reagan’s “welfare queens” speech, the infamous “Willie Horton” ad fearmongering about black crime, the vapid gnosis of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, and now President Donald Trump, who ran the most explicitly racist campaign since George Wallace and won.
But electrifying a base of xenophobia, religious chauvinism and racial anxiety have consequences that have often led to problems for the Republican brass. This happened with the inexplicable candidacies of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, the rise of Tea Party movement, and now, the victory of hard-right Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
On Tuesday, Moore handily won a runoff primary against Trump-endorsed incumbent Luther Strange. The Republican brass was clearly invested in a victory for Strange, who was seen as a sensible supporter of Mitch McConnell’s agenda. A Senator Roy Moore would likely buck the party brass, joining the GOP’s puckish right wing alongside figures like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
Strange and McConnell did everything they could to beat back Moore and Alabama’s Republican base, but it didn’t work. Trump’s endorsement didn’t even affect the race. Voters chose the candidate who felt Trumpier, not the one Donald personally campaigned for. The populist forces of the party have moved further to the right than the GOP’s officials.
It is only in an environment of political polarization and extreme reaction that a snake-charmer like Roy Moore could even be a relevant political figure. Even in deep red Alabama, he’s never been broadly popular: Moore lost two runs for governor badly and narrowly won in his second attempt to become the state’s Chief Justice. He’s only found his niche in the age of Trump.
Moore is famous for being removed twice from the office of Chief Justice of Alabama; the first time for constructing a massive sculpture featuring the Ten Commandments and putting it on display in the state courthouse, and the second for suggesting lower court judges in Alabama should refuse to issue gay marriage licenses.
Before Trump fully racialized the American culture wars, Moore was a figure in the country’s evangelical right, alongside Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Rick Santorum. Moore, like his ilk, spoke to white resentment by framing American cultural conflicts in terms of Christianity and “traditional values” which were “under attack.” He believes, erroneously, that parts of the American upper Midwest are under Sharia law, and once wrote a column saying Keith Ellison should not serve as a U.S. Congressman because of his Muslim faith.
There was always racism underlying white evangelical reaction, but it was palpable at a rally Moore held Monday night in Fairhope, Alabama with a cavalcade of grotesque white nationalists: Steven Bannon, the greased, rotund Rasputin who once held the ear of the President; Nigel Farage, England’s turtle-like response to Trump; and Phil Robertson from TV’s “Duck Dynasty,” a man who once defended segregation to a reporter from a national magazine.
In maybe the most telling quote of the night, Bannon told the audience that the political class thinks they are “morons” and “rubes.” Trump’s supporters love this narrative, but it can’t be said enough that it isn’t true. Trump, Moore, Bannon and co. have never been populists. They lost the popular vote in the election, and all of the President’s signature policies consistently poll underwater. The base of supporters for people like Roy Moore aren’t “the forgotten men of America,” they’re well-fed but angry middle-class whites. That’s why he held his rally in wealthy Fairhope, a bourgie suburb of Mobile, and not out in the sticks.
The modern reactionary Republican party, the party of Trump and Roy Moore, is a minoritarian insurgency, and it couldn’t exist without flailing and irrelevant opposition. Democrat Doug Jones will face Moore in the general election in December. Jones, who prosecuted the white supremacists who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, is a good man and a capable candidate. Jones has a slight chance of beating Moore, but even if he did, he couldn’t stop the forces that lead to him.
Millions of black voters live in Alabama, particularly in the state’s rural Black Belt and in the city of Birmingham. They face voter suppression and gerrymandering and are frequently ignored by the national Democratic Party. If this group – and voters of color across the country – became politically mobilized into a radical, working-class movement centered on organized labor, the reactionary Republican Party and people like Roy Moore would be quickly beaten back into blessed irrelevance. Until then, we will face rule by a mobilized and angry white minority led by grotesques like Judge Roy.