Alabama's Senate run-off decides the future of TrumpismBy Nicolas Briscoe | 09/25/2017 10:40pm
With the constant shifting of loyalties and landscape in the Senate, each race has the potential to mean the difference in the Republican majority and legislative agenda. In the ever-fractured Republican caucus, however, the Republican elected matters every bit as much as whether or not a Republican is elected at all. In the deep red state of Alabama, a contentious race between polarizing Republican candidates is unfolding in the run-up to the September 26th primary runoff election. Roy Moore, a former justice on the Alabama Supreme Court who has been mired in controversy virtually his entire political career, is facing off against former Alabama Attorney General “Big Luther” Strange, appointed by then-Governor Robert Bentley to the Senate following Jeff Sessions’ appointment as Attorney General.
One of these two men, barring the most shocking political upset since, well, November, will be the next Senator from Alabama. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and President Trump have both thrown their considerable weight behind Luther Strange, leading to his being labeled the “establishment” candidate by Moore and co. The endorsements, however, have done little to slow Moore’s momentum, as he leads the latest polls by eight points. While we have all recently been reminded of the fallibility of polling, statewide polls experience significantly greater success rates than nationwide ones. These numbers are significant for two reasons. First, if they hold, a state that went for Donald Trump by a margin of 62.1% to Clinton’s 34.4% would be turning its back on the President, unequivocally rejecting his endorsed candidate. Second, they prove that conservatism and virtue have taken an indefinite back seat to disruption and shortsightedness.
Alabama, widely regarded as one of the most conservative states in the Union, has done its best to shed that label. However, its shunning of real conservatism to vote overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 primaries indicates a different story. Its rejection of Mo Brooks, the ultra-conservative Representative from Alabama’s fifth congressional district with a 94% conservative scorecard rating from the Heritage Foundation, for this very seat tells yet another. Instead of the traditional conservatism for which it is so known, Alabama has opted for a choice between a controversial and ideologically erratic state Supreme Court justice who funneled millions of dollars from his own charity into his pockets and a McConnell-backed establishment shill. A Sweet Home for conservatives, Alabama is not.
The upcoming election, then, will be crucial not only in determining at least a fraction of the legislative landscape going forward, but will also be a referendum on the influence of the seldom-seen but always-feared Trump/McConnell alliance. It will not be a battle between conservatism and pragmatism. It will not be a glorious showdown of opposing ideologies or factions within the party and greater conservative movement. It will be a fight between two Republicans, nearly identical on policy, over who represents more of Donald Trump. More so than any race since Trump’s election, this primary will provide insight into the question that is sure to shape much of the party going into 2018 and beyond: is Trump’s following more loyal to Trump or loyal to the idea of Trump?
Following the President’s unequivocal and repeated endorsements, it would stand to reason that Trump believes that Strange is the best candidate to aid him in passing his agenda. Strange has already thoroughly exploited the endorsement, plastering television screens and radio waves throughout the state with messages reminding voters that Trump trusts Big Luther, and you should too. He has also received the blessing of the NRA, another high profile endorsement that he has exploited to the greatest possible degree. All of these mainstream, swamp-certified stamps of approval make Strange the undisputed establishment darling. In other words, he represents everything Trump was elected to drain. A vote for Strange would seemingly betray everything Trump represents—and as such, would require absolute loyalty to Trump himself to cast. Yes, politics today is stupid.
Donald Trump is more than a man, however. He is more than a president. He is, ostensibly, a movement. Trump, the movement, is essential to understanding the rise of Trump, the man, but the reverse is not true. The movement is about iconoclasm; it is about rejecting everything conventional political wisdom and the establishment hold as sacred. Enter Justice Roy Moore. Moore has spent his political career stepping between controversies like a firewalker running over burning coals. As a result, he has found himself out of favor with the political elite both in Montgomery and Washington. Rather than lament the lack of support from the political heavy-hitters, however, he has worn it as a badge of honor. His advertisements blanket the airwaves in contrast with Strange’s. They emphasize the millions of dollars of being spent against his campaign by the Washington swamp, assuring Alabamians that he will be the greater asset to the President that endorsed his opponent. Moore represents everything the Trump movement was about: bucking the status quo, throwing caution to the wind, and bombastically condemning everything about the current political system. Still, despite the clear and numerous parallels with the Trump movement, Trump the President has abandoned him.
This is the heart of the conflict that acts as a microcosm of the fight for the heart of Trumpism. Is the ultimate loyalty to the man or the movement? The September 26th primary vote will be our first glimpse into that question which is sure to shape much of the Republican field in upcoming elections. The outcome of the election will play a significant role in how political operatives all across the fruited plains frame their campaigns. A Strange win will tilt the political balance towards appeasement of Trump the man, while a Moore win will lead to the emphasis on Trump the movement. Considering the greater implications for the immediate future of the Republican Party, this race is woefully under-covered and underreported. As is more often the case in football than in national politics: the path forward runs through Alabama.
Nicolas Briscoe is a senior majoring in history. His column runs biweekly.