The First Primary in the Party of Trump

Column: Roy Moore, Mitch McConnell, and America's class divide

Moore Palin Trump Strange
All images via Getty
September 29, 2017

Roy Moore's insurgent victory over incumbent Senator Luther Strange in Monday's Alabama Republican primary has been hyped. Not least by Moore's nation-state populist supporters online who see the defeat of the preferred candidate of Mitch McConnell and President Trump as a harbinger. Yet there are several reasons a Moore victory should not be a surprise.

Here are a few of them. Strange had been appointed by the scandal-plagued former governor Robert Bentley. Outsider candidates have a history of upsets in little-watched special or primary elections in small conservative states (e.g., Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Christine "Not a witch" O'Donnell). Moore was running against the establishment amidst widespread revulsion with Washington, just as Rep. Dave Brat did three years ago. And Moore is a recognized name with a committed base of supporters in the reddest of red states.

Moore also benefited from running not against the president but against the Republican congressional leadership. It was impossible for Strange to portray Moore as Trump's enemy, even though Trump had sided with the incumbent over the gadfly. There was no substantive policy disagreement between the two men, no divisive issue that played the same role as the Iraq war did in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary between Senator Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont.

The argument between Moore and Strange was over who would best serve Trump. The fact that both contestants highlighted their allegiance to the president underscores the true significance of the result: This was not a primary over who would represent Alabama in the United States Senate as a member of the Grand Old Party. It was the first primary in the Party of Trump.

The election of Moore was not an aberration but part of a long-running trend. Moore's voters are Trump's voters: rural, working class religious conservatives furious at Beltway insiders more interested in lowering the corporate tax rate and upholding standard legislative procedure than in building a wall along the southern border and protecting religious liberty. Moore's method is also similar to Trump's. Both men are inflammatory, both are unpredictable, both are conspiracy-prone, and both are the self-appointed defenders of powerful cultural symbols such as the Ten Commandments and the National Anthem against subversion from the left. Their constituencies not only do not watch CNN, they loathe the network and its peers for trying to impose on audiences a set of non-traditional and politically correct values. As Trump said of National Enquirer readers in 1999: "Those are the real people."

Moore, who was removed from his position on the state supreme court for the first time in 2003, is a sort of proto-Trump. The controversies in which he was embroiled two decades ago were a leading indicator of the changing religious and social composition of the Republican Party. Little surprise, then, that another major figure in the working class realignment of American politics endorsed Moore last August. In 2008, when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, Christopher Caldwell wrote that the pick "was the electoral equivalent of an atomic bomb." That may have been an understatement. "What the Palin pick did," he went on, "was to unleash a latent class tension in American life and turn the two parties, previously somewhat socially mixed, into vehicles of social classes."

The sorting of the parties by education, income level, professional credentials, and confidence in technocratic expertise has continued ever since. Though Beltway conservatives and Republicans, myself included, moved away from Palin as she resigned from office and became an outspoken celebrity figure, she maintained her extraordinary political intuition. This preternatural sense of where grassroots conservative opinion was headed guided her interventions in the debate over Obamacare, in the revolt of the Tea Party, and in the rise of Donald Trump. All of these bets paid off, as did the one she placed on Moore.

Palin and her comrades in the Party of Trump are determined to defeat the near enemy, the Republican Party, before they confront the far enemies in the Democratic Party and the Party of Sanders. "We don't need the lobbyist mentality in the Senate, because that lobbyist mentality has too often proven to the people that special interests that will enrich that lobbyist will come before the people's interest," Palin wrote on her Facebook page congratulating Moore. "We can't afford any more of that." Yet the elected officials who belong to the traditional Grand Old Party on Capitol Hill, in governor's mansions, and in statehouses seem determined to ignore the coming blitz. They stick doggedly to the program that has made them unpopular with the country and many of their own voters, and has opened the door to the populist takeover.

Roy Moore may soon be a beachhead in the United States Senate for an anti-elitist politics that did not start with Donald Trump. And won't end with him either.