The American public sphere has spent the last couple of weeks transfixed by the special election in Alabama being held to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. In the current climate, pretty much every election that happens, from local dog catcher on up the line, is characterized in the media as a referendum on Trumpism.
Still, this seemed like the real thing: a Senate election in one of the five or six reddest states in the union. And when it was done, one could say (with apologies to Philip Larkin), what it meant stood ready to be loosed, with all the power that being changed can give. Yes, change had come to Alabama. What exactly that change was, and how long it would endure, were yet to be determined.
Let it be said, to begin with, that Trumpism is rather an infelicitous term. The defining feature of Mr. Trump’s politics is the lack of unique and enduring content. Aside from sybaritic vanity and unapologetic racism, there simply is no there there, and these are hardly what one would call political novelties.
What passes for a political movement is Trump’s rather alarming capacity to convince people (and here we mean white people) that the other side is worse. The most common refrain in contemporary politics is a sort of conservative apologetics in which concession of Mr. Trump’s failings is then factored away by increasingly agitated assertions of the criminality of Hillary Clinton.
About the criminality of Mrs. Clinton two things are worth noting. First, the apoplexy on the political right is sometimes based on some nebulous bad acts that she was supposed to have undertaken during her husband’s presidency (a short search of Clinton-hating sites on the web will find her accused of every sin in the calendar). More often it relates to her supposedly inappropriate handling of her emails, or her facilitating the sale of uranium to Russia, or her failings with regard to Benghazi.
The first two items on that this have consistently rendered so little substance that even a partisan zealot the likes of Jeff Sessions has refused to dignify them with a serious investigation. As to Benghazi, that was the subject of an investigation by a congressional committee lasting 13 months and costing thirteen million dollars and run by a guy who stated at the outset that his goal was to damage Mrs. Clinton’s political prospects. The actionable evidence included in the committee’s final report can be succinctly summed up as: squat.
Second, the assertions about Mrs. Clinton’s criminality get rather more traction than they might because she is viewed in similar terms by sections of the left, some of which overlap with the “progressive” elements of the Democratic Party’s voter base. The reasons for anti-Clinton feelings in this quarter include her avid prosecution of Mr. Obama’s drone war while serving as secretary of state, and her participation in the lemming-like rush of the U.S. Congress into war in Iraq while she was a senator.
[In fact, I am well aware that lemmings do not behave in the collectively suicidal way that has traditionally been attributed to them, thus demonstrating that even subnivean arctic mammals show a greater degree of sense than members of the supposedly greatest deliberative body in the world.]
The special election Alabama took place against this backdrop. Events there had already become drawn into the strange mummers dance of the Trump Administration. The seat in question had been vacated by Jeff Sessions, selected by Mr. Trump for the post of U.S. attorney general even though (or perhaps because) he had earlier been rejected for a federal judgeship on grounds of holding views on race more appropriate to a previous century.
The Republican primary, which was viewed a the real election in deep red Alabama, pitted Luther Strange, Mr. Trump’s candidate of choice, against Roy Moore. Mr. Strange, who had been serving as Sessions’ appointed replacement until the election, could, under normal circumstances, have comfortably asserted his claim to the title of biggest conservative loon in the neighborhood. But these were hardly normal circumstances and his opponent was the twice dismissed former state supreme court justice Roy Moore, a man who had made clear (among other things) that he viewed the authority of the Bible as superior that of such trivialities as the U.S. Constitution.
The voters of Alabama have historically shown a willingness to vote for the most extreme bigot on offer (viz. the long political career of George Wallace) chose Moore, much to the chagrin of Mr. Trump who hastened to back the dump truck up to bury his former protégé. From there it was supposed to be smooth sailing for Mr. Moore, since the general election in Alabama was viewed as more a confirmation of the duly anointed Republican candidate than any sort of actual political competition.
The coronation procession was disrupted in its latter stages by the emergence of accusations that Mr. Moore had, as a man in his 30s pursued relationships with teenage girls with a predatory vigour. These accusations that he had engaged in sexual conduct (by definition inappropriate) with a girl of 14. While Republican politician hemmed and hawed about Moore’s obligations to drop out of the race (“if the accusations were true”), the right-wing media machine went into high gear.
As usual, it was asserted that the women making claims (pretty much all of whom had talked about it to friends and coworkers at the time) were seeking fame and profit. Because, of course, who wouldn’t want the sort of cachet that comes with having a bunch of Fox News mugwumps sit around calling one a whore and a gold digger? They were probably all being paid by George Soros and the DNC anyway.
Moore’s opponent was a moderate (although overtly pro-choice) former prosecutor Doug Jones. Rather improbably, he had been characterized as weak on crime, a particularly spurious charge to be laid at the door of someone who had successfully prosecuted the former Klansmen responsible for the lethal bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Of course, since this was a crime perpetrated against African-Americans, it was viewed as rather less than fully significant by the white voters of Alabama.
After a few days of trying to nudge Moore out of the race, the Republicans swung back behind him. In the last days of the campaign, Mr. Trump threw his weight behind Moore. There is a sense in which he had no choice, since in defending Mr. Moore against charges of sexual misconduct (“it was a long time ago…and he denies it anyway”) he was really only defending himself.
The sitting chairman of the Alabama Republican Party went before the media to assert that although the believed the assertion of Moore’s accusers, it was more important to get someone who would vote the right way on tax reform into the vacant Senate seat. That this amounted to the assertion that one ought sooner vote for a child molester than for a Democrat hardly troubled the mainstream media and seems to have worried evangelical voters not at all.
Let us pause here for a moment to recall all of the pious babble emitted by talking heads in the wake of America’s lurch toward the political right in the last few years to the effect that people on the left needed to take seriously the views and feelings of people of faith. The actual substance of the values of evangelicals was made patently obvious by the fact that they did not hesitate come out for Moore in droves. There were even claims made by various evangelical holy men that grooming of teenagers by middle-aged men had sound biblical foundations. In any case, it may be one of the consequences of this election that we can now put paid to the idea that evangelical values are anything but simple hypocrisy.
And thus we found ourselves on Tuesday night waiting to see whether the better angels of American political nature would win out. When they did, due mostly to a spectacularly large turnout of African-Americans in abeyance of the (now typical) Republican efforts at voter suppression, questions of blame and significance came to the fore. Republicans sought to blame Steve Bannon and his stated goal of making war upon Mitch McConnell’s version of the GOP.
In saddling the party with Moore (who only weeks before had seemed like a perfectly acceptable expression of New South conservatism) Bannon had wrecked Republican turnout and rendered a disturbing setback to Mr. Trump’s agenda (with which he has an admittedly fraught relationship).
Democrats, on the other hand, viewed this as the long sought for turning of the tide. The arrival that the tipping point, at which mainstream American political sentiment finally reasserted itself against the excesses of Trumpism led to an evening of self-congratulatory gloaty liberal cackling on MSNBC.
But, pace liberal triumphalism, it is hardly clear that this constitutes some sort of sea change, even when combined with the (from the Republican standpoint) adverse outcomes in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere in elections last month. Virginia is now, in fact, a blue state, and New Jersey (which always was one) simply reverted to type after Chris Christie managed to become the least popular elected official in the United States (possibly in all of its history).
What in fact happened was that the Democrats managed a wafer-thin majority against a candidate who was plausibly accused acts so vile that people in his own voter base would generally have called for the accused to be summarily lynched if his complexion was but a little darker. This hardly constituted the tipping point of rage for which the Democrats and other mainstream politicos have been hoping.
But, it has, perhaps, compromised the ability of evangelicals to piously foist their political views on the rest of us. However, even that will probably fade from the media landscape in a month or two, since it so nicely dovetails with the conservative project of piling income up at the top .1% of the distribution. Still, it was a moment to celebrate for those of us wishing to preserve a minimum of political decency, if such still may be found in this country.
Photograph courtesy of Open minded in Alabama. Published under a Creative Commons license.