When America’s educated elite imagines what the Republican party will look like after Donald Trump, whether he’s defeated next year or leaves office in 2025, they think in terms of the past. The Grand Old Party will once more be the party of Mitt Romney and the Bush dynasty, those formerly reviled figures now celebrated by the center-left as decent Republicans in contrast to Trump. They are the obvious and inevitable alternative to him. Aren’t they?
If you don’t have Mr Hyde, then you must have Dr Jekyll. If you topple Saddam Hussein, then you obviously get a tolerant, pluralistic liberal democracy. America’s educated elite is not really in truth well-educated at all, and it has the moral sophistication of a Star Wars movie. The world exists in monochrome, and the only alternative to bad is good — a universe in which the alternative to bad is worse is simply unthinkable. But it’s time to start thinking about Sen. Roy Moore.
Almost 20 years ago Moore, then an Alabama state circuit court judge, made national headlines when he refused to obey a federal district court order to remove a monument to the 10 Commandments that he’d placed outside his courthouse. The Alabama judiciary expelled him from the bench for his contumacy — ‘impeachment’ isn’t exactly the correct term for the procedure that removed him, but basically, he was impeached. That didn’t stop him: instead Moore challenged the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in the 2012 Republican primary (judges are elected there) and won. He beat the Democratic candidate that November and became Alabama’s highest judicial official. Once again he made it known what he thought about a federal bench that sided with progressive politics over Christian morality — this time chiefly over the issue of same-sex marriage — and once again Judge Roy Moore was subject to disciplinary proceedings, this time resulting in his suspension from office. He resigned and set his eyes on a different office instead, a US Senate seat.
Today Moore is best known and most despised for what came to light in his 2017 run for the Senate seat left vacant by Jeff Sessions’s appointment as attorney general. An accuser came forward to tell the Washington Post that Moore had sexually assaulted her in the late 1970s when she was a minor; other accusers and further reports of Moore taking a sexual interest in underage teens at that time soon surfaced. Moore had already won the GOP nomination for the Senate — over the opposition of President Trump, who favored the more establishment Republican who had been appointed to hold Sessions’s seat until the election — when these stories broke. In these circumstances, Democrat Doug Jones narrowly defeated Moore in the special election that November, and Sen. Jones is the incumbent the Republican nominee will face next year.
That nominee will most likely be Moore, who this week declared his candidacy. Feeling among the Alabama Republicans I’ve talked to is that there is no anti-Moore candidate within the party who can definitely beat him. This itself is telling for reasons that have nothing to do with Moore: why is there a dearth of truly popular party leadership in such a deep red Republican state? The GOP may be more popular than the Democratic party — it may be popular, that is, in relative terms, compared to the opposition — but in absolute terms, it has no claim on its voters’ loyalty. Donald Trump crushed his Republican opponents nationwide in 2016 for exactly the same reason: they were more Republican and conventionally conservative than he was, but it turned out that even Republican primary voters were not enthusiastic about conventionally conservative Republicans. The party and its ideology gets by on voters’ opposition to the Democrats, but as a positive thing in itself, the Republican brand and its conservative marketing team find few buyers. In the deepest red of Republican states, an accused pedophile is more popular than the GOP’s leadership. That seems significant.
If Moore wins the Republican nomination, what are the odds he makes up that little more than 20,000-vote margin by which he lost in a special election two years ago? Democrats were fully mobilized, and Republicans demoralized, in the 2017 election that resulted in Sen. Doug Jones. In 2020, both parties will maximize their turnout, and there are far more Republicans to turn out in Alabama than Democrats. The Republican brand may be lousy, but in red states the one thing lousier is the Democratic brand. So Roy Moore, 2020 Republican nominee, would be the odds-on favorite to be sworn in as Alabama’s next senator come January 2021.
Moore might not get the GOP nod: maybe someone in the party is popular enough to stop him. But Moore’s career up to this point is indication enough of some truths about American politics that the Acela corridor class would rather not face. Voters are far more contemptuous of the political elite and its rules of good behavior than center-left and NeverTrump types yet realize, even after the wake-up call of Trump’s victory in 2016. Far from being a fluke or a product of a Russki conspiracy, Trump’s success was symptomatic of a profound divorce of power from popular legitimacy. That divorce will not suddenly become a reconciliation or remarriage if Trump loses next year. Republican states — ‘flyover’ country that they are in the eyes of the educated urbanites — may show the gulf between power and legitimacy more clearly than blue states, but this is a problem for the nation as a whole, and Democrats have felt it, too. Obama was elected on promises of hope and change; Hillary Clinton failed to turn out enough of the Democratic base in enough of the country because she did not inspire them to think she would deliver on those promises. Indeed, Obama himself lost ground in 2012 and might have been in real trouble had he not been against Mitt Romney, a guy who could not conceal his disdain for ‘the 47 percent’ even when his political life depended on it.
The Republican party will not revert to the Democrats’ or NeverTrumpers’ idea of normal whenever Trump leaves office for the simple reason that the Republican Party was already increasingly abnormal by their standards before Trump came on the scene. It was already the party of Roy Moore, though what that meant before 2017 was, to be sure, a party whose voters preferred a public profession of faith in the 10 Commandments and Christian morality to faithful obedience to the rules of politics and law as upper-class Republicans and Democrats alike understood them. When you’re beaten in the US Supreme Court, the game is over. But Roy Moore’s voters, not just Moore himself, don’t accept that. In 2017, most Republican voters stuck with Moore despite the allegations against him, just as most Christian conservatives stand by Trump despite his far from exemplary life. Democrats and NeverTrumpers mock this, when they ought to think about its serious implications: millions of Christian voters believe the hatred and contempt and worse that they face from the elite is more serious, and worse in terms of their faith and values, than the character flaws of Donald Trump or even whatever they believe of the allegations against Roy Moore. Non-controversial Republicans have almost as little to offer these voters as Democrats do, as these values voters themselves see it. A David French might defend them in court, but they want leaders whose disposition is to defy rather than to defend — because defense, as they understand the culture war and the way power works in this country, only means slower defeat.
America is not the country the educated elite thinks it is. And rather than dealing with the country as it actually is, the elite chooses to think only in terms of how obviously correct its own values are and how they must therefore be accepted. After all, democracy is good, right-thinking is good, and therefore the public is right-thinking — to suggest otherwise would shatter the syllogism on which a fragile ruling class’s claim to legitimacy depends. But that legitimacy has already been exposed as a fantasy. President Trump was the first proof. Sen. Moore might be the next. What comes after that will be more shocking still until the lesson is learned: America needs a new elite.