“Luther Strange could only be more establishment if he was a lobbyist,” we joked, until we found out Luther Strange was actually a lobbyist. Strange, Jeff Sessions’ interim replacement as Alabama senator, is about as good-ol’-boy as it gets, a connected lawyer who headed up the government affairs office at gas utility Sonat Offshore. Even his name conjures up a certain magnolias-and-tombstones grotesque of the old hierarchical South.
Yet Donald Trump, noted drainer of swamps, heartily endorsed Strange against his Republican primary challenger Roy Moore.
It was a weird move because Moore is everything Trump was during the campaign and then some: a populist folk hero, an ardent immigration hawk, a defiant conservative who refused to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom and declined to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized gay marriage. Yet The Donald settled on Strange. Why?
At a recent rally, Trump told the story of calling up Strange to sell him on the since-deceased Republican Obamacare alternative, only to be told: “Sir, don’t even waste your time talking anymore. You have a lot of business to do. You have my vote.” “I went home and told my wife, that’s the coolest thing that’s happened to me in six months,” Trump said.
This was all about loyalty. The president, distrustful of Republican fractures and stinging from two defeats on health care, wanted a more predictable Congress, and good foot soldier Luther Strange was supposed to be his first step in that direction.
It didn’t work out. Moore trounced Strange on Tuesday night by a huge margin, and while Democrats were hoping to run against Moore, the deep-red Yellowhammer State is unlikely to vote their way come the general election. That means next year Moore will probably be headed for the U.S. Senate, another right-wing insurgent to defy his party, his president and the GOP money machine. We’ve seen this movie before, except this time around the establishment was Donald Trump. A transactional pragmatist, he was overcome by his voters who were always a bit more ideological than he was.
In fairness, Trump was hardly the problem for Strange. Alabamans were discontented with both choices, but at least Moore came off as an authentic man of principle; no one seemed to know why Strange was running, including Strange himself. Bathed in the spotlights, he appeared as the filler that he was. Conservative voters have spent seven years demonstrating their preference for honest ideologues over manicured chair-warmers, yet Republican leadership — now including the loyalty-obsessed Trump — still insists on backing the latter. Roy Moore, who waved a handgun around at a campaign rally and was backed fervently by Breitbart, is the latest beneficiary of their cluelessness.
I don’t have much of a problem with Moore’s Ten Commandments protest, a pebble thrown at an unstoppable secular behemoth. But what about the fact that Moore questioned whether Barack Obama is an American citizen? And asserted that Sharia Law has infiltrated Illinois and Indiana (Missouri, thank God, was spared). Those views might sound incendiary, yet they’re also exactly where the fraught American right is at the moment. It isn’t a tea party anymore — Mo Brooks, the strongest fiscal conservative in the Alabama race, was eliminated in the first round last month — it’s a culture war, and it just backfired on Donald Trump.