As Bad as the GOP Is, There Are Clear Signs It’s Only Going to Get Worse
There have been many postmortems about the Alabama Senate primary runoff last Tuesday, mostly focusing on what its result tells us about Donald Trump and whether it affects Mitch McConnell's future. These are good questions, since the candidate endorsed by Trump and McConnell lost to a deranged theocrat considered to be so extreme that even the National Rifle Association dropped nearly a million dollars' worth of ads to try to defeat him. How can it be that a man who was opposed by just about everyone in the Republican Party won the Republican nomination in the most Republican state in the country?
One way of looking at this result is to simply note that President Trump didn't back the Trumper candidate. In a rare moment of party comity, Trump agreed to help out Mitch McConnell and endorse the establishment's chosen candidate, appointed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, against the wishes of Trump's revolutionary wingman Steve Bannon. Trump was either convinced by his advisers and the party poobahs that wild man Roy Moore couldn't win and he needed to back the winner or that Moore was nuts and Trump needed to pull Strange over the goal line with his massive popularity. Whatever the reasoning, Trump seemed to understand that he'd backed a dud when he mused out loud at his big rally for Strange last Friday night, "Maybe I've made a mistake."
One can easily understand why so many Republicans from all factions of the party wanted to keep Judge Roy Moore out of the United States Senate. He is a notorious political figure from the most extreme corner of the religious right, who was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to enforce the rule of law. First it was for refusing to remove a 10 Commandments monument from the courthouse and then it was for ordering the state to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Moore is a vocal birther who believes that sharia law is being enacted in states around the nation and claimed that Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota should not be allowed to serve in Congress because he is a Muslim. Not only did he refuse to honor the Supreme Court's order legalizing gay marriage, he thinks homosexual conduct should be outlawed. He has said that the 9/11 attacks and the Newtown mass shooting occurred because God was upset that we "legitimize sodomy” and “legitimize abortion.”
In other words, Moore is exactly the kind of fringe candidate that caused the Republicans to fail to win the Senate back in 2010 and 2012 after running kooks like Todd "legitimate rape" Akin and Sharron "Second Amendment remedies" Angle. As a leaked GOP memo about the Alabama race that was circulated among donors pointed out, the party leadership thought it had purged the self-destructive Tea Party impulse by running more mainstream candidates in 2014 and 2016 and winning the majority. Apparently you can't put that genie back in the bottle.
Charlie Sykes, a Trump critic and former right-wing radio host, pointed out in Time magazine this week that the right has been dealing with a strong strain of "crackpottery" for many decades. and it's true. The modern conservative movement was hatched in the McCarthy era, after all, and the Republican party has been dealing with one group of flakes after another ever since, from the gold bugs to the theocrats to the gun nuts and sovereign citizens and more. It's in the GOP DNA. Until recently, party leaders were able to skillfully exploit the prejudices and paranoia of those factions of their base, while keeping a lid on the worst excesses most of the time and maintaining a somewhat respectable reputation.
But talk radio changed everything and, along with Fox News and the newer online media platforms, has radicalized the grassroots. Starting in the '90s, the Republican Party began to lose control of its own supposed constituency. Sykes quotes a fellow apostate in explaining his own epiphany:
Representative Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, tried to diagnose the mindset of the Tea Party voters when he told the Washington Examiner, "I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans." Massie continued, "But after some soul-searching, I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron [Paul] and me in these primaries, they weren't voting for libertarian ideas. They were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class."
Roy Moore, like fellow birther Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is likely to become a close pal of the president if he wins the election. He's Trump's kind of guy, a card-carrying kook. Trump isn't likely to make the same mistake again and will be backing the extremists from now on. He may not know much about politics, but he knows his base.
The political press generally saw this campaign as a test of Steve Bannon's political clout versus the president's, and Bannon's "win" as a high-profile Moore booster has them swooning. According to the New York Times, Bannon and his billionaire benefactors Robert and Rebekah Mercer are planning to run primaries against incumbent Republicans in order to "drain the swamp" and "blow up the establishment." If this feels like dÃ©jÃ vu all over again, that's understandable. Just a few years ago, the billionaire Koch brothers decided to do the same thing and financed the Tea Party movement. The philosophical goals are different -- the Kochs are pro-business libertarians and the Mercers are eccentrics who want to usurp the establishment -- but the process is the same.
The result for the Republican Party is likely to be what Sykes describes as "an endless feedback loop as it tries with diminishing success to placate its most bombastic voices. The most obvious consequence is their inability (so far) to legislate." Longer term, the party seems to be headed for the long-awaited crack-up.
The GOP stuck together to vote for Donald Trump despite the misgivings of many more mainstream Republican voters. They are party loyalists and simply couldn't imagine themselves voting for a Democrat, especially not the hated Hillary Clinton. Those voters aren't the ones who will get fed up and leave. It's far more likely that if the party finally splits it will be the people who want to vote for "the craziest son of a bitch in the race" who will go their own way. That's not how Steve Bannon originally envisioned blowing up the establishment, but it could achieve his goal anyway.