Roy Moore’s Loss Signals a GOP Tearing Itself Apart Ahead of 2018

The upset win by Doug Jones in Alabama shows the Republicans have nothing to offer and everything to lose.

Theo Anderson

Accused child-molester Roy Moore lost his Senate election, and will now ride off into the sunset. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Over the past 40 years, the Repub­li­can Par­ty has large­ly become a coali­tion of two groups: white peo­ple for whom the econ­o­my and the U.S. polit­i­cal sys­tem work extreme­ly well, and white peo­ple for whom the econ­o­my and our pol­i­tics hard­ly work at all. Demo­c­rat Doug Jones’ upset win in Alaba­ma yes­ter­day points to the slow-motion crack­up of that coalition.

One consequence of the election results in Alabama is that the hostility between the establishment and the populist elements of the GOP coalition will rise to a new, potentially unsustainable level.

The bar­gain since Ronald Reagan’s pres­i­den­cy has been that the wealthy get their tax breaks, their shills in Con­gress and the hyper-con­cen­tra­tion of wealth and pow­er. The less for­tu­nate group gets can­di­dates who align with their right-wing views on guns, abor­tion, same-sex mar­riage and oth­er social issues. In Alaba­ma, that can­di­date took the hideous form of Roy Moore — an accused child moles­ter, endorsed by the Klan, who believes that homo­sex­u­al­i­ty should be crim­i­nal­ized, has said that Amer­i­ca was last great” when we had slav­ery (because at least fam­i­lies were togeth­er) and ques­tions whether Mus­lims can hold pub­lic office.

The result of this bar­gain is a par­ty whose social and eco­nom­ic poli­cies are almost com­i­cal­ly unpop­u­lar — its cur­rent tax bill, for exam­ple, has an approval rat­ing in the 20s. Yet the GOP man­ages to con­trol every branch of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment through a blend of ger­ry­man­der­ing, vot­er sup­pres­sion, cam­paign cash and the rur­al bias­es built into our polit­i­cal sys­tem. Don­ald Trump is the per­fect sym­bol of the par­ty — a bil­lion­aire pos­ing as the cham­pi­on of the for­got­ten peo­ple who, hav­ing lost the pop­u­lar elec­tion by 3 mil­lion votes, has an approval rat­ing sit­ting in the 30s.

One con­se­quence of the elec­tion results in Alaba­ma is that the hos­til­i­ty between the estab­lish­ment and the pop­ulist ele­ments of the GOP coali­tion will rise to a new, poten­tial­ly unsus­tain­able lev­el. Jones won in a state that went for Trump by 28 points in 2016 and, until last night’s vic­to­ry by Jones, hadn’t elect­ed a Demo­c­rat to the Sen­ate in 25 years.

On Mon­day, Stephen Ban­non — for­mer Trump chief strate­gist and the media mogul behind the right-wing web­site Bre­it­bart — called out sev­er­al Repub­li­cans for declin­ing to sup­port Moore. Sen. Richard Shel­by (R‑Ala.) and Sen. Bob Cork­er (R‑Tenn.), who each pub­licly crit­i­cized Moore over his sex­u­al abuse alle­ga­tions, should know bet­ter,” Ban­non said, not­ing that there is a spe­cial place in hell” reserved for them. On Tues­day night, with elec­tion returns com­ing in and the out­come of the race still unclear, Bre­it­bart post­ed sev­er­al con­spir­a­cy-tinged sto­ries about the GOP establishment’s plans to silence Moore, should he win.

The great dan­ger for the Repub­li­can estab­lish­ment is that Ban­non has gone rogue — and could very well imper­il the party’s chances of retain­ing pow­er in 2018. At the cam­paign ral­ly where he called out Shel­by and Cork­er, Ban­non right­ly not­ed that the estab­lish­ment GOP was only using Trump to push through tax cuts for its donors. The sting of Moore’s loss may well pro­voke much more bru­tal hon­esty from Ban­non about the Repub­li­can establishment.

Bannon’s own headache is that his first great exper­i­ment in foment­ing the cul­ture wars, by recruit­ing and sup­port­ing far-right big­ots like Moore, has just flamed out spec­tac­u­lar­ly. It’s hard to main­tain cred­i­bil­i­ty as a pop­ulist hero when you can’t gin up pop­u­lar sup­port. If he bar­rels ahead with his grand plan to pri­ma­ry Repub­li­can can­di­dates in next year’s midterm elec­tions, we could see a repeat of Moore and Bannon’s fail­ure on a nation­al scale.

The headache for the GOP, broad­ly, is the party’s moral hol­low­ness and ide­o­log­i­cal bank­rupt­cy. Repub­li­cans essen­tial­ly have noth­ing to offer any­one who isn’t wealthy or a far-right ide­o­logue. With the knives out and Ban­non and the estab­lish­ment at war over the future of the par­ty, that’s becom­ing hard­er to disguise.

In Alaba­ma, for exam­ple, one-par­ty Repub­li­can rule is a long, sor­ry tale of eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion. The state’s per house­hold income is about $11,000 below the nation­al medi­an, and 17 per­cent of res­i­dents live in pover­ty. That’s the fifth-high­est rate in the nation, accord­ing to a recent report in the New York Times.

Maybe the great­est les­son of the Alaba­ma elec­tion is that Democ­rats can com­pete and win when their vot­ing base has good rea­sons to turn out. Jones won large­ly because of an unex­pect­ed boost from the state’s black res­i­dents, and black women in par­tic­u­lar — tra­di­tion­al­ly the core con­stituen­cy of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Despite the state’s harsh vot­er ID laws, 96 per­cent of African-Amer­i­can vot­ers went for Jones, and they account­ed for 30 per­cent of the elec­torate — far exceed­ing expectations. 

Trump and the GOP’s pop­ulist act, mean­while, is wear­ing thin, even among the evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians who form the Repub­li­can Party’s base. A Pew Research Cen­ter poll released ear­li­er this month showed that Trump’s approval among white evan­gel­i­cals has fall­en 17 points (from 78 to 61 per­cent) since February.

In a remark­able essay pub­lished in the New York Times this week, a 21-year-old stu­dent at Alabama’s Auburn Uni­ver­si­ty wrote about the dis­ap­point­ment she felt that so many fel­low Chris­tians had set aside their val­ues and cho­sen to sup­port Moore. We are com­ing of age in strange times, and more and more of us are get­ting polit­i­cal­ly involved,” she wrote. Vot­ing should be just the begin­ning for us young mil­len­ni­als. This is a time for pas­sion­ate out­cry across the polit­i­cal spectrum.”

Indeed it is. The great ques­tion is whether the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty will be a voice for that pas­sion or fol­low the GOP’s path of cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion pos­ing as pop­ulism. In its own way, the par­ty is divid­ed by the same forces that are tear­ing the GOP apart. Cor­po­rate-friend­ly Democ­rats cling to pow­er, while pro­gres­sives and insur­gent can­di­dates bat­tle the estab­lish­ment for the soul of the party.

Jones’ win serves as a reminder that the path to vic­to­ry for Democ­rats lies in putting for­ward an agen­da that ben­e­fits the peo­ple who are ill served by our cur­rent polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tems — the major­i­ty — rather than sim­ply decry­ing the GOP’s bar­barism. If the par­ty choos­es this pro­gres­sive path in 2018, Jones’ vic­to­ry on Tues­day may well be remem­bered as a piv­otal moment in the GOP’s ongo­ing crack­up — and, poten­tial­ly, in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s sur­pris­ing renaissance. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue