There is a limit to Trumpism in America and his name is Roy Moore.
The Republican Senate candidate’s defeat by Democrat Doug Jones was a very public humiliation for the US president – who endorsed him via tweet, robo-call and rally – and for former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who sought to bring Moore back from the political dead.
It was also a seismic shock in Alabama, the Deep South state that has witnessed so many: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded bus in Montgomery; four young African American girls killed in the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham; hundreds braving police violence to march for voting rights in Selma.
As for the Republican party, it was an embarrassing setback in a Bible Belt stronghold, but also a bullet dodged. Members of Congress will be breathing a sigh of relief knowing they do not have to spend years trying to explain and excuse an accused paedophile in their ranks, a man who has said the last time America was great was the era of slavery.
At first, when the Washington Post reported that Moore faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with teenagers, it did, according to all known political rules, render him a toxic figure. Trump kept his distance, Senate leader Mitch McConnell spurned him and even Fox News host Sean Hannity wanted answers.
But what made this different from past norms was the swaggering Bannon, perhaps seduced into believing he could work miracles after his success with Trump last year. Bannon kept faith with 70-year-old Moore and, slowly but surely, reeled Trump, Hannity and the Republican National Committee back in with a brazen appeal to political expediency.
Armed with Breitbart News at its propagandist worst, Bannon worked feverishly to portray Moore as a martyr and sow doubts about his accusers and the media outlets that reported them. “They tried to destroy Donald Trump, and they’re trying to destroy Roy Moore,” he told a closing rally on Monday night. “There’s no bottom for how low they’ll go.”
The breathtaking cynicism begged the question: had the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower truly become the party of Trump and Bannon? Were they the ones with no bottom, just constant freefall?
On Tuesday Alabama delivered its answer. Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate race here since 1992, cut Republicans’ majority in Congress to an even thinner margin and declared to America that yes, there is still a moral line to be drawn.
It was poignant, and alarming for Republicans, that it should happen in Alabama, a ruby red state where the Ku Klux Klan has thrived, a radio DJ banned the Beatles after John Lennon said they were more popular than Jesus, and Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election by some 28 percentage points.
There were push and pull factors at work. Jones, a former Alabama supreme court chief justice twice removed for violating judicial ethics and a sworn foe of abortion and gay rights, was already hard for many Republicans to stomach even before the darkly disturbing allegations. Trump initially endorsed his primary opponent Luther Strange (first evidence of the limits of his political influence); Alabama senator Richard Shelby said he did not vote for Moore; attorney general Jeff Sessions, whose seat created the vacancy, declined to say whether he did.
Others, such as Senator Jeff Flake, were outspoken against the candidate. And there were many in Alabama tired of being the the laughing stock of the nation, the butt of Saturday Night Live jokes. Public affairs strategist and moderate Republican Steve Schmidt told CNN: “There isn’t enough money in the world to repair the brand of Alabama if it elects Roy Moore.”
This Republican apathy and antipathy contrasted with Democratic energy in a state where the party had been moribund and divided. Barack Obama and Joe Biden made robocalls and Senator Cory Booker hit the road. National Democratic groups poured in resources while judiciously keeping a low profile.
This was augmented, the New York Times reported, by a quietly effective coalition of progressive groups including: Indivisible, which held training sessions; Open Progress, which funded a big text message campaign to African Americans; the gay equality Human Rights Campaign, which had multiple paid organisers on the ground; and the Voter Participation Center, which reached more than 300,000 black voters with direct mail and text messages.
It worked. African American turnout may have returned to Obama-era levels. In his previous career, Jones prosecuted two Klan members for the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church that left four black girls dead. His election watch party in Birmingham, a crucible of the civil rights struggle, was joyously diverse. Black supporters punched the air and celebrated a measure of liberation from the state’s grim inheritance.
The election also came at a moment of national reckoning in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein and a swath of prominent national figures. There was plenty of motivation for suburban women to take revenge on Moore – and Trump – for their past deeds and words.
When Democrats won recent governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, the Republican riposte was that those were states Clinton held in 2016 anyway. That explanation will no longer work. Now a Democrat has galloped deep in Republican territory and come away with the prize. It is the strongest evidence yet that a big blue wave is coming in the mid-term elections. Already 16 Republican members of the House and two in the Senate have announced they will not run again next year.
Indeed, some observers had seen in Alabama a metaphor for America in the Trump era. Above all, this was a repudiation of the president and his master strategist. It was the night the Trump-Bannon train hit a brick wall.
This article was written by David Smith in Birmingham, Alabama, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th December 2017 07.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010