Like generals, politicians and pundits are apparently doomed to prepare for the previous campaign.
A series of Republican victories in recent years, which culminated in Donald Trump’s sensational election as president, created a working assumption that in a close race in Alabama, the angry white majority will always prevail.
The voters of Alabama, however, especially African-Americans, proved on Tuesday that in a true democracy, precedents are never binding, trends are always reversible and surprises have become routine.
The victory of Doug Jones, whose past as an Alabama attorney includes vigorous prosecution of white supremacists, over Roy Moore, who is accused of sexual harassment and statutory rape, highlights the pitfalls of conventional wisdom.
Alabama after all is one of the most racist and conservative states in America, it hasn’t elected a Democratic senator in over a quarter of a century and its white voters harbor the same kind of resentment and rejection of moralizing political correctness that gave Trump 62% of its vote in 2016. The assumption was that if Alabamans could ignore the myriad charges of sexual harassment that have been leveled against Trump, and if they were undeterred by his reactionary and arguably racist statements, then a Republican victory in Alabama, even though the party had fielded a problematic and tainted candidate, was a foregone conclusion.
What wasn’t taken sufficiently into account was the possibility that Trump’s election and his first year in office had changed reality itself. The Trump effect pushed African Americans, who had remained indifferent to Hillary Clinton, to come out in droves on Tuesday to vote, less for the Democrats and more against Moore.
It compelled moderate Republicans to stay home or to vote for the first time in their lives for a Democratic candidate. And it weakened the resolve of college-educated white women, who unbelievably gave Moore a majority, but one that was still far smaller than Trump’s and far below the bare minimum necessary to ensure a GOP win.
The news for Democrats in particular and for liberals in general was overwhelmingly positive. Not only did they extract a narrow, come-from-behind victory from the jaws of probable defeat, not only was the GOP majority in the Senate whittled down to a bare 51-49, not only did Trump sustain a humiliating loss of face and not only was the party infused with renewed belief in its ability to turn both houses of Congress in the upcoming November, 2018 Congressional elections, the Alabama results showed America and the world that U.S. politics still has red lines.
That outrageousness has its limits; That the inciting and divisive politics initiated by Trump and Steve Bannon is not a sure fire formula that guarantees success; That even in the dark times of Trump, American democracy still has enough antibodies in its veins to stop evil, block depravity and prevent serial sex offenders from being elected to the highest posts in the realm.
Marking winners and losers on the Republican side is more complex. Trump, who supported Moore’s rival Luther Strange in the GOP primaries but then pushed him with all his might, certainly suffered a devastating blow to his prestige. After the thumping of Republicans in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia, the Alabama results indicate that Trump’s support could prove toxic for Republican candidates next November.
If Trump’s exhortations couldn’t carry a conservative, anti-establishment right-wing state like Alabama, GOP candidates will think twice before begging Trump for his endorsement. His ability to pressure rebellious GOP lawmakers by threatening to withhold his support has thus been significantly weakened.
An even bigger loser is Bannon, who campaigned furiously on behalf of Moore. Bannon sought to duplicate Trump’s winning formula and to carry out a populist, racist, isolationist, alt-Right revolution that would destroy the old GOP establishment in the process. Bannon arrogantly assumed that populist momentum along with personal loyalty to Trump are so strong they would outweigh the effect of the eight women who stepped forward to accuse Moore of sexual harassment.
If Moore had won, Bannon would have turned into a Republican kingmaker. After his loss, his many rivals, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are bound to draw their long knives in an effort to quell Bannon’s populist drive and to expel him from politics altogether.
Small wonder that anti-Bannon Republicans could hardly conceal their glee on Tuesday night at the loss of their party’s candidate.
Moore’s loss is also a win for the #MeToo movement of women who have stepped forward to tell of past harassment and molestation by powerful men. If Alabama can reject its sexual predators, then no politician is exempt from accounting for conduct unbecoming in his past. The exception, of course, is Trump, who was elected despite the testimonies of numerous women about his problematic behavior.
Trump has tried to bury the affair by ignoring it or by denying the allegations against him, but the defeat of Moore’s similar tactics could very well increase pressure on Congress to investigate the charges against Trump and will increase Democratic calls for his resignation.
Moore’s defeat is a triumph for light over darkness, for decency over depravity, for integrity over anarchy. Nonetheless, one shouldn’t forget that Moore was a particularly preposterous candidate or that Alabama, in the end, is just Alabama, one of the most neglected and backwards states in the Union.
Trump, meanwhile, stays in the White House and remains the most powerful man in the world. The aftershocks of the Alabama elections won’t be completely detectable until Trump’s overall reaction to his defeat is known. His first tweet on Tuesday night was surprisingly restrained and respectable, though Democrats hope that he will soon react wildly and in character to his public humiliation. In that way Trump could bolster their conviction that Alabama was no outlier, but a sign of an impending redemption that will materialize in 11 months in the November 2018, Congressional elections.
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