Alabama’s GOP runoff this week was secured by Roy S. Moore, a former chief of justice whose controversial views on marriage, race, and religion have earned him coverage on major news outlets. Although this situation is hardly novel, what is particularly interesting is the conditions under which Moore won. His opponent Luther Strange was endorsed by Trump. In fact, Trump spoke about his support for Strange in his Alabama rally. In a state dominated by Trump in the 2016 elections, it’s shocking to see that a candidate backed by Trump lost; in a state that he (Trump) had won.
Perhaps the most perplexing part of Moore’s victory is Bannon’s style of endorsement of Moore. Bannon commented that a vote for Moore was not a vote against Trump, rather it was a vote for Trump, more over his ideas. In fact Moore stated after his victory that they would, “make America great”; an obvious take of Trump’s infamous “make America great again” slogan. It is curious to note that despite voting against the candidate that was backed by Trump, his supporters still feel that they were following his example, to make America great again. It is at this point that Trump is no longer a demagogue, but an ideal. The man behind the populist phrase no longer matters. Trump is no longer needed to make, “America great again.” Some supporters are doubting his capabilities, even his intentions.
All of this only makes the case stranger, and raises an important question: do Trump supporters feel they need Trump to make their dreams a reality? Even though both Moore and Bannon stood against Trump’s candidate, they insist that they still stand with Trump. If this kind of situation happens again in another state, it will set off a cascade of similar events leading to the general rejection of Trump by his base, but not his ideals. That is his base will no longer support Trump as a politician, rather Trump as an idea. In this way, the Republican Party may be able to regain stability. With Trump’s controversial influence on the party all but weak, the Republicans will be able become unified under populism; without the incompetent celebrity to hold them down. Populism needs a demagogue however, and what happened in Alabama this week was a show of rejection of the demagogue by his own base. There is no doubt that Trump’s approval in his base is - and continues to - drop, thus there is no doubt that Trump will fall eventually. The question that remains is if this will be a populist movement lead by many or if someone will fill the void left by Trump.
History tells us that populist movements come in both flavors, so it is impossible to tell whether the fall of Trump will be met with another demagogue or a faceless movement guided only by MAGA. It could be easy for another demagogue, especially one more politically “fit”, to step in. In fact there are some within the Republican Party who are more than capable now. A new face may not be needed to win the hearts lost by Trump. Although, it is easy for the movement to become stronger without a single leader as well. In fact it may be favorable for the populist movement to remain a coalition between many individuals, it would still retain the appearance of the normal conservative Republican Party. This could allow it to continue to appeal to more people, or at least not appear as a “true” populist party. This could deter moderates, as well as garner unwanted criticism.
Whatever the outcome however, one thing is certain: Moore’s victory wasn’t due to chance, and likely reflects in-base turmoil between Trump and his constituents.