A favorite trope of 1980s teen movies was the moment the scrawny, awkward nerd screws his courage to the sticking-place, stands up to the bully, and punches that sorry bastard right in the mouth.
That was the image I was enjoying Tuesday night when Doug Jones bested Pedobear Party candidate Roy Moore in Alabama. But the nerd in question wasn’t Jones, but rather Mitch McConnell. I warned politicians for a generation not to underestimate McConnell’s diffident affect for weakness.
The Senate Majority Leader took a victory lap through the bloody, pustulant remains of Steve Bannon’s political credibility, with a couple of laps through the ichor of Donald Trump’s power to control the political dialogue.
You can make the case that McConnell’s intervention on behalf of Luther Strange, in deference to the usual tradition of protecting Republican incumbents, helped bring us Roy Moore by starving out the more conservative and qualified Mo Brooks, but we’ll leave that on the table for now; Tuesday night was an unmitigated, unspinnably bad one for Trump, Bannon, and Bannon’s alt-right nationalist-statist claptrap. The Julius Streicher of our time pushed Trump’s political credibility into a nosedive that hit terminal political velocity as he crashed the Moore campaign into the trash fire on top of Burning Dumpster Mountain.
It was Bannon who turned this race into a contest between his squad of Team Bannon, Roy Moore, and NAMBLA versus Mitch McConnell, the Senate, and Republicans who have the temerity to not favor electing a child molester to the U.S. Senate. Like a 300-pound lump of gristle, Bannon decided to lodge himself in the throat of the most powerful serious Republican in D.C. It was a bad, bad bet.
Mitch McConnell probably spent about an hour Tuesday night washing the blood stains off his hands from the beatdown Alabama delivered to Steve Bannon. Is he happy about losing a seat? Absolutely not. Is he happy about not having to ever defend the odious kid predator Roy Moore? At least the Capitol Police SWAT Team won’t have to be on standby to extract Roy Moore from local playgrounds and high-school gymnasia.
Alabama is the perfect petri dish of Bannonism and the nationalist-populist anti-elitist movement for which Trump is its grunting avatar. All the hot, magical, base-moving issues were there, and Moore embraced Esoteric Trumpism with the same vigor he pursued his victims through local malls. Trump bellowed his support in tweets, rallies, and interviews.
Moore and Trump made immigration, the wall, abortion, and gun control scares versus Jones their daily message. Tuesday night, Alabama proved that even with the full support of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and their media infrastructure, certain dogs aren’t ever going to hunt. It didn’t look that way at first. It was, after all, Alabama.
Going into Tuesday, it felt closer than it turned out to be. The polling numbers were all over the board, and the presence of “Shy Jones” and “Shy Moore” voters made it nerve-wracking.
The chilling Frank Luntz Vice interviews with Alabama residents willing to forgive and explain away Roy Moore’s sexual desires for young girls cast a pall over many. But we have seen now that there are limits of the Bannon-Trump-Breitbart message. We have seen its narrowness turn away and turn off voters in the reddest state in the country.
The con game Steve Bannon has pulled on Republicans in the last year-and-a-half goes something like this: Only Bannon and Breitbart have an ear to the ground and a finger on the pulse of the new nationalist movement that’s reshaping conservatism and its own image. The scam centers on the concept that a rising force of nationalists who hate brown people, gay people, and anyone who doesn’t toe the neo-nationalist line is unstoppable, implacable, and at the immediate disposal of Trump and Bannon. The scam puts hatred of the media and “elites” (by which they mean, “people who can read”) before any conservative principle.
We also realized Tuesday night that there is a Newtonian character to Donald Trump’s social-media power. Trump may motivate his part of the Republican base with whatever lunatic batshittery streams from his fingers to his Twitter account, but activating those individuals also brings an equal and opposite reaction from people who don’t breathe through their mouths, don’t read the comments section of Breitbart or /r/The_Donald, or believe that everything wrong in their lives comes from the conspiracy between George Soros and the lizard people.
Yes, Donald Trump gets the base riled up. His rock-bottom approval ratings mean he also activates women, African Americans, Hispanics, and every other demographic group that doesn’t fit into his 1950s (or is it 1850s?) fantasy of what America looks, works, and feels like. Those folks—and for many of you Trump readers, this is a complicated idea, so follow along—comprise what scientists call a majority of voters. And they hate him. They hate him so much they’ll crawl across broken glass to vote against him and any candidate he endorses.
During the Obama era, the fact that Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, and Harry Reid played the role of perfect foils was something that never got old for me. Why did we run ad after ad in swing seats blasting them? Because it worked. Today, though, nothing—absolutely nothing—rivals the charnel house reek of Donald Trump.
Wednesday’s walk backs, revisions, and memory-holing of Donald Trump’s full-throated endorsement of Roy Moore aren’t a coincidence, but no one’s falling for it. Donald Trump strongly and powerfully supported a man he knew to be a pedophile. Donald Trump dispatched Steve Bannon down to Alabama in order to rile up the pointy-white-hat crowd in the Darwin’s waiting-room meeting halls where Roy Moore’s cousin-curious supporters grunted and hooted their approval as Bannon capered on stage like a hirsute gremlin. It didn’t go unnoticed that his firehose of insults was not directed as much at Doug Jones and the Democrats, but at Republicans and conservatives he seeks to destroy.
Tuesday night was a small victory for decency and political sanity. It was a moment when America’s reddest state said, “Nah. We’re good with the abortion guy over the guy who wants to hit it with high-school girls.” It was a signal that the decency caucus in D.C., as small and scared as they feel sometimes, have a path out of the madness of Trumpism, if they’ll take it. If they don’t, 2018 will be a political bloodbath that no tax cut will solve.
The fact that Steve Bannon got beat like a rented mule is just the icing on the cake.