The Republican Establishment has suffered through the Trump presidency, filling the news with a constant stream of caustic, mordant, off-the-record comments attesting to their sense of regret. The presidency is exactly the chaotic shambles the Trump campaign was, and the legislative results are much less than his party hoped to win when it made its pact with the devil. The nomination in Alabama of Roy Moore for U.S. Senate offered the party a chance to reconsider whether the prospect of supporting the team, and the incrementally higher prospects of enacting some tax cuts and social spending rollbacks, is worth the cost of elevating a dangerously unhinged demagogue for public office. The entire party, without any apparent hesitation, is leaping at the chance to make the same deal again.
Moore is hardly a carbon copy of Trump. He is religious where Trump is secular, fanatical where Trump is cynical. But he shares the president’s two most pertinent attributes. First, Moore is a purveyor of paranoid conspiracy theories, such as the belief that Sharia law has taken hold in American communities, or that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Second, and more distinctly, he is not a small-d democrat.
News accounts have delicately phrased the matter by calling Moore a “firebrand.” In reality, he is an insurrectionist. Moore considers a certain brand of theological Christianity to be the sole legitimate legal authority of the United States. He has used his public office to openly defy the country’s actual legal authority. A functioning conservative party would consider respect for law and order a threshold question. Instead, Republicans have dismissed it as a mere inconvenience.
The party Establishment fought very hard to elect Establishment Republican Luther Strange. It has immediately embraced Moore. “While we were honored to have fought hard for Big Luther, Judge Roy Moore won this nomination fair and square and he has our support, as it is vital that we keep this seat in Republican hands,” Senate Leadership Fund president Steven Law announced. To the extent that Moore has alarmed Republicans in Washington, their concerns have mostly focused on the possibility that Democrats will use some of his craziest statements as weapons against other candidates. They have not indicated any special concern about the long-term dangers of elevating a public servant who sees the Constitution (the actual one, not the alternative theocratic version) as an impediment to white Christian rule.
For all his superficial contrast with Moore, Trump shares his disdain for the rule of law. Trump’s authoritarianism is instinctive and entirely personal, focused on rage at the existence of any countervailing force in public life, whether it is mainstream media, judges, or law enforcement officers. Moore’s Christianist ideology might have deeper long-term potential. It supplies the far right with an alternative to the grim prospect of surrendering power to the growing secular and nonwhite population.
It is perfectly apparent that a Moore victory will encourage more far-right activity within the party. “The floodgates are now wide open for 2018,” said Andy Surabian, senior adviser to Great America Alliance, a Steve Bannon–organized group that held a rally with notable extremists Sarah Palin and Sebastian Gorka. The only strategy the party establishment has even considered in response to this extremist movement is to placate the extremists.
Josh Holmes, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell, offers an almost prototypical example of the party elite’s thinking. “It’ll lead to more friendly fire in our party, which will make it tougher, not easier, to pass health care and taxes,” he tells the Washington Post. “What we need is cohesion.” Holmes’s fear — hardly an imaginary one — is that Moore will behave so erratically and unreliably it will jeopardize his ability to deliver profitable legislative results for his clients. Notably absent from his stated concerns is the expanding strength of the Republican Party’s anti-democratic wing.