Roy Moore rode to the polls on the American myth. Specifically, he was astride a brown-and-white horse. The Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate was wearing a cowboy hat, jeans and a large signet ring. He arrived at the Alabama polls Tuesday morning in the manner that is his tradition, on the back of a horse named Sassy. He did so in front of a national audience that mostly does not include cowboy hats on its list of wardrobe staples and assumes that with the advent of both cars and paved roads, running errands by horse is unnecessary. But no matter. Moore is the consummate stuntman, an amateur cinematographer, a stylist with a singular client.
The cameras captured Moore as he came trotting across a field with his wife, Kayla, trailing behind him on her own horse. His black hat, with its silver flourishes, was perched atop his head, and his moss-colored jacket was open at the neck — the collar of a faded knit shirt poking out. Moore pulled up on the reins of an unhappy-looking Sassy and smiled through clenched teeth for the visiting press, which knew to assemble because Moore’s office had given them a heads-up in anticipation of the stuntman’s stunt: He would arrive like a simple cowpoke plucked from the sepia pages of American history. His ensemble would call to mind some glorious past of God-fearing independence — when a man cleared his own meager acreage and no one told him what to do on his land, not even the little missus.
In truth, Moore looked more like an actor in a commercial for no-medical-exam life insurance: grizzled but upright, well-fed but on a budget. But the performance was as promised. Moore sat for a few seconds in the open air atop his steed — reveling in the moment, or perhaps just waiting a beat for the assembled media to pull back and give him room to dismount. Maybe both.
Politicians use clothing as costume all the time, but during Moore’s campaign against Democrat Doug Jones, the Republican threw himself into his costumes with fervor. There can be something beautiful, sentimental and inspiring about big hats and faded denim; a guy on a horse in the middle of a field; the sweep of an unspoiled plain. The vista is an expression of hard work and freedom. It speaks to an intimate and respectful relationship between man and nature. The emotions stirred up can be positively spiritual, and no small number of artists have dedicated themselves to exploring such mysticism.
But that’s not how Moore used such imagery during the campaign. An alleged sexual predator, Moore exploited the beloved myth. He laid claim to cowboy hats, jeans and old-fashioned Americana and declared them representative of his brand of politics — a variety that is predicated on shaming one group of citizens while deriding another, that speaks of Old Testament wrath and an eager willingness to cast the first stone. His politics had his wife feebly defending their integrity with the damning opening phrase: “We have very close friends that are …” Moore wore his cowboy hats with a Woody-action-figure vest and then accessorized the ensemble with a handgun, which he brandished during the campaign. Would a true cowboy treat a firearm with so little care and respect? Moore’s ensemble became a joke on “Saturday Night Live,” which saw in it the costume of an emotionally stunted child molester, or the uniform of Jim Crow sheriffs who wore their cowboy hats as emblems of their privilege, their self-proclaimed righteousness and their authority to terrorize.
Moore made Americana read as cruel, judgmental, ruthless and full of rage.
But on the day when the citizens of Alabama were asked to judge Moore, when they had the upper hand, he did not wave a pistol. He did not model his leather vest or wear his bullying visage. He rode to the polls wrapped in sentimentality. Bedecked in false virtue. Cloaked in a lie.