Roy Moore won’t be in Washington next year, after all. But the Republican Party isn’t anywhere near rid of his style of racialized right-wing rhetoric — or of politicians like him.
Exit polls showed that 91 percent of Republicans who voted in Alabama’s special election Tuesday supported the controversial former judge, even as Doug Jones became the first Democrat since 1997 to represent the state in the Senate. Right-wing populism has been an influential force in the GOP for decades, and it’s now dominant. Like former Alabama governor George Wallace — another racial reactionary who never won federal office but still influenced the party — Moore signals the way the Republican Party has been transformed since the civil rights era.
White non-Hispanic voters alone can no longer reliably win national elections for Republicans. But the Alabama campaign showed that the strategy Moore embodied — combining resentment of elites with an assertion of white, Christian, patriarchal authority; attacks on Muslims, immigrants and gay and transgender people; and voter suppression — invigorates the party’s base. If not for the allegations that Moore had made sexual advances on teenage girls when he was in his 30s, he may well be on his way to the Senate now.
Southern white politicians have been key players in this populist revolt, because they have long found political success in stoking resentment against meddling outsiders who are seen as threats to the values and sovereignty of their home states. From pro-slavery “fire-eaters” in the 1850s to Democratic “Redeemers” after Reconstruction to the architects of massive resistance to civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, politicians held up white supremacy at home as a defense against outside forces that would destroy the “Southern way of life.”
Following the model of mid-20th-century Southern politicians such as Wallace and governors Orval Faubus (Ark.) and Lester Maddox (Ga.) — whose popularity stemmed from theatrical opposition to federal authorities on civil rights — Moore built his political career on resistance and refusals that shocked many Americans but electrified segments of the electorate.
Moore — like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose Senate term Jones will serve out — is steeped in the racially charged politics of the South and the nation. Those traditions overlapped with Moore’s brand of aggressive Christian identity politics, as Moore racialized Muslims and warned falsely that whole communities in the United States are living under sharia law.
Unsurprisingly, anti-black racism remains a staple of this right-wing populism. One top Moore campaign funder, for instance, was Michael Anthony Peroutka, a former board member of the neo-Confederate League of the South, an organization that calls for secession and the establishment of a white-ruled nation in the Deep South. In 1995, Moore delivered an address to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white-nationalist successor of the infamous White Citizens’ Councils from the civil rights era. He was a strong proponent of the false conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii. And he has waxed nostalgic about the antebellum era.
But perhaps the way Moore’s campaign most recalls the civil rights era is in how it reflects major changes in national politics. Like Wallace, Moore’s candidacy measured a hard right shift in the GOP. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Wallace attacked liberal elites, protesters and criminals, using thinly veiled racial rhetoric that called for “law and order” and an end to “forced busing.” This resonated with white voters across the country who were fearful of changes to the racial landscape in society, showing that in some ways, as Malcolm X said, the Mason-Dixon Line runs along the Canadian border.
Wallace’s campaign success prodded his Republican rival, Richard Nixon, to make appeals to what he called the “silent majority.” He targeted working- and middle-class white voters nationwide on the basis of opposition to the civil rights movement and related struggles of the 1960s.
Since then, there have been tensions between traditional conservatives and right-wing populists, often pitting economic conservatives against those who link white pride to relative deprivation in a politics of outsider grievance. President Ronald Reagan kept this coalition together in the 1980s by depicting government as oppressive in its regulations and indulgent in its welfare policies. But disputes over issues including immigration, free trade, corporate welfare and mild Republican gestures toward multiculturalism have spurred episodic revolts, spearheaded by figures like Pat Buchanan who chafed at the dominance of GOP “establishment elites.”
Moore’s campaign, however, illustrates something more fundamental — that in the Trump era, white populism is the prevailing force in the Republican Party.
For someone as politically extreme as Moore to beat the incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, a traditional Republican, in this fall’s primary race demonstrated something extraordinary. Not even President Trump, who initially backed Strange, could slow the party’s continued rightward shift toward authoritarian nationalism.
Then, as if to test the proposition that there were limits on what the party would tolerate, a new, jaw-dropping threshold was crossed: Even well-documented accusations that Moore had preyed on underage girls failed to end his candidacy. Indeed, he received the endorsement of both Trump and the Republican National Committee after the accusations became public.
While Moore was defeated, there is little reason to think that the orientation of the party’s base has been. And since Trump beat out 16 rivals in the 2016 GOP primaries, party leaders have been loathe to risk alienating that base. The long-running struggle between economic conservatives and right-wing populists has found temporary resolution in such initiatives as the proposed federal tax cuts and the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net neutrality. But traditional Republicans can only advance their economic agenda insofar as they do not offend the growing base of white reaction.
A few prominent Republican voices will continue to offer sporadic denuciations of the latest outrages of the far right. But those dissenting voices will matter less as the party is redefined in coming years.
This story has been updated.