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Roy Moore Is A Lesson On The Folly Of Angry Populism


They told me I should keep my “elite media” nose out of it and let the voters in Alabama decide for themselves whether to elect Roy Moore as their next senator. Well, alright then. The voters decided, and they elected a Democrat. In Alabama. I think that’s a pretty definitive judgment about the merits of Moore as a candidate.

The obvious lesson here is that angry populism fueled by resentment against the bogeyman of supposed “elites” is not the basis for a political party or movement. Even before the allegations that as a grown man Moore used to troll the malls for teenage girls to date, it was pretty obvious that he was trouble. He has always been a grandstanding attention addict who likes to shoot off his mouth without thinking first.

More to the point, he thrived by pandering to the “deplorables” whom normal candidates wisely choose not to pander to. Moore pandered to those who like to engage in Confederate nostalgia, to those who want to return to the persecution of homosexuals, to those who fantasize about imposing a religious test for public office.

When called to account for these views, he follows the angry populist playbook Donald Trump established: call it all “fake news” and campaign against the media and the “elites.” It’s the perfect way never to be held responsible for your own statements and actions. Everything is always a conspiracy by those corrupt insiders in Washington DC to foist their will on the decent, God-fearing folk out here in the heartland. It’s a formula that covers a multitude of sins.

Until it doesn’t. No one could have predicted specifically that Moore would end up having a history of showing creepy sexual interest in teenage girls back when he was a district attorney—though this was apparently whispered about in some political circles in Alabama. What we could have predicted is that he is the kind of personality that is a constant source of random political embarrassment. To be sure, Alabama leans so far toward the Republicans these days that Moore could have gotten away with lesser embarrassments. But his thing for teen girls turned out to be a fatal character flaw for a man who had built his reputation on being holier than thou.

Yet Moore doubled down on the playbook: blame the media, blame “the establishment,” blame Mitch McConnell. Count on your core supporters to be so eaten from within by hatred for Democrats, “RINOs,” and the “fake news” media that they will automatically dismiss anything bad that is said about you and vote you into office just to poke a finger in the eye of the imagined DC bogeyman.

This is why, despite the fact that President Trump initially endorsed Moore’s primary opponent, the Moore campaign is still going to be associated with Trump. It’s because Moore borrowed Trump’s shtick. He borrowed his personal style and communications playbook. We all know this, because many on the Right live in a kind of holy dread of what random embarrassment Trump will produce next. It’s gotten to the point that when Trump’s Twitter feed sends out a gracious concession of Moore’s loss, nobody believes Trump actually wrote it, and we’re all bracing for the explosion when the boss finally gets hold of his smartphone again at 5:30 Wednesday morning.

But it wasn’t just the sex charges that sank Moore, and those who are trying to tell themselves this—either because they still want to think the accusations were a dirty trick cooked up as a political ploy, or because they want to dismiss this as the unique flaw of a single candidate—are missing what actually happened in Alabama. Reports from exit polls indicate that it was a surprising surge of turnout from black voters, and particularly black women, that put Moore’s opponent over the top.

This is the deeper flaw with the Trump/Moore approach to politics. Trump upended conventional wisdom with his constant, off-putting combativeness and willingness to pander to a relatively narrow conservative base at the expense of everyone else. But with Moore, the obvious downsides of that approach are becoming obvious. He may have retained the loyalty of his die-hard, core supporters, but at the expense of alienating everyone else.

The obvious question is: how soon before this catches up with Trump, too? Or is it already happening? I have already observed that motivated Democratic turnout in Virginia’s recent election suggests Trump’s 2016 election victory was made possible by Hillary Clinton’s unique lack of appeal—and without her to suppress the votes of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents, there will be the devil to pay.

This is what happens when you allow your politics to become so consumed by bitterness that you back a candidate less on his personal virtues than on the loudness with which he attacks the people you hate. It’s what happens when fighting the enemy becomes more important than what you’re fighting for.

Angry populism and hating the media is not a philosophy, it is not a political ideology, it is not a platform for governing, and it’s not an all-purpose excuse for the character flaws of poorly chosen candidates. That’s the message we can take from the strange, apocalyptic sign of a Democrat getting elected in 2017 in Alabama.

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