Who would have predicted the most significant repudiation of Trumpism to date would come from the heart of Dixie?
Certainly not me.
Nonetheless, the voters of Alabama spoke. They sent Roy Moore, a Bannon-backed insurgent candidate, packing and elected Doug Jones as Alabama’s first Democratic senator in 25 years.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican independent expenditure committee, posted an entertaining and sobering GIF on Twitter.
“This is your state” the GIF reads, with a map of Alabama’s counties, each of them a hue of Republican red. The GIF transitions to read, “This is your state on Bannon,” as the map fades from solid red to a checkerboard of red and blue, reflecting the results of last week’s election.
Certainly, Moore was a troubling candidate who had no place in the United State Senate. His electoral defeat was as much a function of his distasteful personal background and public record as it was a reaction to Trumpian politics.
However blame is assigned, though, candidate Moore was indisputably a reflection of Trump’s Republican Party, a party overrun by rogues. As N.Y. Times columnist Ross Douthat characterized him, Roy Moore was Trump’s Trump.
“The president has harassment accusations; the judge had mall-trawling accusations,” Douthat noted. “Trump is a race-baiter; Moore was a stock character from a message movie about Southern bigotry. Trump’s populism mixed reasonable grievances in together with some stupid ones; Moore’s populism was the purest ressentiment. And like Trump but much, much more so, the Moore campaign relied on the assumption that Republicans who didn’t care for who he was and what he represented simply had nowhere else to go.”
This calculus was clearly wrong.
The Alabama Senate election demonstrates what happens when Republicans attempt to build a winning coalition on a foundation of nationalist populism and white identity politics. Instead of victory, they energize Democrats and minorities, shrink Republican turnout and drive up write-in votes from those Republicans who do cast their ballots.
The Democrats’ victory in Alabama should be a lesson for Republicans across the country: it’s time for a new playbook.
What’s unclear is if anything will change.
While it’s evident that not everyone in the Republican Party is satisfied with its current direction, many are still enamored with the president and the direction he has pulled the party. Gallup’s most recent data reports that 82 percent of Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing as president.
Will these Republicans recognize Moore’s defeat as a sign that Trumpism cannot sustain, much less grow, the party?
Many, like myself, are hopeful that a new generation of Republican leaders will rise up to save the party of Lincoln and Reagan from populist implosion. However, it’s more and more difficult for us to find other young Republicans willing to stay and fight.
Earlier this year, Pew reported that among those under 30 who initially identified as Republicans or leaned Republican in December 2015, 23 percent shifted to the Democratic Party. This doesn’t even take into account those who leave to become independents. If we are unable to this hemorrhaging of young voters, we will never be able to find the next generation leaders needed to reverse the Trumpification and Bannonization of our party.
The U.S. is in the midst of rapidly unfolding technological, cultural and demographic changes. Technology continues to reshape the nature of work, creating entirely new industries while decimating those previously at the heart of the American economy. At the same time, our culture has become more accepting and accommodating of different lifestyles as we have grown younger and more ethnically diverse. These changes have cast clouds of anxiety and frustration across much of the nation.
The Republican Party needs more young voices who are comfortable leading through change, not just railing against it.
Locally, the stakes are just as high.
Earlier this year, Democrat voters surpassed Republicans in the City of Bakersfield. Our county grows younger and more diverse. Economic and regulatory forces are shrinking the ability of the oil and gas industry to provide financial stability for our families and government agencies. Our schools fail to produce graduates ready to compete in the information economy, and a disproportionate number of us live in poverty.
If the Republican Party is to grow, both in Kern County and across the U.S., we need to do more than “ape the social-justice left and make politics a daily freak show,” as columnist Peggy Noonan puts it.
We need to develop policies and intellectual arguments that confront the challenges of modernity with solutions that promote prosperity for all. We must resist the urge towards bigger government advocated by populists on both the Left and Right. Instead, we must advance the causes of limited government and personal responsibility.
If there is to be a Republican Party for my generation to inherit, today’s Republican leaders must rise above the anxiety of the moment.
But more importantly, to my peers who seek to see the Grand Old Party endure through our lifetime: it’s up to us to commit and engage. Time is of the essence.