Can Donald Trump Save Roy Moore After All?

Can Donald Trump Save Roy Moore After All?

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A supporter of Doug Jones, the Democratic Senate candidate, at a rally in Birmingham, Ala.

DAPHNE, Ala. — Election season is always a tense time in Alabama, still shadowed as we are by George Wallace’s “segregation forever” antics and the dread among educated voters that our latest political star will humiliate the state yet again in the eyes of the nation.

But not since the state sent William Lowndes Yancey, the original secessionist “fire eater,” to Congress in 1844 has the Alabama embarrassment syndrome reached a more acute stage than this past week, when Roy Moore, the homophobic front-runner in the United States Senate special election next month, was accused in The Washington Post of sexually molesting a 14-year-old girl after luring her to his remote home in the Alabama hills.

Coming on the heels of Republican losses in Virginia on Tuesday, the Dec. 12 election in Alabama, which prides itself as a spiritual heartland of the Trump revolution, will be closely watched as a critical test of Mr. Trump’s political vitality. Even before the Moore allegations surfaced, his race against the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, a celebrated prosecutor of Klan bombers, presented a potentially historic breach in Alabama’s long record of electing the candidate best known for radical showmanship.

I decided to head to my home state to watch this race when Mr. Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge, won the Republican nomination in September over Luther Strange, a lumbering former state attorney general known as Big Luther who was endorsed by Mr. Trump and financed by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Mr. Moore is a fundamentalist Christian who channels Reaganesque cowboy imagery and rides a horse named Sassy to his polling place. He crushed the charisma-challenged Mr. Strange, stunning elite Republicans, whose party is being consumed by class warfare between suburbanites and the rural white evangelicals who make up Mr. Trump’s base.

Born in Birmingham in 1943, I found the contest an irresistible collision between national forces and Alabama’s political tradition. Elections here are performance art, with victory the reward for eye-catching clowns like Yancey, Cotton Tom Heflin in the 1920s, Jim Folsom in the 1940s and 1950s, Wallace in the 1960s, and now Mr. Moore.

Nationally, Mr. Moore is known for ranting against gay people, but he is most celebrated at home for putting a granite monument of more than 5,000 pounds engraved with the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the state judicial building and giving up his job as chief justice rather than obey a court order for its removal. In other words, he was cast perfectly to star in Alabama’s timeless election carnival of romanticized defiance and self-parody. My earliest surviving commentary on state politics was written in a letter in 1954 to my brother, then a soldier in Germany. I referred to a speech praising Bull Connor as “sickening.” He was subsequently re-elected to command the police and fire departments as Birmingham public safety commissioner, setting the stage for his fire hoses and police dogs in 1963.

By 1965, as a reporter, I was writing in The Birmingham Post-Herald about Wallace’s segregation rallies. At The New York Times, I wrote a magazine piece about coming-of-age in Birmingham’s racial caldron. My 1977 book, “My Soul Is Rested,” was one of the first works to describe a man known as Dynamite Bob, a Connor associate and a Wallace acquaintance later revealed to be Robert Chambliss, as the leader of the Klan bomb squads.

The tradition of rebelling against progress has left Alabama as the only state of the Old Confederacy never to have elected a senator or governor untainted by scandal who was willing to embrace modern attitudes on race, social justice and economic fairness. As I sat in the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Daphne recently, I wondered if Mr. Jones, a steelworker’s son, could become the first campaigner to confront Alabamians’ mind-set of grievance.

“We started in Alabama on the wrong side of history,” Mr. Jones said at the church. “Let’s not let those ghosts define us.” A day earlier, he had said: “Roy Moore represents a backward look. I’m tired of Alabama being an embarrassment around the country.”

To my knowledge no other candidate had addressed the Alabama inferiority complex so directly as Mr. Jones, with the exception of Wallace, arguing in the opposite direction. In 1963, Wallace had journeyed to Harvard to assure an incredulous student audience that Alabama had “good race relations.” In that same speech, he blamed immoral Yankee soldiers for the presence of light-skinned black people in Alabama.

Bob Zellner can attest firsthand to Wallace’s absurdities at Harvard’s Memorial Hall. Mr. Zellner, son of an Alabama Klansman, joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1961 and became its first white field secretary. At the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, Mr. Jones praised him from the pulpit as one of Alabama’s civil rights heroes. Over 50 years ago, an astonished Wallace had singled him out from the lectern at Harvard, having discovered that the Alabama rebel had followed him north. “Oh, I know you,” Wallace said, labeling Mr. Zellner a troublemaking jailbird for the question he put to Wallace about Alabama’s police brutality and murders of civil rights workers.

“Alabama has always had a victim’s complex,” Mr. Zellner told me in an email. “Wallace was always ‘sending a message’ to the elite, pointy-headed rich people but he ended up turning one group of little people against other little people while helping the rich get richer. The worst available candidate, the most radical, would always get the most attention, the highest ratings.”

I had never met Mr. Zellner until I sought him out in Daphne. There we were, two native sons of the Heart of Dixie, bound by hope as part of a standing-room-only crowd that Mr. Jones said represented “a shining Alabama the way it was always supposed to be.” The audience was about equally composed of black and white, young and old. How many of those whites were crossover Republicans? That’s the question that will determine whether Alabama sends its first truly New South figure to Washington.

Like the national Republican Party, Alabama’s microcosmic version of Trump World was split along class lines. Even before the allegations about Mr. Moore’s predatory sexual history dropped, Mr. Jones seemed to be whittling Mr. Moore’s double-digit lead by assuring upper-class Republicans that their Confederate ancestors would recognize the “honor in compromise and civility.” His has been the most vigorous Democratic campaign in decades and, perhaps prophetically for Mr. Trump, the wealthiest Republican enclaves like Mountain Brook near Birmingham and Fairhope on Mobile Bay are covered with Jones lawn signs. Less affluent suburbs with highly educated professionals, like Vestavia Hills and Hoover near Birmingham, follow the pattern.

I asked two prominent Fairhope residents about how their wealthy peers would vote. One, a liberal, said his neighbors on Mobile Bay’s fashionable Eastern Shore would claim to support Mr. Jones and then secretly vote for Mr. Moore, a man they would not invite to their homes.

Another, a conservative, said “most of my Republican friends say they are going to vote for Jones” because Mr. Moore would shame the state. As to how local Republicans will finally split, he predicted half would vote for Mr. Jones and half might stay home. “That would be all right, too,” Mr. Jones told me later when I described the conversation.

But things will be more complicated now that Mr. Moore has been wounded. Republican leaders in rural counties are urging voters to ignore allegations from nearly 40 years ago that don’t involve forcible rape. Alabama’s eccentric state auditor, Jim Zeigler, is even assuring evangelicals that they can stick with Mr. Moore in good faith because many women in the Bible, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, were married to older men.

So the Alabama Republican Party is on the horns of another dilemma. Republican leaders in the Washington swamp are telling them to dump Mr. Moore. Local Trump supporters are telling them to ignore “fake news” and stand up for Alabama. Mr. Strange is lurking in the wings, feeding speculation that he could save his party’s respectability from Mr. Moore and Steve Bannon as a write-in candidate. But a split between Moore loyalists and Strange write-ins would hand the election to Mr. Jones, something that Mr. Trump can ill afford after the roughing up he took on Tuesday.

Until now, the Moore campaign has believed that Alabama’s brand of glittery sideshows would, sooner or later, summon Mr. Trump’s inner showman and that he would sweep in to push Mr. Moore over the top. That would spoil the dream of Alabama’s embattled Democrats that Mr. Jones might pull off what would be the biggest political upset here since the populist “Big Jim” Folsom and his rustic Strawberry Pickers beat the “big mules” of U.S. Steel and the Black Belt plantations in 1946. (Mr. Trump himself has not spoken about the Moore allegations, but his press secretary said that Mr. Trump believes Mr. Moore should quit the race “if these allegations are true.”)

For the next month, Mr. Moore’s disappearing inevitability, Mr. Jones’s hope-based insurgency and the strain between have and have-not Republicans will be debated every day in the state’s meat-and-three restaurants. Mr. Trump, given his own baggage and the freewheeling defiance of Alabama voters, would do well to watch cautiously. Mr. Zellner and I can attest that political theater can be tricky here. Alabama voters don’t mind being in the spotlight, no matter how bad it makes them look. They have that in common with the president.


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