You’ve heard it all before. The Democratic Party is corrupt, and Republicans are no better. In fact, because they seem more interested in collaborating with entrenched interests in Washington to maintain the status quo, Republicans may be even worse. The Tea Party was a fraud. Conservatism is a failure. Only Trump can “drain the swamp.”
Of all the obnoxious hoopla promulgated by the Trump machine, this line was the most noxious. As president, Trump has demonstrated that his only interest is in maintaining the structures that advance his political prospects. If those structures are establishmentarian GOP, so be it. Trump has eased himself into the swamp like it was a hot tub, and he plans to stay a while.
The evidence to support this proposition is everywhere, but the latest example is perhaps the most delicious.
“Senator Luther Strange has done a great job representing the people of the Great State of Alabama,” President Trump wrote on Tuesday. “He has my complete and total endorsement!”
The appointed senator filling the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Strange faces an uncertain fight to retain his seat in a special election next week. The campaign between Strange and his most potent opponents—Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks—has largely been a contest to see which Republican can demonstrate the most unflinching fealty to Donald Trump. Strange has been winning that battle.
Brooks, in particular, has a record of bucking the establishment as a conservative insurgent. Brooks was also a vocal Trump skeptic in the campaign and one of the Republicans who was highly critical of the real estate mogul’s behavior following the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. That record of individuality and moral conscience is being used to destroy him.
It isn’t Strange as much as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who’s waging a scorched earth campaign designed to frame both Moore and Brooks as unreliable allies of the president. McConnell’s super PAC spent $8 million to support Strange’s bid and, according to Politico, has dispatched a political lieutenant to advise the Republican primary candidate seeking to oust Brooks from his seat in the House. McConnell wants Brooks neutralized, and the feeling is mutual.
Brooks has called McConnell “the head of the swamp.” He has accused the senate majority leader of “groveling at the feet of Chuck Schumer” and said he’s “got to go.” A House Freedom Caucus member, Brooks is cast in the mold of the kind of rabble-rousing conservatives who took control of the House of Representatives in 2010—honest ideologues who have a habit of frustrating the carefully laid plans of the GOP leadership. He was endorsed by notably Trumpian conservative entertainers like Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin. The insurgent group Senate Conservatives Fund also backed Brooks. “McConnell is trying to smear Brooks just like he has done to so many other conservative candidates before,” the organization declared. “And it’s all so he can elect more senators who won’t fight for our principles.”
Moore, too, has been the target of pro-McConnell forces, and he’s drawn more fire as he has begun to generate more support from special election voters in the polls. Pro-McConnell forces pivoted last week to attack Moore. One radio advertisement noted that, despite earning $170,000 as a Supreme Court judge, Moore and his wife made $1 million from the operation of a charity they oversee and have taken extravagant vacations. “Roy more wanted more,” the narrator declared. “If Mitch McConnell is accusing me of being a ‘conservative rebel’ who won’t march in lockstep behind his Big Government, big-spending agenda,” Moore wrote in his defense, “then I plead guilty as charged!” This line doesn’t seem to be gaining traction among Alabama special election voters.
Both Moore and Brooks are framing themselves as outsiders dedicated to serving Trump but also to defying entrenched GOP interests and the party’s leadership when it is called for. For Trump and Trump’s voters down South, however, that kind of independence from the institutional GOP served its purpose in the campaign and has outlived its usefulness now that he is president.
Trump and McConnell may not have much in common, but they both seem to agree that the independently minded are an unwanted presence in the Senate Republican conference. That is a doubly entertaining development considering the forced effort by pro-Trump apparatchiks in Washington to convey to the #MAGA faithful that Trump and McConnell are really at odds with one another.
“More excuses,” sighed Trump assistant and White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino on Wednesday. “[McConnell] must have needed another 4 years—in addition to the 7 years—to repeal and replace ObamaCare.” Trump himself has used his Twitter account to impress upon McConnell the need to scuttle the filibuster to send him something on health care—a rules change McConnell confirmed was not in the cards. Why would he? Trump’s posturing in public is easily dismissed when weighed against his actions. McConnell feels no heat.
None of this is to say that Strange isn’t a conservative. It’s merely that, for Trump’s movement, “bucking the system” was only ever a pretense. The special Senate race in Alabama is a reaffirmation of the fact that it was always the Tea Party, not Donald Trump and his cohort, who represented real anti-establishmentarian sentiment within the rubric of the conservative movement. Trump’s movement was and remains a personality cult.
Establishment Republicans can live with that; they weren’t shy about favoring a malleable political neophyte over rigid conservative ideologues in the primaries, and they’re not shy about that now. Anyone who still believes that Trump is doing anything other than ratifying the GOP status quo is evincing a staunch commitment to willful blindness.