Since last month, when he was credibly accused of sexually harassing and abusing teen-age girls, Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for Senate in Alabama, has effectively been in exile from his own campaign. The situation grew especially obvious in the past week, as Tuesday’s Election Day approached. In that time, Moore appeared in public in Alabama only twice, at small rallies, and he spent two and a half days on a private trip to his alma mater, West Point, in upstate New York. He ducked both the national and the Alabama media, but granted an interview to a twelve-year-old girl reporter sent by a pro-Donald Trump super PAC. On Monday night, Moore finally appeared in the flesh to make his closing arguments, at a rally in Midland City, Alabama, in a special-events space fashioned to look like a barn.
The speakers who preceded Moore were mostly borrowed from the guest rosters of national right-wing media: the former Milwaukee sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr., the right-wing Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, the Wisconsin businessman Paul Nehlen, who has campaigned to unseat Paul Ryan from the right and has appeared on white-supremacist radio. But the Moore campaign has been stuck in an effort to combat the allegations against him, and so these men wound up serving as accidental character witnesses. The accusations seemed to have burrowed deep into the campaign’s subconscious, and each of the speakers’ remarks came to orbit around the allegations against Moore—of the serial sexual aggression against underage girls and the general-purpose bigotry, too. Gohmert, when he spoke, imagined himself in a courtroom, dispassionately weighing the evidence against Moore. “I consider it quite serious when someone harms a woman,” Gohmert said. “What I want to know in that hearing is where are the people who the women told.” Bill Staehle, an Army pal of Moore’s from Vietnam, told the crowd a story about the time that he and the candidate had been unwittingly led to visit a Vietnamese brothel. Staehle meant to convey that Moore’s character was so solid that he had immediately left the brothel, but the image lingered, not least because Staehle dwelled on it. “There were certainly pretty girls,” he said, recalling the prostitutes in the brothel, some four decades later. “And they were girls. They were young. Some were very young.”
The Moore campaign’s general idea, going back to its insurgent victory in the Republican primary, has seemed to be that it could prod Alabamians to a useful truculence. “The cussedness, the grit, the determination—you’re the backbone of this nation,” Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, and now a Moore ally, said, when it was his turn at the podium. He was one of several speakers from out-of-state who kept telling the crowd exactly what Alabamians were like, conjuring a state that was nothing more or less than the Trump base—an Alabama of the mind. Bannon often seems to be playing a part in public. He likes to call out “the Financial Times of London” as a shorthand for the globalist press arrayed against him. Rather than saying that Americans are dying in Afghanistan, he tends to say that our soldiers are perishing “in the Hindu Kush.” He relies on a complicated kind of anti-snob snobbery, and in Alabama he seemed to be overthinking things. He referred to his audience not only as “deplorables” but also as “hobbits.” Bannon said, “We’re in the great fourth turning here,” a reference to a theory about the cycles of history that he did not bother to explain. He taunted the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a frequent Trump critic, by saying that Scarborough could not have gotten into Georgetown or Harvard, as Bannon himself had. Scarborough’s alma mater is the University of Alabama.
When Moore finally took the stage, his wife, Kayla, was with him, and by way of introducing him, she took a moment to denounce the media. “Fake news will tell you we don’t care for Jews,” she said, and then paused for effect. “One of our attorneys is a Jew.” She gave an emphatic little nod, as if that settled the bigotry charge. Behind her, Moore had been grinning, but with her remarks, his smile disappeared, and his face settled into a tense, enforced stillness. A few minutes later, Moore himself spoke. “If you don’t believe in my character, don’t vote for me,” he said.
The entire event was a tacit acknowledgment of how much the allegations against Moore have changed the nature of his candidacy. The stringent social conservatism that had made Moore a star of the far right for two decades has been muted in the last few weeks, in part because the candidate himself has been so retiring, and in part because it is hard for Moore to make an effective case about, say, the supposed moral corruption of transgendered people serving in the military when he himself is credibly accused of being a sexual predator. Moore’s imperiousness and rage has been used up in insisting that the charges against him are cooked up, and that an unusual arrangement of élites (Republicans, Democrats, the media) are dedicated to rigging the election against him. At the beginning, the Moore campaign had been comfortable with conspiracy theories. By the end, it had become something like a conspiracy theory itself.
For the rest of the country, Roy Moore’s candidacy operates as a test ofhow much latitude voters are now willing to give to politicians of their party, of how unbreakable partisan polarization actually is. In Midland City on Monday night, a man named Nathan Mathis was seeking out reporters, holding a placard with a picture of his daughter, who had been gay and who had committed suicide at the age of twenty-three. Mathis, full of regret for having been anti-gay himself, wanted to let the press know that the homophobia of the Moore campaign had consequences. “Polls open in ten hours and thirty-nine minutes!” a Moore campaign staffer shouted, as the candidate exited the stage and the rally ended. The event, like the campaign itself, was already in the past. Polls are open now. Moore is planning to ride to his polling place on a horse named Sassy.