Increasingly this feels less like GOP civil war than a world war, with far-flung players getting sucked in. First it was Roy Moore versus Luther Strange in the Alabama Senate runoff. Mitch McConnell naturally backed the incumbent Strange, who’s been a team player in the Senate. Steve Bannon then jumped in on behalf of Moore, who’s led Strange in the polls and whose victory in the primary would serve notice to Republicans on the Hill that the base wants populism. But then, somewhat illogically, Trump decided to double down on his endorsement of Strange during the primary by agreeing to hold a pre-runoff rally for him in Alabama this coming Friday night. If anything can save Strange from likely defeat, it’s POTUS’s support in a deep red state.
But Bannon’s not licked yet. He’s going to counter Trump’s support for the establishmentarian by bringing in a pair of big-name right-wing populists, Sarah Palin and Sebastian Gorka, to hold a rally for Moore on Thursday evening. Checkmate for Strange? Not just yet: Mike Pence will travel to Alabama next week and hold a rally of his own for the incumbent on Monday night, the day before the election. At the rate we’re going there’ll be a hastily arranged David Clarke/Joe Arpaio joint rally for Moore sometime this weekend followed by a Jared Kushner/Ivanka Trump event for Strange on Tuesday morning, just to send him off with a big Trump family embrace.
It’s lit, is what I’m saying. As lit as it could be.
“President Trump told me he is still committed to the original MAGA [Make America Great Again] agenda,” Gorka, a former deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, who has since left the administration, told Breitbart News on Tuesday morning. “We are here to support him in a time when he is surrounded by people who had nothing to do with the success of November 8 and the true MAGA agenda.”
Gorka added that he plans to back all candidates who are just as anti-establishment as Donald Trump was last year.
“Donald Trump was the quintessential anti-establishment candidate,” Gorka said. “The right- and left-wing elite are trying to undermine the people’s choice for president. We will work with any American who has had enough of the Swamp’s ‘business as usual’ attitude and their elitist policies.”
Gorka’s following the Bannon playbook of opposing Trump while being painstakingly careful not to criticize him directly. Forcing rank-and-file Republicans to choose between Trump and populism is a bad play for populists. A better play is telling them they don’t have to choose. Support Moore and you *are* supporting Trump by backing the anti-establishmentarian in the race, Gorka’s saying, never mind that Trump himself is campaigning to defeat Moore. Trump can do no wrong, he can only be wronged, per Gorka’s logic — the president’s “surrounded by people who had nothing to do with” his election win, the “right- and left-wing elite are trying to undermine” him, and so on. Taking Gorka seriously here means believing that Trump is some sort of easily swayed imbecile who’d like to back Moore but simply can’t resist the sinister persuasions of John Kelly and Gary Cohn. But if populist media has to choose between painting Trump as an chump manipulated by evil “globalists” and Trump as an evil “globalist” himself, they’ll take door number one every time. That keeps them on the right side of the audience.
Besides, if all goes well next Tuesday, Trump might decide to tack back towards populism. The last two polls of the Alabama runoff have Moore up by eight and 14 points. There’s every reason to believe he’ll win comfortably next week unless Trump’s rally for Strange has a massive effect on voters. If Moore holds on, Trump will have learned a hard lesson with his own political capital that betting on Mitch McConnell’s boys in primaries isn’t as safe a bet as he thought and that it’s time to consider backing away from further endorsements of establishmentarians. That’s what Bannon is hoping for. And if it works out for him, the care taken by him and Gorka not to get on Trump’s bad side by labeling him a sellout for backing Strange may be rewarded. Gloating over POTUS’s defeat in a proxy war might encourage him to take revenge by opposing other Bannon-backed candidates. Being conciliatory gives him a way out of this fight.