As US President Donald Trump’s antics heap dismay upon dismay, the Alabama election result holds out the hope that his tenure may be brief.
Fear and Loathing was also a lament for the counterculture movement that emerged in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, a melancholy acknowledgment that the revolution did not actually eventuate. For all the tumult and for all of counterculture’s energy and idealism, it failed to deliver on its promise to change the world:
“There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning … that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil … We had all the momentum, we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and, with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Did the Donald Trump wave break in Alabama on December 12 when Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in the special Senate election? Alabama is one of the most conservative states in the union. In the 2016 poll in which he was elected US President, Trump won Alabama by 28 percentage points; in 2014, the Democrats didn’t even bother fielding a candidate against Jeff Sessions, the first Senator to endorse Trump. (Sessions became US Attorney General, hence the special election.)
There are parliamentary seats in Wales and the north of England where, they say, you could pin a red rosette on a donkey and it would carry the day for the Labour Party. Leaving aside the fact that the Democratic Party’s symbol is a donkey, Alabama has been the conservative American equivalent, a virtual one-party state.
A more guarded assessment is that if the Republicans had put up a farmyard animal, as opposed to a bigot who was once banned from a shopping mall for molesting girls as young as 14, it would have been politics as usual and we wouldn’t be extrapolating hopefully from the result. Such an assessment would also note that there would be very few white candidates in the Deep South who’d resonate with the African-American community as Jones did, having successfully prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members over the 1963 bombing of a black church that killed four little girls. (According to exit polls, 99% of black women and 96% of black men voted for Jones.)
And when all’s said and done, Jones won by 20,000 votes – Alabama’s population is 4.8 million – which is roughly the number of write-in votes cast for Nick Saban, coach of the University of Alabama’s fanatically supported Crimson Tide football team. (Moore has refused to concede; he appears to be pinning his hopes on divine intervention.)
On balance, though, and taking into consideration Trump’s dismal 32% approval rating and the mounting evidence that the Republican Party is losing ground in the suburbs, the Alabama result can be seen as a straw in the wind. It suggests that uneasiness over the Trump-inspired debasement of political discourse has reached the heartland. Furthermore, it indicates that the base’s enthusiasm for former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s campaign to weed out insufficiently gung-ho Republican representatives and replace them with anti-Establishment zealots has been overestimated, not least by Bannon himself. Those two takeaways should reassure Republicans in Congress that they can stand up to Trump without necessarily reaping a vengeful whirlwind from the folk back home.
The Alabama result should also galvanise the Democrats ahead of next year’s mid-term elections and may persuade progressives of all stripes to eschew factional bickering and focus on winning elections rather than beside-the-point ideological disputes.
This is a good time to acknowledge the anti-Trump resistance. For the past year, the outside world’s focus has been on Trump, his courtiers and media enablers, and the unattractive and confronting aspects of today’s US that they embody. It’s easy to overlook the reality that many Americans – if not a majority, if the polls are a reliable guide, and they usually are – are appalled by Trump and ashamed of what’s become of their country. And they are increasingly inclined to register their disgust in unequivocal terms.
A recent example is USA Today’s reaction to Trump’s sleazy attack on New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand after she’d called on him to resign over the multiple accusations of sexual harassment. Gillibrand, incidentally, also declared that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency over the Monica Lewinsky scandal and led the campaign to oust fellow Democratic senator and accused sex pest Al Franken.
True to form, Trump tweeted that Gillibrand “would do anything” for campaign contributions. (Over the years, Trump has donated to a number of Democratic campaigns, including those of Hillary Clinton and convicted sexting offender Anthony Weiner.) USA Today, a centrist newspaper that has never endorsed a presidential candidate, although it did advise against voting for Trump, editorialised that “a president who would all but call Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama presidential library”.
Such shuddering abhorrence for the sitting president recalls the reaction to the publication of “expletive deleted” transcripts of taped Oval Office conversations between President Richard Nixon and his top aides, a crucial step in the process of calling him to account for the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. “Reading the transcripts is an emetic experience,” said the Providence Journal. “One comes away feeling unclean.”
Returning to Trump’s approval rating: the consensus among presidential historians is that when the rating drops below 30%, a presidency becomes tenuous, if not untenable. When Nixon’s rating hit 24%, he realised the game was up and slunk out of Washington before he could be impeached.
And to return to Alabama: the state’s most frequent and enduring pop cultural reference is the Lynyrd Skynyrd song Sweet Home Alabama, which includes the lines “Now Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?” The song was released in June 1974. Less than two months later Nixon was gone.
This article was first published in the January 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.