Democrat Doug Jones’s victory over Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama special election for a US Senate seat in mid-December was a shocking upset. In deep-red Alabama, it seemed unfathomable that Jones had any semblance of a shot at defeating Roy Moore, who, despite carrying a plethora of public image issues ranging from pro-slavery remarks to child molestation accusations, had the backing of President Trump himself.
Moore’s failure is not primarily a commentary on his own numerous transgressions, or on the state of the Republican Party itself (many in the GOP distanced themselves from Moore). While Jones deserves credit for his upset victory, his triumph was aided by political forces beyond his own control—in particular, a widespread reaction to the philosophy of “Trumpism” that Trump has employed. This election was a referendum on President Trump and on Trumpism, demonstrating that the movement Trump set in motion when he first declared his candidacy for the presidency is on shaky footing and may be reaching its own limits.
But what is Trumpism?
There is certainly no clear answer: some say it is a new form of conservatism, some see it as comparable to fascism, and yet others claim that it does not exist at all. In my opinion, Trumpism does exist but it is not necessarily an evolved form of another long-standing political mode of thought. I view Trumpism as the force of Trump’s persona and of his will, projected onto American society, US politics and the globe at large. It embodies the idea that Trump can do whatever he wants to right America’s wrongs; that Trump’s decisions and his commands can “Make America Great Again.” Trumpism is also similar to an authoritarian cult of personality that flaunts political norms and general civility. As a result, it combines elements of Trump’s particular personality with a blatant disregard for appearing politically virtuous or for having honorable character at all.
Trumpism began to take shape when Trump realized fairly early on in his presidential campaign that the traditional standards of political discourse and accountability were not applying to him. With one outlandish, outrageous, untruthful and downright despicable quote or action after another—so many that it would be impossible to mention them all—Trump’s ascendancy appeared unstoppable. It slowly became apparent, to both the American people and to Trump, that his raw, unorthodox dismantling of US political norms would ultimately reward him mightily, despite (or perhaps because of) constant backlash from the American left and from mainstream media. From candidacy to presidency, Trumpism played its part well.
In a striking manner, Roy Moore’s near-ascendancy to the US Senate was a dramatic extension of the Trumpist notion that individual accomplishments in the political world could be acquired in the absence of personal responsibility, adherence to morality and basic human decency. To quote Ross Douthat of the New York Times: “Roy Moore, in this sense, was Trump’s Trump—the man who took this mode of politics to 11 and beyond. The president has harassment accusations; the judge had mall-trawling accusations. Trump is a race-baiter; Moore was a stock character from a message movie about Southern bigotry. Trump’s populism mixed reasonable grievances in together with some stupid ones; Moore’s populism was the purest ressentiment.”
When Republican establishment support faltered, Trump, possibly remembering his treatment after the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, poured considerable political capital into supporting Moore. He tweeted praise for Moore’s adherence to his Republican agenda, urged voters to elect him at a rally and recorded a robo-call for Moore’s campaign. He thought Trumpism would extend to a Senate election in a state he had won handily barely a year ago, as long as he nudged it along. After all, in the past Trump has relied on the sheer rousing power of Trumpism to gain political success, and he likely viewed this election in the same manner. He certainly did not expect that Trumpism could ever fall short for a candidate so similar to himself, and in a state that overwhelmingly supported him.
Jones’s victory, as narrow as it may have been, proved Trump wrong. Trumpism did not succeed for Moore like it did for Trump. If anything, Trumpism helped Jones push Alabama from solid red to a light blue in the special election. Although Trump tweeted a fairly amicable congratulation to Jones, Moore’s defeat must have stung considerably—not because Trump hates losing but because this loss especially feels like a rebuke of Trumpism. For perhaps the first and most significant political moment thus far, Trump tried to dictate the outcome of an election by throwing his persona behind his chosen candidate’s campaign and was effectively stonewalled.
When Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election in stunning fashion, the voting demographics indicated that the Obama coalition, which propelled former President Obama to two terms in the Oval Office, did not mobilize in favor of Clinton to the degree required for her to win. After Moore’s defeat, though, an anti-Trump coalition seems to be taking shape instead. In early November Democrats scored victories in multiple state elections, buoyed by educated women and minorities; the same trend continued with Jones, who rode strong African American turnout and success with women voters and millennials to take down Moore. A political voting bloc intently focused on rejecting the Trumpian cult of personality and reestablishing ideological standards is emerging in response to his presidency.
Of course, part of Trumpism is reframing situations and constructing blatantly false narratives to advance or protect Trump’s image. Trump has done exactly that after Moore’s loss, claiming that he knew that Moore would lose and that Republicans would perform well in the coming 2018 midterm elections anyway—in short, that Trumpism is alive and still thriving. The truth is not as agreeable to Trump. It is almost as if karma is catching up to him, slowly but surely: the weight of all his offensive statements and behaviors is starting to drag him out of the deceptive tale of Trumpism and back into reality, where integrity can still reign supreme.
In any other national political environment, even conceiving of a Jones victory would have been a daydream. Trump may not have realized it yet—given his inflated ego, it is doubtful that he has—but Trumpism is not the same political force it was a year and a half ago. We may look back on Moore’s defeat on December 12, 2017 as the moment when Trumpism reached the limits of its influence in US politics. Trump’s core strength is turning into a crippling weakness: Trumpism is begetting its own downfall.
The featured image in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.