Donald Trump was elected president of the United States despite the opposition of a number of American institutions. He won his party’s nomination over the objections of its senior leaders, who quickly fell in line once the voters weighed in. He won the presidency despite an array of objections from across the spectrum. Elected officials, including former Republican presidents, declined to endorse him. Members of the intelligence and foreign policy communities actively campaigned against him. Newspapers, including a number that consistently backed Republicans or did not usually endorse, spoke out against him.
Didn’t matter. Trump is president, in large part because of an unwavering base of support that embraced his outsider status. He is also president, in part, because of Republicans who were skeptical of his candidacy but came home to vote for him anyway. At least, many figured, he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. Trump got about the same level of support as had past Republican presidential candidates, regardless of the questions that surrounded him.
Despite that outcome, the election seems in many ways like a “black swan” event — a thing that was unexpected, unpredictable and hard or impossible to reproduce. Trump was sui generis, and, although he successfully leveraged shifting patterns in American politics, it didn’t seem as though he was necessarily the leading edge of a wave, but, instead, just a tsunami.
Roy Moore’s Senate campaign challenges that idea.
As it stands, Moore is the Republican nominee for the open Senate seat in Alabama. That might change at any point, because Moore’s campaign is beleaguered by allegations that he initiated sexual contact with teenage girls in the 1970s, when he was in his 30s, including a new allegation that he assaulted a 16-year-old in 1977. National Republican Party leaders have called on Moore to withdraw from the race; Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) announced his intention to seek to immediately remove Moore from office should he win next month’s election against Democrat Doug Jones. An editorial describing the potential of Moore as a senator as “unthinkable” appeared in three major newspapers in the state Tuesday.
It’s a lot of pressure for a candidate to withstand. But there’s little indication that Moore doesn’t intend to withstand it. He has rejected the allegations against him as broadly untrue. He seems unmoved by the protestations of his party. His political track record, in fact, is predicated on ignoring what the establishment (and the Constitution) says he should do: As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he was twice reprimanded and forced from office for ignoring legal mandates. Barring new revelations or new evidence about his past behavior, the safe bet is that Moore will remain actively in the race until Election Day and, polling suggests, may very well win the majority of votes cast.
We take this in stride, but it’s worth parsing out its significance.
There have traditionally been a number of ways in which candidates for elected office have been contextualized for voters. The media have reported on their positions and editorial boards have offered their opinions. Candidates join political parties that provide a shorthand guide to their values and the parties, in return, have winnowed the pool of possible contenders for an office to one endorsed individual. Business leaders and elected officials past and present have offered endorsements of their own. The goal on the part of the candidates is simple: These are my validators, who can vouch for me.
Trump didn’t need those validators to win. Or, rather, he didn’t need most of them. He communed directly with the American people through social media and by gaming television news coverage to ensure that his unfiltered message was heard. More broadly, his rejection of the establishment was itself a form of validation; as a candidate who was running as an outsider, the rubber-stamp of approval from an insider could be a detriment, not an asset.
Again, many Republicans who were wary of Trump voted for him anyway. Some, no doubt, did so because they were somewhat reassured by the Republican establishment eventually signing off on his candidacy.
Moore, though, doesn’t even have that. He has local and statewide Republican leaders who continue to stand by him, but the national party considers him anathema. (This is informed in part by the national party’s concerns about how Moore’s candidacy might affect the 2018 elections.) Many of the validators who might once have been important to a Senate candidate are absent for Moore, particularly now.
So what? Like Trump, Moore, because of his time on the Supreme Court, enjoys some celebrity that means he has less work to do in informing the electorate of where he stands. He, too, has positioned himself in opposition to the traditional validators. But he stands apart from them more completely than did Trump. Not even much of his own party thinks he should hold office!
That it might not matter is a remarkable statement about the political moment. A candidate can be reviled by his opponents, disavowed by his party and excoriated by outside observers, but voters will still support him. Obvious contradictions and alleged misdeeds are themselves just framed as the establishment trying to hold him back. If you’re voting for someone who will take a stand against the system, everything that flows from that system — including reports that the candidate may have once sexually assaulted a 16-year-old — becomes evidence in support of that candidate.
The same partisanship that favored Trump last November plays a role here, too. Many of those Republicans voted for him because they didn’t like Clinton, but maybe it wasn’t about Clinton. Maybe it was, more simply, that the Republicans disliked her party and her politics. We’ve seen anecdotal evidence that Moore still enjoys support simply because he isn’t a Democrat. In a deeply polarized moment in which negative partisanship drives a lot of political action, that’s not surprising. It probably should be.
The role of the validators has waned for various reasons. The question that has been posed by 2016 and 2017, though, is the extent to which they’re still relevant. We can issue the same qualifiers to Moore that we do to Trump: popular, well-known, outsider, etc. But you don’t get two 500-year storms in two years unless something in the climate has changed. And even if Moore doesn’t win, it seems safe to wonder about just what the political climate will look like next November.