Alabama. Who knew it would become one of the most beautiful words in American politics?
It turns out there could have been no better place to test the limits of indecency, the limits of Trumpism, the limits of Republican partisanship and, yes, the limits of racial subjugation. If the angry ideology of the far right cannot make it in one of our most loyally conservative states that was a center of resistance to civil rights, it cannot make it anywhere.
First, let us pay tribute to the new Alabama busy being born. There were many reasons why Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore, but younger voters who insisted that the old ways are not their ways were decisive.
Jones overwhelmed Moore among Alabamians under 45, taking over 60 percent of their ballots, according to the media exit poll. Moore took about three-fifths of those 65 and over. This augurs poorly for Republicans, and President Trump is deepening this generation gap. The GOP is throwing away its future.
And its present isn’t so hot either. In 2016, Trump took 62 percent in Alabama. But with those who voted on Tuesday, his approval rating was 48 percent. Such numbers – in, let’s repeat, Alabama – demonstrate that Trump is hemorrhaging support everywhere.
This electorate may well have been more anti-Trump than the state as a whole, but that is the point: In combination with the results of November’s elections in Virginia and elsewhere, Tuesday revealed that the Democratic base has an energy unseen since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, while Republicans are demobilized and demoralized. If the 2010 Senate special election victory in Massachusetts by Republican Scott Brown warned Democrats how much trouble they were in, Jones’ victory ought to do the same for the GOP.
African-Americans were a central part of the uprising. Remember the news stories (plainly created out of nothing but tired preconceptions) that the black vote was not mobilized? Oops. In fact, black voters in large numbers were ready to make a statement in a place where so many fought, and even died, for the right to cast ballots. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki noted, turnout in heavily African-American counties was more than 70 percent of what it had been in the presidential election of 2016. In core white Republican counties, those figures were in the 50 percent-plus range.
This was also a vote against a deep cynicism that assumes the right wing’s skill at bamboozling rank-and-file citizens. Many expected that Moore would succeed in persuading enough voters either to overlook or disbelieve allegations about his abuse of young teenagers when he was in his 30s.
But mothers were not distracted. In one of the most extraordinary exit poll findings ever, 66 percent of mothers with children in their households under 18 voted for Jones; only 41 percent of fathers in such households did. This 25-point parental gender gap is powerful evidence that a rebellion led by women has become one of the most formidable forces in our politics.
Yes, whites in Alabama are still loyal Republicans, but loyalty had its limits on Tuesday – particularly for women. Jones got 26 percent of the votes cast by white men, but 34 percent from white women.
Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior Republican senator, also played a key role by announcing that he could not vote for Moore and that he had written in an alternative candidate. He was joined by some 23,000 voters, probably most of them Republicans, helping to build Jones’ margin.
Will Republicans learn from what happened? News that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intends to move the GOP’s tax monstrosity through before Jones is seated is not encouraging. The bill should be delayed until Jones can have his say.
In the meantime, the pathetic quality of Trump’s leadership was underscored on Wednesday morning. The president, a double loser in Alabama having endorsed Moore’s unsuccessful primary opponent Luther Strange and then battled aggressively for Moore, could think only about self-justification. Trump claimed he had backed Strange because he knew that Moore would “not be able to win the General Election.” Tossing allies under the bus without a backward glance is one thing Trump is really good at.
A president who is both weak and megalomaniacal is very, very dangerous. Republican congressional leaders should be afraid for their skins, and for the country, but there is little reason to believe they will have the fortitude to act.
Alabama voters, at least, showed us what courage looks like.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.