Will: The GOP's Southern Gothic page-turner
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Southern Gothic is a literary genre and, occasionally, a political style that, like the genre, blends strangeness and irony. Consider the current primary campaign to pick the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. It illuminates, however, not a regional peculiarity but a national perversity, that of the Republican Party.
In 1985, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III — the name belongs in a steamy bodice-ripper, beach-read novel about Confederate cavalry — was nominated for a federal judgeship. Democrats blocked him because they considered him racially "insensitive." In 1996, he got even by getting elected to the Senate. Twenty years later, he was the first senator to endorse Donald Trump, who carried Alabama by 27.7 points. Sessions, the most beloved Alabaman who is not a football coach, became attorney general for Trump, who soon began denouncing Sessions as "beleaguered," which Sessions was because Trump was ridiculing him as "weak" because he followed Justice Department policy in recusing himself from the investigation of Russian involvement in Trump's election.
On Aug. 15, Alabama's bewildered and conflicted Republicans will begin picking a Senate nominee. (If no one achieves 50 percent, there will be a Sept. 26 runoff between the top two.) Of the nine candidates, only three matter — Luther Strange, Roy Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks.
Strange was Alabama's attorney general until he was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to Sessions' seat. Bentley subsequently resigned in the wake of several scandals that Strange's office was investigating — or so Strange's successor as attorney general suggests — when Bentley appointed him. The state Ethics Commission, which had scheduled an Aug. 2 hearing into charges of campaign finance violations by Strange, recently postponed the hearing until Aug. 16, the day after the first round of voting.
Twice, Roy Moore has been removed as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. In 2003, removal was for defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding religious displays in government buildings. Re-elected, he was suspended last year for defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision regarding same-sex marriages.
Yet, Brooks is the focus of ferocious attacks on behalf of Strange, who ignores Moore. The attacks are financed by a Washington-based PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This Washington Republican establishment strenuously tried but fortunately failed to defeat now-U.S. senators Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse, of Florida and Nebraska respectively, in their 2010 and 2014 primaries. (The Rubio opponent the PAC favored is now a Democratic congressman.) The attacks stress some anti-Trump statements Brooks made while chairman of Ted Cruz's 2016 Alabama campaign. For example, Brooks criticized Trump's "serial adultery," about which Trump has boasted. The PAC identifies Brooks, a conservative stalwart of the House Freedom Caucus, as an ally of Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. Another ad uses Brooks' support for Congress replacing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force with an updated one, and his opposition to interventions in Libya and Syria, to suggest that Brooks supports the Islamic State.
Brooks contributed financially to Trump's general-election effort and has named his campaign bus the "Drain the Swamp Express." He says he supports Trump's "agenda," including potentially its most consequential item — ending Senate filibuster rules that enable 41 senators to stymie 59. Strange sides with McConnell against Trump in supporting current rules. Yet, the PAC's theme is that Brooks' support of Trump is insufficiently ardent. Such ardor is becoming the party's sovereign litmus test.
In one recent poll, the three candidates are polling in the 20s. Moore is leading; the PAC's attacks are driving some Brooks voters to Moore. Among voters who say they are familiar with all three, Strange is third. A runoff seems certain, and if Moore (sometimes called "the Ayatollah of Alabama") is in it and wins, a Democrat could win the Dec. 12 general election.
"Anything that comes out of the South," said writer Flannery O'Connor, a sometime exemplar of Southern Gothic, "is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." But, realistically, Alabama's primary says more about Republicans than about this region. A Michigan poll shows rocker-cum-rapper Kid Rock a strong potential Republican Senate candidate against incumbent Debbie Stabenow.
Is this Northern Gothic? No, it is Republican Gothic, the grotesque becoming normal in a national party whose dishonest and, one hopes, futile assault on Brooks is shredding the remnants of its dignity.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.