Opinion

Renée Graham

Roy Moore and the politics of spite

VESTAVIA HILLS, AL - NOVEMBER 11: Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore speaks during a mid-Alabama Republican Club's Veterans Day event on November 11, 2017 in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. This week Moore's campaign was brought under scrutiny, after being accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls when he was in his 30's. (Photo by Wes Frazer/Getty Images)
Wes Frazer/Getty Images
Roy Moore spoke Nov. 11 in Vestavia Hills, Ala.

ROY MOORE’S campaign song should be “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”

“The Republicans and Democrats who did everything they could to stop Donald Trump and elect Hillary Clinton are the very same people who are now trying to take us down with lies and smears,” Moore, Alabama’s embattled Republican Senate candidate, recently tweeted.

Those “lies and smears,” as Moore calls them, are on-the-record interviews from women accusing him of sexual improprieties when they were teenagers. Earlier this month, a Washington Post investigation reported that Moore, then in his 30s, pursued relationships with four girls in the 1970s, including one as young as 14, and more women have come forward since then. Now the former judge is lashing out in every direction and refusing to drop out of the Senate race.

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And his supporters are lapping it up, even butchering Biblical interpretations to bolster Moore’s persecution complex. If he manages to stay in the race, he could win. And if Moore wins, it will be pure spite — on his part and on his advocates’ — that carries him to Washington.

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This is a provocation straight out of the playbook that landed Donald Trump in the White House. What’s happening, Moore tells his devotees, isn’t just happening to him; it’s also being done to them. If Moore is denied, then his supporters are denied. During his campaign, Trump often made a point of speaking in plural personal pronouns, trying his fate to that of his fans, and Moore is using the same tactic now.

“We believe in God, the Constitution, the Sanctity of Life and the Sanctity of Marriage,” Moore tweeted. “We are everything the Washington Elite hate. They will do whatever it takes to stop us. We will not quit.

Never mind that Moore desperately wants a seat in one of the most elite places on Earth — the US Senate.

Before the Post investigation went public, Moore had a 17-point lead over Democratic opponent Doug Jones. In solidly red Alabama, he was considered a lock to win next month’s special election to replace Jeff Sessions, now the very forgetful attorney general. Now Moore’s numbers are all over the place, with some polls giving him a 6-point lead while others show Jones with a double-digit advantage.

Audience members outside a revival in Jackson, Ala., last week, where Roy Moore spoke.
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Audience members outside a revival in Jackson, Ala., last week, where Roy Moore spoke.

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Even so, this is Alabama, where George Wallace was elected governor four times. Just this year, the legislature there passed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which effectively bans the removal of any Confederate monuments and the renaming of streets more than 40 years old. Moore could still win.

Outside Alabama, Moore is a former state supreme court justice twice removed from the bench; a man whose extreme political views on reproductive rights and same-sex marriage puts the “nut” in conservative wingnut; and someone reportedly banned from a mall for pestering teenage girls. But to supporters in his home state, he’s their disgraced wingnut and mall outcast.

If, as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, all politics is local, it can also be highly personal. Moore’s supporters connect to him on a marrow-deep level. Perhaps they hail from the same small county patch, or share similar backgrounds in other ways. Yet it’s also Moore’s desire to poke his thumb in the eye of both liberals and the GOP establishment that fuels his advocates’ fervor. Some may be disgusted by the accusations against Moore, but they’d rather spite both groups, whom they deeply despise, than turn their backs on him.

That’s what happens when supporters sense that know-nothing outsiders are getting in their political business. In 1992, former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry, fresh from six months in prison on a misdemeanor drug possession charge, won a seat on the city council; two years later, he was again elected mayor. Yes, Barry, despite being caught on videotape smoking crack, remained popular in the African-American community; but his election also sent deeper message. It was a clapback at powerful institutions, like The Washington Post, that were perceived as patronizing black voters by trying to tell them what they should do.

The late District of Columbia mayor Marion Barry in March 2014.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press/File
The late District of Columbia mayor Marion Barry in March 2014.

Unlike the D.C. mayor’s race, Moore’s elevation to the Senate has national implications. That’s why people who’ve never set foot in Alabama feel compelled to voice an opinion. There is also the logical belief that a man accused of sexual improprieties with teenagers is unworthy of a Senate seat. As Senator Lindsey Graham recently quipped, “I’ve got a general rule, if you can’t be in a mall, you shouldn’t be in the Senate.”

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Next month we’ll learn if a majority of Alabama voters feel the same — or are so intoxicated with spite that they’ll send to Washington a man as dangerous and damaged as Moore.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.