GOP circles the wagons, against itself

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A LOT OF people are surprised to see so many religiously conservative Alabamians still sticking with Roy Moore, despite the ugly allegations against him. I'm not. I'm old enough to remember George Wallace, a master of playing the victim as he upheld a system of Jim Crow racial segregation that victimized others.

Wallace is most famous for literally standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent black students from entering the then all-white University of Alabama in June 1963. President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, Wallace stepped aside and the university's first black students enrolled.

But the dramatic standoff launched Wallace into the national spotlight, thanks to television, and a new style of populist made-for-TV political stardom.

I HAVE seen a lot of Wallace in the rise of President Donald Trump, although with an outer-borough New York accent and extraordinary hair. I often see even more of Wallace in Roy Moore, the Republican nominee in the 2017 special election to fill the United States Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions and currently held by Luther Strange.

Moore is the former Alabama state judge who first gained national attention for, among other oddities, being twice elected to the Alabama Supreme Court - and twice removed from it, once for defying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Moore pulled off his primary victory against the party establishment by appealing to an old reflex that is long-standing in the South, although not, by any means, exclusive to it.

CALL IT the circle-the-wagons syndrome. When somebody is on the side of your tribe, you stick with them. Attacks by outsiders against them are an attack against you, by this emotionally fueled reasoning. So you stand by them, shoulder-to-shoulder, with a shared sense of embattled victimization against a seemingly hostile world.

Moore has a lot to feel embattled about. Like Wallace, he gained national notoriety by defying federal orders like a neo-Confederate Elmer Gantry in front of news cameras. In 2003, he refused a federal order to remove from the Alabama Supreme Court building a 5,280-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments that he himself had commissioned.

A star was born: Roy Moore, "the Ten Commandments Judge," a national symbol of a religious lawyer who refused to let even the courts or the law get in the way of his interpretation of God's will.

WHETHER his supporters believed all that or not, many of them feel - as many also say of the northerner Trump in this Trump-friendly state - that Moore speaks to them and connects with their own sense of being disrespected by the mainstream media, the liberal establishment, etc., etc.

I feel as though I know this emotion, after witnessing it firsthand. When President Bill Clinton touched off the Monica Lewinsky scandal by lying about his affair with a White House intern, I was furious at Clinton for risking his agenda and the fate of the nation on a frivolous affair.

But, as one who agreed with most of his agenda, I also found myself engaging in a dance of rationalizations and justifications to oppose his impeachment for the sake of the larger agenda.

Those are normal reflexes but they also cut both ways. Democrats have been haunted ever since by the "whataboutism" of President Trump and other conservatives who bring up the women who accuse Bill Clinton of sexual assault whenever liberals raise accusations such as those now being raised against Moore.

THE Washington Post reported that four women claim that, when Moore was an assistant district attorney in his early 30s in Etowah County, Ala., he sexually molested one, who was only 14, and pursued other teen girls.

Then another woman, Beverly Young Nelson, accused Moore of assaulting her when she was 16 years old.

A day later Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and some other Republican senators called for Moore to step aside, which I do not expect him to do. He'd rather be forced out, if necessary, so he can claim full martyr status, which he already is using as a fundraising tool.

THANKS to Moore, his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, has gained ground in the polls to turn the campaign from a shoo-in to a horse race. Jones, who successfully prosecuted two of the men who killed four little black girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, offers a narrative far more appealing than Moore's.

That's the big long-range problem with the circle-the-wagons stance. It's self-destructive. The only thing worse than losing Session's seat to a Democrat, Senate Republicans are beginning to realize, would be losing it to Moore.

(Write to Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com)

(c) Tribune Media

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