A South­ern Gothic page-turner

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

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 1986, 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’s 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 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. Re­elected, 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 po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee aligned with Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.). This Wash­ing­ton Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment stren­u­ously tried but for­tu­nately failed to de­feat nowSens. 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 Demo

cratic con­gress­man.) The at­tacks stress some anti-Trump state­ments Brooks made while chair­man of Ted Cruz’s 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in Alabama. 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’s 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’s 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. Rock says Democrats are “shat­tin’ in their pan­taloons” be­cause if he runs it will be “game on mthrfk­ers.”

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.

Alabama’s pri­mary says more about Repub­li­cans than about the South.

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