Watching former Trump aide Steve Bannon defend Roy Moore by mocking Mitt Romney tells you all you need to know about American conservatism in 2017: We reward bad behavior and punish decency. Say what you will about Romney, but he is an upstanding family man and all-around good human being. Bannon, Trump, and Moore, are… not.
There’s a chapter in Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 classic The Road to Serfdom that explains “Why the worst get on top.” In it, the author warns that in a totalitarian regime, “the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful.”
Sound familiar? We are thankfully not in a totalitarian regime, but it’s hard to deny this dynamic is very much at play. In today’s conservatism, decent men are rejected, while the voters clamor: “Give us Barabbas!”
It was with this backdrop that Bannon, the Breitbart boss, took to the stage of a rally in Fairhope, Alabama, Tuesday night, wearing his patented barn coat and sounding like Hulk Hogan, circa 1986, with his frequent use of the word “brother.”
“Mitt, here’s how it is, brother: The college deferments, we can debate that— but you hid behind your religion,” Bannon said. “You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam… You had five sons, not one day of service in Afghanistan and Iraq.... Where were the Romneys during those wars?"
(First, this proves Bannon has a short memory. Everyone knows the Romney kids serve their country by campaigning. I kid, I kid.)
In what world does re-litigating the matter of Mitt Romney’s sons and the military serve as a relevant guide for people casting votes in Alabama? There are many pertinent questions an Alabama voter might confront in the next week as they make their decisions. But would voters arrive at a different conclusion had Tagg Romney joined the Green Berets? How about the SEALs?
This is, of course, Bannon’s way of changing the subject from a losing one to a winning one. If the question voters have on their minds when they head to the polls next week is, “Do I trust Roy Moore or the women?”, then Roy Moore is in deep trouble. But if the question is, “Do I want to deal a blow to the GOP establishment?”, then Moore will win in a landslide. Thus, Bannon frames the election in those more favorable terms—using Romney as the foil.
In fairness, Romney did provide a pretext for Bannon’s comments by criticizing Moore on Twitter. “Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity,” he said.
Still, attacking Romney takes a lot of chutzpah for a man who is (a) defending a candidate who is credibly accused of sexually assaulting an underage girl. It also takes a lot of gall coming from a man who served a president who (b) received multiple deferments for bone spurs, (c) described avoiding STDs as his “own personal Vietnam,” and (d) who attacked John McCain for being a prisoner of war. (In fairness, it’s worth pointing out that Bannon served in the Navy for seven years.)
There’s also the issue of religion. Bannon sought to otherize Romney by invoking his Mormon faith. Calling someone a draft dodging chicken hawk is a pretty personal attack, but bringing his religion into it is another. This isn’t the first time religion has been an issue in this race, and it strikes me that this was a thinly veiled attempt to remind Alabama voters about Romney’s LDS religion.
In many ways, I see what is happening in Alabama has the continuation of the degradation of the party of Lincoln and Reagan. The parallels between Trump and Moore are pretty obvious. If Moore wins, as it appears he might, it will be further proof that this is Donald Trump’s party, and that good behavior is for suckers, while shamelessness will get you everywhere. Or, as Hayek might say, in today’s GOP, the worst get on top.