WASHINGTON -- Can the descent of American political culture into ugly tribalism be halted? Alabama voters will give their answer when they decide whether to send Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate.
Moore, 70, has built a long, disgraceful career out of smarmy religiosity spiked with tribal grievance. Having posed for years as the most pious of Christians, he now stands accused by nine women of shockingly un-Christian behavior: They claim convincingly that Moore, when he was in his 30s, aggressively pursued romantic or sexual relationships, including with teens barely half his age.
One woman says Moore molested her when she was 14. Another says Moore called her at her high school -- during trigonometry class, she recalls -- to plead with her to go out with him. Residents of Gadsden, Alabama, where Moore was working at the time, say he was well-known for lurking around places where teenagers hung out, such as the local mall, and approaching young girls.
Moore denies everything -- but without specifically denying much of anything. In one interview, he said that while in his 30s he did not "generally" date teenage girls. He added that he cannot "remember dating any girl without the permission of her mother." How weaselly does all of this sound? How creepy?
Hardly any officeholders have said they believe Moore is innocent of -- at a minimum -- serious moral transgressions. Even Alabama's Republican governor, Kay Ivey, said she has "no reason to disbelieve" any of Moore's accusers. But Ivey said she nevertheless plans to vote for Moore in the Dec. 12 special election, and her reasons sound more tribal than political.
"We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate," Ivey said. But Moore has been as strident in his attacks against the establishment wing of the Republican Party as against the Democrats. He has been a grandstanding maverick for decades, and there is no reason to believe he will change. Having Moore in the Senate would probably mean more grief for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell than losing the seat to Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones.
Ivey's problem is that Moore defeated her hand-picked candidate, interim Sen. Luther Strange, in a bitterly contested primary. Moore pulled this off by positioning himself as the self-anointed voice of Christian grievance and resentment. "Populist" is too neutral a description. Moore is really a tribal leader, claiming that his followers are the only true Americans -- while disqualifying his opponents as illegitimate.
The problem with tribalism is that it is absolute. In Rwanda in 1994, you were either identified as Tutsi or as Hutu; there was no in-between. For Moore, you are either among the good people or among the evil.
Moore's philosophy is properly seen as Manichaean, not Christian; it has no room for universal love. The fact that most of his supporters, thus far, are sticking with him -- enough to cow the state Republican Party into sticking with him, too -- means he has convinced many Alabamians that child molestation is a lesser sin than believing in the Constitution's separation of church and state.
Successful demagogues can use tribal enmities to blind their followers to such moral and logical contradictions. Some of his followers have told reporters they believe all the accusers are lying for partisan political reasons, which seems unlikely given what we know about the women's politics; most describe themselves as conservative and several said they voted for President Trump. Some Moore supporters charge that the women are seeking publicity, which is ridiculous; reporters sought the victims out and convinced them to tell their stories, and the women must have had some idea of the kind of vicious attacks that would follow.
Moore uses his angry Christianity as a tool of self-aggrandizement. He uses the trust and passion of the Alabamians he defrauds to sully the reputations of women who bravely testify to his allegedly vile and creepy behavior. He rages about filing lawsuits, but don't hold your breath. Lawyers for potential defendants can't wait to see what the discovery process might unearth.
Alabama's three major newspapers ran rare front-page editorials Sunday imploring voters not to send this unworthy man to Washington. It is a sad sign of the times that I am not sure whether that hurt Moore's prospects or helped them. The "mainstream media" is an enemy whose disapproval Moore cultivates to make his supporters love him more.
Moore is not invincible. He can be defeated -- but only if Alabamians decide that honor, integrity and morality are more important than tribe.