From the moment he entered the presidential race in 2015, Donald Trump was rightly seen as a moral test of the GOP. Would Republicans disavow someone who compared immigrants to rapists, called for banning Muslims from the country, lied with abandon, refused to release his tax returns, encouraged violence against minorities, was accused of sexual misconduct, and was caught boasting that his celebrity allows him to commit sexual assault with impunity? Time and again, with only a few notable exceptions, the Republicans failed this test. That’s how America came to be ruled by one if its most morally corrupt citizens.
Now, in the wake of sexual molestation allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, political analysts are once again asking the same question we posed ad nauseam during Trump’s campaign: Is this, finally, a revelation so heinous as to compel Republican leaders to make the morally correct decision and full-throatedly denounce a important candidate, despite the very real consequences to the party’s agenda and power?
The Republican Party, The Atlantic’s David O. Graham wrote last week, “faces a moral and political test: How will it respond to the accusations against Moore? It’s a decision in which the Trump experience will weigh heavily.” The moral test is thus, Graham wrote: “[I]f the party’s members can’t bring themselves to set aside narrow partisan interest and condemn a man whom they despise, with a track record of bigotry, and with multiple on-the-record accusations of improper sexual misconduct with underage women, what behavior and which candidate can they possibly rule out in the future?”
At The New Yorker last week, in a piece titled, “Will the Republican Party Fail Another Roy Moore Test?,” Amy Davidson Sorkin asked, “What litmus tests does the Republican Party have these days? Islamophobia evidently wasn’t enough to end its support of Moore, but neither, apparently, were his imprecations that homosexuality should be criminally punished and that the Supreme Court’s marriage-equality ruling was worse than the Dred Scott decision.” Later, she wrote, “A better question is how the G.O.P. can prove that it is not the party of Roy Moore—not when it comes to exploiting the young or denying members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community or people of minority religions their full citizenship.”
The question of whether the Republican Party would renounce Moore has been answered this week: GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have called for him to leave the race just weeks before the election. (Trump has remain silent on the matter.) But as to “what behavior and which candidate can they possibly rule out in the future,” and “how the G.O.P. can prove that it is not the party of Roy Moore,” the only proper response is to repeat this fact: The Republican Party is the party of Donald Trump.
Roy Moore, taking a page from Trump’s playbook, remains defiant despite the damning evidence against him. At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Moore’s attorney disputed the authenticity of Moore’s alleged signature in the high school yearbook of one accuser. The strategy here is clear: to muddy the waters as much as possible, sowing doubts about the allegations in the hopes that enough voters will disbelieve them. Meanwhile, on Wednesday evening, four more women accused Moore of sexual misconduct, bringing the total number of alleged victims to nine.
This could still end in a number of ways. Moore could leave the race after all. He could lose to the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, or, less likely, to a Republican write-in campaign. If Moore wins, the Alabama Republican Party could disqualify him, or the U.S. Senate could expel him. In other words, McConnell and Ryan have only made the first of multiple moral tests they will likely face, and the history suggests that, faced with the prospect of having one less vital vote for their tax bill, Republicans will eventually fail the test.
But more important, the question itself is badly framed, as it implies there’s a fixed moral line that the Republican Party will not cross. It might not be grabbing women by the genitalia. It might not be sexually molesting 14-year-olds. But surely there is behavior so reprehensible that it puts a Republican politician beyond the pale. In truth, there is no fixed moral line because that would require that Republicans live by a fixed moral code. Republicans paint themselves as moral absolutists in a relativistic world, but all the evidence of the last few years shows that most Republicans are actually tribalists who will resort to moral relativism to justify support for a vile public figure.
Trump understands this logic better than anyone, thus his notorious boast during the campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Trump is their tribal chief, the man they will support unconditionally because he embodies the tribe’s values. He is beyond good and evil; he is above morality.
Moore also has credible claims to be a Republican chief. If there were a fixed moral line that made a candidate unfit for office, Moore should have crossed it long ago. He made his name as a judge by showing contempt for the rule of law: refusing court orders to remove a Ten Commandment monument outside his courthouse and rejecting the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. He has no regard for the Constitution, as shown by his claim that Muslims should not be seated in Congress and that the Bible has precedence over American law. He’s also a birther and has called for homosexuality to be outlawed.
Any of those acts should have been enough to render Moore unfit for Congress. Yet before the recent scandal broke, Moore was well on his way to being a U.S. senator. It’s true that during the primaries the Republican establishment and even Trump himself preferred Moore’s rival, Luther Strange. But once Republican voters made their preference for Moore known, party leaders fell in line behind him. Even now, the only a minority of Republican senators have said that Moore is unfit to be their colleague. Most have taken the politically safer position that he should withdraw from the race “if the allegations are true.”
It’s hardly an accident that the Republican Party is going through the same convulsions with Moore that they did with Trump. The GOP is evolving, or rather devolving: It is adjusting to being the party of Trump—and, by extension, the party of Moore. In this sense, Moore’s personal fate doesn’t matter. He could withdraw tomorrow or even lose the election, but the forces Moore represents are in ascendency in the GOP. Moore won the nomination because the Trumpified GOP base wanted a homophobic and Islamophobic senator—accusations of child molestation be damned. These voters may or may not get their wish with Moore, but more men like him will rise to take the mantle. In fact, they already are; they’ve been rising with Trump all along.