Maybe Donald Trump lacks experience. Maybe he's getting bad advice. Maybe he’s getting too much pressure from the swamp. Whatever it is, some true MAGA believers here in Alabama — in advance of his visit Friday to show support for the establishment enemy candidate — can't quite believe what their president is doing.
And as they rallied Thursday night for Senate candidate Roy Moore (the guy that doesn’t have Trump’s endorsement), they said they were doing so not to spite the president, but because they really want to help him.
When Trump arrives in Alabama, he will rally with Moore’s opponent, appointed Sen. Luther Strange, whom he has endorsed and said he wants to see elected to the Senate. But many of Trump’s high-profile boosters believe that it is Moore, not Strange, who is the obvious person to carry the “Make America Great Again” torch into the halls of Congress. The message was that it was not just America that needs Moore, but that Trump does too. And a Moore win would provide some inspiration to get back to the promises Trump made to his base.
“We’re reminding Trump of why he won, and who he needs to be,” Sebastian Gorka, chief strategist for MAGA Coalition — which helped organize the rally — told BuzzFeed News. “That’s what it’s about. Let Trump be Trump."
The race to replace now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who previously held the seat, has set up an odd dynamic where Trump is on the opposite side of some of the most hardcore Trumpians. Gorka, until three weeks ago, served as an adviser to Trump in the White House. His support for Moore is not unique among the president’s former employees. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is now back running Breitbart News, and is using the outlet to try and put Moore over the top.
Speaker after speaker, the message to Trump was clear: we’re doing this for your own good.
“He wants so badly to help America be great again, to get back on track again, and sometimes he gets bad advice,” said Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert.
Moore supporters say that Trump had backed Strange because he was getting “bad advice,” almost certainly from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has become the villain of this piece for his aggressive and well-funded support of Strange.
“Just think who you have on the other side: a man endorsed by Mitch McConnell,” Gorka intoned ominously during his speech Thursday. The crowd booed accordingly.
“Enough said,” Gorka replied.
Enough said, perhaps, but not all. As Strange pointed out ad nauseum in his debate with Moore Thursday, he also has the endorsement of Trump. And not just the tacit endorsement: A bevy of favorable tweets, an upcoming joint rally, and the promise of Vice President Mike Pence to make his closing argument at a rally Monday night.
But the president was not to be faulted for this, speakers at the rally said. They loved him. They believed in him. In fact, they were doing this for him. Yes, they were telling people to do the exact opposite of what he was advocating. But this wasn’t an attack on him. This was about helping him. This was about preserving his legacy, the movement he kicked off, and making sure all of that was still in tact waiting for him when he returned.
As for why the president could be so easily spun, Gohmert explained: “You know where he was before in private business, if somebody was helping him, they wouldn’t have dared lie to Donald Trump. But it’s a new experience for him in Washington.”
This willingness to forgive, some Republican strategists believe, has lowered the stakes of Trump’s all-in endorsement of Strange. Strange has been down in the polls, and if he wins after Trump’s efforts, Trump can take all the credit. But if Strange loses, he will remain popular. The blame will likely stay with McConnell.
"I think it will be a power to his elbow. It will show him just how loyal the people who voted for him are — how we wish to choose people who are Trumpian in their philosophy. And I think it will actually empower him in the face of people like McConnell and Ryan,” Gorka said of the ramifications for Trump if Strange lost.
Trump once posited that his voters would stick with him even if he were to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” a proposition that many Republican strategists have come to accept as a truth when it comes to Trump’s loyal base.
But on Thursday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on Thursday, made clear that leniency has its limits.
It was not two years ago that Palin stood on a stage next to Trump, spinning dizzying phrases that matched the shimmying of the shiny shingles on her sweater and made the endorsement rally feel like a poetry slam.
“Those of us who have kind of gone through the ringer as Mr. Trump has, makes me respect you even more that you’re here, and you’re putting your efforts, you’re putting reputations, you’re putting relationships on the line to do the right thing for the country,” she said at the time, in a speech that excoriated the Republican establishment for its “complicity” in the ills of the country.
But in this distorted refraction of 2016, Palin claimed the stage for herself, with a warning.
“Guys, the swamp, it’s trying to hijack this presidency,” she said. “The swamp is trying to steal the victory that we worked so long and hard for. To steal a victory that a lot of us put our reputations on the line for.”
And Trump, she worried, was letting them.
“The uniparty, the swamp, they’re trying to convince the president that, well, he doesn’t have to deliver on his promises. Trying to make him think, mmm, if you just run some more weird gadget plays then maybe he’d be more popular in the grand stands. And then he can win the big game,” Palin said.
“But,” Palin went on, “you all in Alabama know, that trick plays, they may razzle dazzle, but it is the time tested fundamentals like an impenetrable defense and a sound running game, that’s what wins championships.”
The swamp and its scaly denizens remain the bad guys in this piece. But contained in Palin’s extensive football metaphor was a warning. Trump’s base still loves him, still believes in him, still wants him to succeed. They will forgive him this lapse in judgment, this moment of weakness when the swamp ensnared him and pulled him into its murky depths. But only if he makes good on what he promised them.
He will not win “the big game,” the 2020 election, without them.
Moore and Alabama, she suggested, could show him the way.
“The eyes of the entire nation are on you,” Palin said, concluding her speech. “You can show Washington how to win. Show them how to keep their promises. And together we can show them how to make America great again.”
Alexis Levinson is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Alexis Levinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.