Alabama’s upset senatorial election highlights the contradictions behind Donald Trump’s style of populism.
It is an idiosyncratic style based in large part on the personality quirks of the larger-than-life U.S. president.
But it is also an attempt to build a political movement that speaks to the racial and class grievances of those Americans — mainly white — who view themselves as outsiders.
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s special election, Trump tried to mobilize his base of so-called deplorables behind discredited Republican candidate Roy Moore. He failed.
True, those whites who cast ballots voted overwhelmingly for Moore. Exit polls indicate that 72 per cent of white men who voted had backed the former judge.
The equivalent figure for white women was 63 per cent — this in spite of the allegations of sexual impropriety levelled against Moore.
But as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn points out, many whites living in working-class areas of Alabama — people who had supported Republicans in the 2014 midterm election —this time simply didn’t vote at all.
Add in the fact that the Democrats ran a good campaign in the suburbs and the net result was a narrow loss for Moore.
It is unwise to draw too much from this election. Moore, who has been accused of having sexually abused teenage girls in the past, was an unusually weak candidate for the Republicans.
Still, Trump endorsed him anyway — presumably in the belief that this would ensure his victory.
What the president forgot is that he has given the working-class elements of his base little reason to be enthusiastic about him.
Trump came to power promising to restore manufacturing jobs and raise wages. To that end, he pledged to get tough with Mexico and China, force companies to relocate production to America and spend on infrastructure.
Even some unions aligned with the Democrats were pleased.
But so far he has failed to deliver. He did manage to bully a couple of auto manufacturers into shifting some production from Mexico to the U.S. But he has not yet pulled the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement that he says favours Mexico and Canada.
Nor has he fulfilled his promise to tackle America’s trade deficit with China, preferring instead to cosy up to Beijing in the hope of enlisting its help against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
This is a perfectly rational way to behave, but it is not what Trump promised.
Trump’s promised infrastructure program shows no sign of life.
The tax-reform package he lauds favours the rich rather than the working class. It also threatens Medicaid, which provides some health care to the poor.
Trump was elected by a coalition of the disgruntled — by workers angered at the decline in their standard of living, by so-called white nationalists angered at what they believe to be the undue deference shown toward racial minorities and by mainstream Republicans angered at his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Since that election, he has made rhetorical bows to the white nationalists and substantive bows to mainstream Republicans.
He still skewers Clinton every chance he gets.
He has scaled back environmental regulations in a so-far futile effort to resuscitate the struggling coal industry.
But otherwise, he has failed the disgruntled working class.
So perhaps it is no wonder that Trump’s endorsement wasn’t enough to give Roy Moore victory in Alabama. Moore was an unappetizing candidate to begin with. That he was supported by a do-little president made him no more appealing.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.