I watched all 85 minutes of Donald Trump’s speech in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday night, and after a brief period of recovery, I offered these thoughts for New York:
[A]s at all the Trump campaign events before and after his election, a recording of the Rolling Stones’ song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was played. Listening to the familiar tune, it occurred to me that Luther Strange didn’t get what he wanted from Trump’s visit, but he may have gotten what he needed — a last-minute boost from the pol Alabama Republicans adore.
Had the Strange campaign been scripting it all, they could have probably done without Trump’s suggestions that their candidate was on the road to sure defeat until the president’s endorsement, or his confession that intervening in this race represented a big political risk, or his pledge to campaign for opponent Roy Moore if he won. I’m sure they cringed when Trump explained how he came up with the nickname “Big Luther” (he had it long before Trump knew who he was) and also when he asserted that Alabama’s new senator has barely met the Senate Majority Leader (who has arranged for virtually all of Luther’s campaign financing). And Team Strange would have probably preferred a few more references to Strange’s accomplishments beyond the abject sycophancy to the president that Trump mentioned again and again, and that the candidate has been displaying to an embarrassing degree on the campaign trail.
But Trump’s speech, even though it spiraled farther and farther away from any coherent message during the course of 85 minutes, did return regularly to the subject at hand. And if Mitch McConnell’s super-pac wants footage for some last-minute ads showing Trump thumping the tubs for Big Luther or standing with him in his MAGA hat, there’s plenty of material at hand.
Perhaps some people beyond Alabama tuned into the speech to see if the president would visibly freak out over today’s developments in the Senate, where John McCain announced his opposition to the Graham-Cassidy legislation that Trump and other Republicans were pushing as a last-gasp effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump did mention it several times, at first mildly, as though it was a minor setback, but eventually he was bellowing at the GOP (not McCain or anyone else specifically) for once again breaking its promise to repeal Obamacare. Perhaps the oddest moment was when Trump suggested that it’s no time to stop the Obamacare repeal effort when Republicans are so close to 50 votes. Does he not understand the September 30 deadline for qualifying the bill as a budget-reconciliation measure? Does he want to put aside his tax bill to go after health care one more time? It’s not clear, but it makes no less sense than Trump’s constantly repeated claims (and yes, he said it again tonight) that getting rid of the power of Democrats to stop bills with a filibuster would somehow get Republicans the votes of 50 of their own senators.
The longer Trump spoke, the more it became a typical Trump speech, full of rambling boasts and expressions of long-held grievances. He returned to familiar attacks on “Crooked Hillary” and extended chest-beating about the brilliance of his presidential campaign. And he veered off into a condemnation of the namby-pamby nature of contemporary pro football, and of a player whose approval ratings in Alabama are surely worse than Hillary Clinton’s — Colin Kaepernick, whom he called a “son of a bitch” he wished NFL owners would “get off the field.”
If you listened to his speech carefully, it became obvious that Trump’s biggest anxiety about Luther Strange is that a loss by his candidate would be blamed on himself and tarnish his own luster. In this, as in so many respects, Luther Strange can hardly complain about becoming an afterthought in his own campaign. When your campaign message is one of slavish devotion to a narcissist, which aspect of you do you expect the narcissist to praise?
Some Alabama Republicans — the ones most likely to turn out in a special runoff election — are such intense culture warriors that nothing short of the grim theocrat Roy Moore will do as a Senate nominee. But your run-of-the-mill reactionaries will be fine with Luther Strange, and Trump’s appearance (along with a quick swing by Mike Pence the day before Tuesday’s balloting) may be just enough to get enough of them to the polls. For the rest of his career, though, Luther Strange will be reminded on many occasions exactly who saved his bacon.