How Trump’s base is preparing to defy him

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally for Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, in Huntsville, Ala. His most committed supporters, however, are breaking with him to support Roy Moore.
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally for Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, in Huntsville, Ala. His most committed supporters, however, are breaking with him to support Roy Moore. AP

They’re depressed or in denial, some are bargaining and others have reached acceptance.

But as Donald Trump’s most avid supporters grapple with being on the opposite side of him as the Alabama Republican Senate runoff arrives Tuesday, the one stage of grief many are studiously avoiding is anger toward Trump.

“I would burn my house to the ground right now because I care so much that Trump won instead of Hillary Clinton,” insisted Dean Young, a former House candidate and close friend of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a day after Trump urged a 7,500 person rally to vote for Moore’s opponent, Sen. Luther Strange. “I believe in Trump that much, in what he ran on. And so would Judge Moore.”

The special election primary runoff here in Alabama has upended traditional alliances and redrawn battle lines within the GOP, as Trump aligns with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom he has had a rocky relationship, to support Strange. Meanwhile, many of Trump’s diehard supporters and a bevy of conservative media and political figures are backing Moore—including, significantly, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was expected in the state Monday night to campaign for Moore.

For Trump, the race is a test of whether he can bestow his brand on a candidate at odds with the deeply conservative base that is so influential in GOP primaries. And for the most pro-Trump elements of the Republican base here in Alabama, the election forces the question of whether there is anything Trump can do that would cause his most committed activists to break with him.

The answer, some Trump backers reluctantly admit, is yes.

“President Trump is loved by the people of Alabama,” said state auditor Jim Zeigler, speaking over a bluegrass band playing gospel music at a Moore campaign stop here in this rural corner of south Alabama. “We will support President Trump even though we occasionally disagree with him.”

That would hardly be a remarkable statement about any other politician. But in interviews with conservative voters across the state, many gave Trump a pass on just about every other controversy of his administration so far, including working with Democratic leadership on a more moderate immigration proposal.

For many of the voters backing Moore, Trump’s endorsement of Strange was among their first notable disagreements with him of his presidency—and they are seeking to come to terms with it, making excuses for what they see as the rare misstep from Trump while going to great lengths to stress that they still adore him personally and detest anyone perceived as foiling his agenda.

Several people seized on a brief aside Trump made at the Strange rally in which he said “I might have made a mistake,” before launching into a more full-throated endorsement of Strange. That remark alone was enough to generate praise for “honesty.”

“The thing is, we love him,” Young said, going on to add, “I think he’s made a mistake, and I think he’s coming around. When he said he may have chosen the wrong person, that’s…honesty. And I think he has chosen the wrong one.”

“I think he had bad information,” he continued. “I think he was honest enough to tell the people of Alabama and the world that he could have made a mistake.”

Trump's endorsement of Strange is just the latest instance in which he's found himself on the other side of Bannon, his outlet Breitbart, and other leaders of the far-right. Earlier this month, Breitbart pilloried Trump when he worked with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to address immigration after making a hardline stance on the issue a central piece of his presidential campaign. At a rally for Moore in Montgomery last week, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin swiped at that obliquely, blaming the so-called D.C. "swamp" for encouraging the president to pursue a more moderate path.

"They're saying 'pal around with Chuck and Nancy," Palin said of the so-called "swamp," going on to add, "They're whispering, 'don't build the wall.'"

"A vote for Judge Moore isn't a vote against the president," she stressed. "It is a vote for the people's agenda that elected the president."

But many of Trump's supporters didn't seem particularly bothered that he had worked with Democratic leadership, including on fiscal issues, another area of cooperation that blindsided GOP congressional leaders. Images of burning "Make America Great Again" hats were displayed on Breitbart several weeks ago, but in Alabama, voters continued to sport them proudly.

"I think Trump has gone against the establishment and done a tremendous job," said Jack Sanders, a Montgomery-area resident who is retired from the military and is supporting Moore. "I applaud him going to the Democrats [on fiscal issues]. He had to do something. He took action. He's tired of waiting on those guys."

Instead, it’s the Senate race that is Sanders’ first big disagreement with Trump.

From here in McIntosh, near Alabama’s southern coast, all the way up to its northern border in Huntsville, Moore supporters puzzled through how the president they love so much could have ended up on the other side of people like Bannon, Fox News host Sean Hannity, organizations like the Tea Party Patriots—and themselves.

“I do not know why he did that,” said a man holding a pro-Trump, pro-Moore sign who had come down from Tennessee to protest the Strange-Trump rally unfolding in Huntsville Friday night. He declined to give his name but said he was 73. “The most innocent reason I can think of his opponent read [Trump’s book] ‘The Art of the Deal’ and is using it on him.”

At the Moore rally in a sticky-warm train shed in Montgomery late last week, a host of prominent conservatives ticked through their own theories and worked through coping mechanisms, from embracing the idea that Trump was simply misled, to effectively denying that Trump had come to a different conclusion than his allies.

Trump has gotten some “bad advice,” said Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert.

“The [D.C.] swamp, it’s trying to hijack this presidency,” warned Palin.

Former White House aide Sebastian Gorka glossed over the fact that Trump had endorsed Moore’s opponent.

“You have a man in Judge Moore who has been endorsed by not just myself, Steve Bannon, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Gov. Palin…but just think who you have on the other side!” he said.

Gorka’s voice dropped menacingly and the crowd booed as he continued, “A man endorsed by Mitch McConnell. Enough said. That’s the end of my argument.”

Meet David Edwards Sr. of Burlington, Kentucky. He's a retired union millwright who came to the McConnell protest in Covington, Kentucky, to show his support for Donald Trump.

It was an argument that ignored the obvious: Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were headed to Alabama to campaign for Strange.

There is cognitive dissonance on the other side, too: at the Huntsville rally for Strange, Trump repeatedly insisted that the senator didn’t know “Mitch” McConnell, despite the fact that Strange is in the Senate and has received millions of dollars from McConnell’s supportive allies, who fear the hardline Moore joining the GOP caucus.

The rally—where Trump earned a raucous reception—was a reminder that plenty of strong Trump supporters are inclined to back Strange as well. After all, in a Republican primary in a state as pro-Trump as Alabama is, there are few voters who don’t consider themselves Trump fans. Strange has leaned hard into the Trump endorsement, introducing the president at the rally while wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, and devoting much of his messaging in the final days of the race to talking about his support from the president.

“Strange wants the same things as Trump,” said Thomas Peach, a 63-year-old retiree. “The President isn’t getting much help now. Strange is one who will help him out a little.”

But not everyone who showed up to see Trump was sold on the Senate candidate he was endorsing—and certainly, plenty of people are comfortable with that, downplaying the importance of this particular disagreement.

“We came to see our president, primarily,” said Bill Williams, 61, of Huntsville. He is “absolutely” a big fan of Trump’s, but “he’s not right about everything.”

At the rally, Trump also made clear that he’s aware of potential political backlash for supporting Strange if the senator doesn’t survive Tuesday’s race.

“If Luther doesn’t win…they’re going to say, ‘Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the line. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump. This is a total embarrassment,’” he said, mocking national pundits and the media.

But at the Moore gathering here in McIntosh Saturday night, the barbecue-eating attendees were hardly challenging Trump’s influence, instead focusing on a different part of Trump’s speech. Even as the president questioned Moore’s ability to win a general election, Trump added that he would come back to campaign “like hell” for Moore if he wins the runoff.

“I’m glad that President Trump endorsed Judge Moore,” said Young, speaking near an event sign that urged “no profanity.” “We just have to beat Luther Strange Tuesday.”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck