The resounding defeat of Sen. Luther Strange, President Trump's preferred candidate in Tuesday's primary election, carries with it an important lesson about the true motive force that has roiled politics for a decade.
When the Tea Party took over the GOP in 2010 and propelled Republicans to a majority in the House, the wave was easily mistaken as one driven by ideological, free-market, libertarian, or conservative ideas. The same wave seemed to be rolling in 2014.
But the wave that crashed over the political landscape in 2016 swamped Tea Party candidates whom the previous Tea Party wave had swept into Washington only six years earlier. These were politicians such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who could do nothing to prevent the incoming tide of Trumpism.
Donald Trump, the least conservative and least ideological Republican nominee of our generation, was borne into the Oval Office. Many of us concluded that this wave was about Trump, the man.
But in Alabama Tuesday night, that idea was in its turn swept away. The latest wave crashed on Trump or, more accurately, on his candidate, and instead swept Roy Moore into the general election at the end of which he will, presumably, be a senator.
What's going on? Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., one of the most anti-establishment politicians in Washington, explained this very dynamic to us a few months ago:
"I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans," Massie said of the Republican voters who had delivered the Tea Party victories. "But after some soul-searching, I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron [Paul] and me in these primaries, they weren't voting for libertarian ideas. They were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class."
Setting aside Massie's colorful language, he's right. With each new election, voters repudiate the orthodoxy learned from the last one, by inflicting some level of humiliation on the pols they elected last time around. Thus, the last seven years have been revolutionary, shattering most of the assumptions that Republican politicians once made about themselves and about their voting base of support.
In the 10 years preceding Trump's candidacy, the 20th-century version of Republicanism all but vanished. The party that lost control of Washington in 2006 never came back. The GOP returned to power in Congress, in the states, and in the White House not because of nostalgia for the dispensation of the Bush era but because voters were overwhelmingly angry with what had replaced it, and wanted yet more change.
In three of the past four elections, Republicans have proven themselves adept at exploiting voters' anger to win elections. But after winning, they have repeatedly deluded themselves. They have created a fictional account in which they all won their last election because they were so popular, not because voters had had it with the status quo.
This is where Massie's idea comes in. A few years ago, every Republican politician running for anything from dog catcher to president was fighting bitterly to prove he or she was the tea-partiest Republican of them all.
In 2016 and since most have been determined to prove they are the Trumpiest of all. But this phase too shall pass, and it will happen quickly if voters again feel that they have been betrayed by those they sent to Washington.
With Tuesday's defeat of Strange, Trump's preferred candidate in a simple two-way Senate primary, voters have shown that they are already ready to rumble again if Washington fails them. Trump saw it coming and laid off the sharpest criticisms of the victor, Judge Roy Moore. Voters abandoned a once-popular Republican statewide elected official for a religious fundamentalist who makes even conservative Christian believers uneasy, let alone anyone to the left of them. Trump derided him last week as unelectable. The president should know from his own meteoric ascent into the political firmament that that description is more or less obsolete in our nation's politics.
Voters are marching on to further war with the political establishment.
And why not? Republicans have not been able to deliver on the promises that have to be made in that process. With their failure on Obamacare, they have demonstrated again this week a lack of follow-through even on a promise made again and again for four consecutive election cycles.
The populist march that propelled Moore to victory isn't aimed at securing conservative policies nor built around one politician, Trump, or the Tea Party. Each is a symptom of a dyspeptic electorate, not its cause.