If Luther Strange hadn't accepted Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's appointment to the Senate seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, there's a good chance he or someone else might have beaten Roy Moore in the Republican primary runoff Tuesday night.
The perception, fair or not, that there was some sort of corrupt bargain between Bentley and Strange loomed larger in the race than any grand ideological struggle between nationalists and globalists. So in that sense, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon's victory lap is premature.
But there are signs that "the populist nationalist conservative revolt" Bannon describes is starting to exist independently of President Trump, even if it is too early to determine whether it will ever take hold of a significant section of the Republican Party. Some of them are popping up in unusual places.
One of them came in an immigration speech delivered last week in Washington, D.C. by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. During his 2014 Senate campaign, Cotton was described as the "new neocon darling." Unlike in the 1990s or even the George W. Bush years, the intraconservative immigration debate is no longer neatly split into "paleo" versus "neo," although foreign-policy disputes remain.
Even taking that into account, however, Cotton's was not a neoconservative speech. "Unlike any other country, America is an idea — but it is not only an idea," the senator said. "America is a real, particular place with real borders and real, flesh-and-blood people. And the Declaration [of Independence] tells us it was so from the very beginning."
Political elites, Cotton said, "believe that American citizenship — real, actual citizenship — is meaningless, ought not be foreclosed to anyone, and ought not be the basis for distinctions between citizens and foreigners."
"You might say they think American exceptionalism lies in not making exceptions when it comes to citizenship," the senator quipped, in a line that could apply to some Republicans as well as Democrats.
Cotton praised America's immigrant heritage. "They can cast off what accident and force have thrust upon them — race, class, ethnicity — and take on by reflection and choice a new title: American," he said.
"But our cosmopolitan elites take it to an extreme," he added. "They think because anyone can become an American, we're morally obligated to treat everyone like an American. If you don't, you're hard-hearted, bigoted, intolerant, xenophobic. And so the only policies that aren't inherently un-American are those that effectively erase our borders and erase the distinction between citizen and foreigner: don't erect barriers on the border; give sanctuary cities a pass; spare illegal immigrants from deportation; allow American businesses to import as much cheap labor as they want."
Leaving aside the immigration-policy implications, Cotton's speech the day before Trump defended national sovereignty at the United Nations and over a week before Moore won in Alabama was a refined and nuanced expression of Bannon-style populist, nationalist conservatism, as opposed to the more abstract version popular in Washington conservative circles.
And this speech was delivered not by a Breitbart columnist or a candidate losing a Republican primary to House Speaker Paul Ryan by 70 points, but by an up-and-coming senator who is well positioned to advance politically whether the Trump administration ultimately succeeds or fails.
That may not be the narrative preferred either by Breitbart conservatives who want to live in a state of perpetual rebellion or Republicans who would like to superimpose Trump's face on Ryan's policies. It is, however, the kind of thing that must happen if this variant of conservatism is ever going to translate into something more substantive than the president criticizing football players who take a knee during the national anthem.
The deepening frustration Republican voters express with their party's leadership — perhaps including Trump, although GOP lawmakers to a much greater extent — creates opportunities for ideological entrepreneurs and lucky grifters alike.
No matter how much more important local Alabama issues were to Moore's toppling of Strange, it escaped few Republicans' notice that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's support was treated like an endorsement from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "I will say they used him in the race, and I was very honored by the way I was treated in the race, but they used him in the race," Trump said of McConnell Wednesday.
Future primary challengers, many of whom will fancy themselves far greater political talents than Moore, will be emboldened by this outcome. As a result, more of them are likely to run in 2018, some with Trump's blessing, some without it.
Those contests will help test whether Trumpism really needs Trump to survive.