As a kid, most Saturday afternoons, we watched professional wrestling with the likes of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Chief Wahoo McDaniel, Rufus R. “Freight train” Jones, and our personal hometown favorite, Sy Ritter, “The Junkyard Dog.” On Sunday mornings before church, we watched a televangelist named Leroy Jenkins. Reverand Leroy was a faith healer who would cure his congregants of all sorts of ailments that traditional medicine couldn’t fix. And while we rarely watched it, the PTL Club with Jim and Tammy Bakker was on almost every day. A local radio show parodied it with a skit called the Pass The Loot Club.
The faith healers and the wrestlers were both great entertainment. We laughed at them and knew they were just acts—the original reality TV. But outside of our family and in our community, a lot of people took them very seriously. They sent money to the Bakkers, visited healers to cure ailments doctors couldn’t and argued that at least some of those wrestling moves were real.
Today, those believers are driving the Republican Party. They’ve been duped into cheering for the threats and insults of Donald Trump as they once applauded the bluster of their heroes of the ring. Like their faith in Reverend Leroy and his ilk, they’re expecting Trump to bring relief for economic woes like lost coal and manufacturing jobs that the modern economy can’t restore.
Now, they’re doubling down on a former disgraced judge who built his reputation putting his religion before his judicial obligations. Roy Moore, the Republican US Senate nominee in Alabama, apparently pursued sexual relations with teenagers in the late 1970s when he was in his early 30s. Moore is another showman, wearing cowboy garb and positioning himself as a sanctimonious defender of evangelical Christian values.
While members of the Republican establishment like Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn and John McCain quickly began distancing themselves from Moore, Alabama Republicans and Fox News came to his defense. The allegations are too detailed with too many corroborating witnesses to dismiss so Moore’s supporters are defending his actions. It’s quite revealing.
The Alabama State Auditor compared Moore’s escapades to those of Mary and Joseph, saying “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.” Sean Hannity claimed that the relationships were “consensual” despite one victim being fourteen years old. Another Alabama county chair said, “There’s nothing wrong with a 30-year-old single male asking a 19-year-old, a 17-year-old, or a 16-year-old out on a date.” But the statement that most sums up the feelings of Republicans who will support a guy like Roy Moore, or Donald Trump for that matter, was a county chair who said he would vote for Moore because he would not want to vote for a Democrat.
The Republican Party of the South has had an element of hucksterism since Nixon implemented his Southern Strategy and brought the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party into the Republican fold, ending one-party rule in the South. As my father likes to say, the country club wing of the GOP thought they could keep them in the back of the bus by offering lip service and social conservatism. Now, they want to drive and they’re throwing the establishment under that bus. It’s no longer the party of Ronald Reagan. It’s the party of Leroy Jenkins.