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Trump versus Bannon in the Deep South

US President Donald Trump and Senior Counselor to the President Stephen Bannon
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
US President Donald Trump and Senior Counselor to the President Stephen Bannon

It has been a while since America's Deep South held any sway over the country's future. Whatever Alabama's voters decide next week will have a strong impact on Donald Trump's state of mind.

At stake in Alabama's Republican primary election is the loyalty of the president's base. Are they set on humbling America's establishment come what may, as Mr Trump originally promised? Or is their allegiance to the president as a person, regardless of what he does? Next week will test the theory of Mr Trump's base. Alabama is the laboratory.

It is a gamble Mr Trump did not have to take. On one side of the Alabama primary is Luther Strange, the sitting senator, whom the Republican establishment convinced Mr Trump to endorse. On the other is Roy Moore, the insurgent challenger, who is vowing to drain the Washington swamp, as Mr Trump earlier did. Mr Moore is backed by Steve Bannon, Mr Trump's former chief strategist and architect of his 2016 campaign. It has been barely a month since Mr Bannon was ejected from the White House. He is already on an opposing side to the president. Mr Bannon's team includes Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, and Sebastian Gorka, another hardline former adviser to Mr Trump, who also was ejected last month. So far their horse is in the lead.

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Even by Mr Bannon's standards, Mr Moore is an incendiary figure. A judge who has twice been removed from the bench for injudicious behaviour, Mr Moore believes God is punishing America for its sins. He vows to end the "reign" of Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, if he wins. It is the kind of bomb throwing in which Mr Trump specialises. Polls show Mr Moore with a double-digit lead over Mr Strange. The president hopes to reverse those numbers on Friday when he will appear in Alabama with the relatively sedate Mr Strange. His gamble may well fail. Mr Trump's pride is at stake — as is the direction of his presidency.

"It is almost like one of Mr Trump's reality shows. Which Mr Trump does Alabama want? The demagogue or the dealmaker? It is fair to say most Americans would prefer the latter. But Alabama Republicans, like the president's base, are untypical of most of America."

Either outcome will be clarifying. Shortly after Mr Bannon was fired, Mr Trump sent mixed signals on whether he would stick to his original campaign promise. First he announced that within six months he would start deporting "Dreamers" — those who came to the US illegally as children — unless Congress said otherwise. The right applauded.

Shortly after that he said he was open to a deal with Democrats that would legalise the Dreamers' status. Mr Trump hinted he might even drop his insistence on funding for the Mexican border wall. The right erupted in fury. Breitbart News, Mr Bannon's disruptive website, branded the president "Amnesty Don". Alabama's Republicans will now decide if their loyalty is to Mr Trump or to the cause on which he campaigned.

It is almost like one of Mr Trump's reality shows. Which Mr Trump does Alabama want? The demagogue or the dealmaker? It is fair to say most Americans would prefer the latter. But Alabama Republicans, like the president's base, are untypical of most of America.

Mr Bannon's goal is to force Mr Trump to stick to his campaign message. In his view, the president has no core ideology: he responds to market signals. Applause is the key index. In the past few weeks Mr Trump has won ovations from Washington centrists and cable shows, such as Morning Joe. Should this continue, he could acquire a taste for bipartisanship, which would damage Mr Bannon's cause. Mr Trump could start doing deals with Democrats. Worse, he could become an establishment Republican. Mr Bannon's aim is to save Mr Trump from himself.

The backdrop is an America in which two-party politics is decomposing. The gulf between the Democratic moneyed elites and its grassroots is also widening. Do not expect Mr Trump to settle on any grand strategy. He is both a symptom and personification of America's political breakdown. If his candidate prevails in Alabama next week, the battle will shift to other races. There are bitter Republican primaries brewing in Mississippi, Nevada and Arizona. Mr Trump has yet to decide whether to endorse the incumbents or Mr Bannon's insurgents. Given his fickle nature, the president is unlikely to stick to any battle plan for long.

By contrast, Mr Bannon is digging in for the strategic long haul. Even after being cast out, his influence remains. This week Mr Trump gave the most nationalist speech yet delivered by a US president to the UN general assembly. It could have been written by Mr Bannon. Every time Mr Trump wanders off script, Mr Bannon will give him a reason to think twice. Though Mr Trump was speaking to fellow leaders in New York, his audience was at home in sweet Alabama.

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