He mocked “Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un, the North Korean ruler, and taunted “Crooked Hillary” Clinton for not campaigning in the Upper Midwest. He suggested that worries over traumatic brain injury in the National Football League were overblown and criticized football players who’d joined quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest by refusing to stand for the National Anthem. He bragged about the stock market and spoke admiringly of “beautiful clean coal,” whatever that is.
But at least some of President Donald J. Trump’s speech on Friday night in Huntsville, Alabama, was devoted to its stated purpose: a show of support for incumbent Alabama Senator Luther Strange, who next Tuesday faces a primary contest against Roy S. Moore, the state’s former chief judge. The election has been seen by many as a proxy battle between Trump, who has endorsed Strange, and his former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, whose Breitbart News has been a boisterous and loud champion of Moore.
In recent days, Moore has also received support from Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, and Sebastian Gorka, a blustery counter-terrorism expert fired from the White House earlier this summer. He has even been showered by praise from Ben Carson, the Housing and Urban Development secretary, who called Moore “a fine man of proven character and integrity” who “reflects the Judeo-Christian values that were so important to the establishment of our country.” Moore was twice removed from his position on the state court because his religious beliefs clashed with the rule of law.
Trump joked that while he was fine with members of his administration supporting Moore, they may not have jobs come Monday morning. And while he said he would support Moore in the general election, he also said Strange would fare better against Democratic challenger Doug Jones.
“Luther will definitely win,” Trump said of the coming contest against Jones. Of course, Strange has to beat Moore first. Most polls show Moore, an unapologetic religious conservative, with a lead.
Strange introduced Trump wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap, a trenchant symbol of his campaign strategy, which has been to align himself as closely as possible with the president, who remains popular with Alabamians. Trump hugged Strange as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s iconic “Sweet Home Alabama” played on the loudspeakers.
And while the president sometimes has trouble praising someone not named Donald Trump, he heaped plenty of praise on Strange, relating a somewhat long-winded story about Strange’s eager support for an Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace effort (that effort failed over the summer). He called Strange a “tough, tough cookie” and “tough as hell,” marveling at his height on several occasions: Strange is 6 feet, 9 inches tall, making “Big Luther” perhaps the most accurate of Trump’s famous nicknames for friends and rivals alike.
Trump loves nothing quite like a campaign rally, and while this one wasn’t nearly as boisterous or freewheeling as the one he delivered in Phoenix, Arizona, last month, it nevertheless reprised many of his favorite points. He proclaimed astonishment at the crowd size, while complaining that the networks would never show the sea of adoring Trump fans. He said, as he usually does, that legions were waiting outside, unable to get into the arena. That assertion was disputed by reporters on the ground.
He also engaged in plenty of cultural warfare. “Get that son of a bitch off the field,” he told NFL team owners of any player engaging in Kaepernick-inspired protest. He repeatedly referenced college football, too: the University of Alabama is in Huntsville, and Crimson Tide fandom is a kind of religion there. And if it’s hard to believe Trump is himself a fan of the college game, his love for the state of Alabama seemed genuine. At one point, he even suggested he would have moved there if he’d lost the election, so much kinship did he feel for the people of the South. He of course moved to Washington, D.C., instead.
Perhaps a week of meetings at the United Nations General Assembly left Trump somewhat subdued: While the speech was long, it seemed to double back on itself on more than instance, as when Trump returned to the significance of missile defense in this time of renewed nuclear fears.
“The world is starting to respect the United States of America again,” Trump said of his tough speech at the UN, which was criticized by some world leaders and American foreign policy experts for its aggressive tone. He said the United States would “take care of the bad people,” presumably meaning the regimes of North Korea and Iran.
"And by the way, Rocket Man should have been handled a long time ago," he said, using the nickname he'd recently invented for North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Trump seemed to blame that nation's increasingly aggressive nuclear program on the inaction of his Democratic predecessors, William J. Clinton and Barack Obama. But despite his bellicose tweets, Trump has not yet charted a substantively different approach to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
One moment had Trump riffing on North Korea, the next had him in Wisconsin. Trump revisited last November’s election, criticizing Clinton's campaigning decisions and hoping that he has the chance to run against her in 2020. At one point, the crowd burst into a “Lock her up,” chant, which seemed to amuse the president.
“You gotta speak to Jeff Sessions about that,” Trump said, referring to his attorney general, who had previously been an Alabama senator. Strange was subsequently appointed to his seat. But if Moore’s insurgent campaign proves successful, it won’t by Strange’s for much longer.