When Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was resoundingly defeated this week in his race to reclaim the Senate seat he’d once held for 20 years, I wish I could say I celebrated. On the face of things, it should have been gratifying to see the end of a political career that had been defined by racism and xenophobia. I’m from Alabama. Long before Sessions entered his unholy alliance with our racist president and, in short order, rose to national prominence (or, perhaps, national mockery), I was all too keenly aware of the damage this man could do. He’d been doing it all over my home state since before I was born.
Starting out a prosecutor in Mobile, a coastal town steeped in old money and Confederate nostalgia, Sessions showed an early commitment to airing white grievances and turning back the clock on civil rights by using the modern, legal tools available to him. After Reagan appointed him as a U.S. Attorney in 1981, Sessions waged the racist drug war with a firebrand’s passion, pushing for the maximum possible sentences and filling Alabama’s prisons with black and brown bodies. By 1985, he had turned his attention to disenfranchisement, charging former Martin Luther King Jr. aide Albert Turner, Turner’s wife, and another civil rights activist — a group that became known as the Marion Three — with voter fraud after they had raised voter turnout in several rural Alabama counties by educating elderly black people and those who couldn’t afford to take a day off work to vote on how to cast their ballot absentee. (It’s worth noting that Turner had helped organize the civil rights march from Selma, Sessions’ birthplace, to Montgomery.) All three defendants were acquitted.
Nevertheless, such comportment on Sessions’ part didn’t stop Reagan from nominating him for a federal judgeship in 1986 — though it did keep him from getting the position. During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a black assistant U.S. attorney testified that Sessions had called him “boy” and had once opined that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot” (Sessions denied the former and professed that the latter was only a joke). Witnesses questioned his commitment to cases involving civil rights violations and said he referred to the NAACP and UCLA as “un-American.” Coretta Scott King sent a nine-page letter to the committee, writing that “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.” He became the first federal district court nominee in more than 30 years to be denied confirmation. His own Alabama Senator, Democrat Howell Heflin, cast the deciding vote against him.
By the time Sessions joined the Senate in 1997, gleefully taking Heflin’s seat, the Republican Party was shifting increasingly to the right. Sessions’ casual racism — the chummy nonchalance with which he assumed his own superiority — may not have been what got him elected, but it didn’t keep him from it, either. Voting against immigration reform, criminal justice reform, the Affordable Care Act, marriage equality, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, he was known as one of the most conservative members of Congress. But in Alabama, he was seen as one of our own, someone who upheld the staunchly conservative ideals of the majority of the states’ white voters. The right-wing populism that could have been viewed as gauche by the monied Republican establishment in Montgomery and Birmingham when Sessions started his career, was increasingly becoming the politics of the day. Sessions won his 1996 race for Senate with 52 percent of the vote. He won his 2014 race, unopposed, with 97 percent of it. When I visited D.C. as part of a high school mock Congress, I remember my nascent feminist ire being raised by the barely-there skirts and the chauvinist air in the offices of some of my Alabama representatives. By contrast, I remember Sessions as kind and avuncular. At a time when I was much younger and more directly a product of my “cultural heritage,” as Sessions would have it, it’s not inconceivable that I would have even cast a ballot for him.
The story of his entanglement with Trump has such epic strokes as to almost be Shakespearean. Perhaps seeing a kindred spirit in Trump’s race-baiting entrée into the presidential race, Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse him, the first to broadcast that he might actually be a viable — even God-ordained — Republican candidate. Traveling the campaign trail as national-security chairman, he guided the development of Trump’s policies, infusing them with the right-wing populism that became the hallmark of the brand. If it’s an overstatement to say that Sessions invented Trumpism, it’s certainly true that Sessions was Trumpist long before Trump was. And that just as his endorsement legitimized Trump’s candidacy, Trump’s win legitimized Alabama’s particular brand of white Republicanism, making it the de facto Republicanism of the land.
This perfect symbiosis is what makes Sessions’ fall from grace all the more dramatic. He thought he was at the pinnacle of his powers, a boy scout from Selma now ensconced in the president’s favor, when just 21 days into his tenure as U.S. Attorney General, he recused himself from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Almost overnight he became persona non grata, banished from the kingdom by the very monster he had helped create. It didn’t matter that right up until the day after the 2018 midterm elections, when Trump finally asked for his resignation, Sessions was probably the Trump acolyte who most delivered what the president purportedly stood for, from separating families at the border and rolling back Obama-era civil rights protections to blocking efforts at police reform. As Trump tweeted his utter disdain for the man, Sessions kept effectively doing his political bidding. It must have been a shock to Sessions’ system to realize the extent to which Trumpism was no longer about the policies and ideologies he had used to construct it; it was now just about Trump himself.
Which is why Sessions’ defeat in the runoff for the Republican nomination for Senate — losing to Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn football coach whose main qualification for holding office, as evinced in his campaign ads, seems to be his ability to scream at referees — gives me no satisfaction. To be sure, no person with Sessions’ racial track record should be elected to any public office, much less one in which they are called upon to represent more than a million people of color. And to be sure, he might have posed a greater challenge than Tuberville to Democrat Doug Jones’ difficult campaign to hold onto his Senate seat. What disturbs me, however, is what Sessions’ loss says about the destruction of American politics. Possibly no politician in Alabama was once as esteemed as Jeff Sessions. And possibly no other candidate so perfectly personifies the wishes of the conservative Alabama vote. But Trump endorsed Tuberville. With his base of voters, policy concerns are very clearly being sidelined by his cult of personality — and while policy can be debated and legislated, cults of personality cannot.
The greatest irony of Sessions’ run for Senate was not how the substance of his campaign was being mirrored in real time by Trump’s own bid for re-election; it’s that the populism that he helped introduce on a national scale is actually what destroyed him. His loss this week illustrates how difficult it might be for any failure on Trump’s part — his gross mishandling of a deadly medical and financial crisis and his inability to do anything but congratulate himself about it — to unseat him. While other countries with better leadership are opening up schools and daycares and offices and sports arenas, Americans are learning that our lives might not return to some semblance of normalcy until the year 2022. Even those of us who haven’t lost our lives outright will probably still lose several years of them. And to what end? For all his flaws, it seems that Trump was right all along: He could sit at his desk at Pennsylvania Avenue and metaphorically shoot 138,000 of us (and counting), and not lose any voters. Not in Alabama, anyway.
So no, Sessions’ political ousting gives me no satisfaction. Not at all. It simply proves that the damage to our nation is most assuredly done.