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Senators Week

Tommy Tuberville Is At Home In The Senate

Sen. Tommy Tuberville questions Joe Biden's HHS Secretary nominee about, let's say, cancel culture.
Photo by Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images

This week, Defector has chosen to curate a collection of writing inspired by two entities that have had an indelible effect on North America: the upper house of the United States Congress and Eugene Melnyk’s pro hockey team. This is Senators Week.

Beyond the many obvious good ones, there is no reason why Tommy Tuberville should not be in the United States Senate. Tuberville seems not to understand or care about the job very much, but that's not unique in his workplace, although his lack of a familiarity with the structure and function of the government within which he serves might be. The most compelling proof that Tuberville's deep incuriosity and manifest incapacity does not disqualify him from office is that it did not disqualify him from office.

In fact, Tuberville pretty much ran on it. His political positions, to the extent that they exist, are ultra-pasteurized conservative pap. His actual personal politics manifest only intermittently, and generally through gormless reactions to whatever provocation has most recently been run up the flagpole at Fox News, and subsequent announcements that he is being very viciously attacked for having done so. Tuberville launched his Senate campaign in November 2019 with an ad that opens with Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the national anthem and gets steadily more fatuous from there. It ends with Tuberville making the only pitch he ever bothered to make to Alabama voters: He would be more muscular in his slavishness to Donald Trump than anyone else in the GOP primary, especially former Sen. Jeff Sessions. "Weak-kneed career politicians aren't tough enough to stand with President Trump," Tuberville says, "but I am." He beat Sessions in the primary, then Democrat Doug Jones in the general, by around 20 points both times.

Tuberville has barely worked in any field beyond coaching college football, and is known as much for the luridly scuzzy ways in which he has reliably left those coaching jobs as he is for anything he did in them, although to be fair he remains the only Senator ever to lose a Belk Bowl. His non-coaching record is replete with a scammy personal charity and links to at least three different Ponzi schemes. All of that tells you something about what Tommy Tuberville actually values and what kind of senator he'll be, but also none of it matters at all. Tuberville, like any coach, is what his record says he is, and the door to his office in the Richard Russell Senate Office Building says that he is a senator from the state of Alabama. When the 86-year-old Richard Shelby retires at the end of his sixth term this year, Tuberville will become the state's senior senator.

When the New York Times asked the campaign if Tuberville, who said in 2020 that he wanted to serve on the (nonexistent) "banking finance committee," still sought that appointment, a spokesman replied, "While the Swamp focuses upon issues like Senate committee assignments, Coach is focused solely upon serving his fellow Alabamians and faithfully representing their conservative values, beliefs, and desires." For an evasive quote, there's a lot of revealing stuff in it: a simultaneously vague and grandiose grievance that's far too pissy to convincingly pass as smarm; a rote partisanship inclined towards meaningless, overheated binaries; an understanding of governance as fundamentally a matter of celebrity-scented transference and signaling; and Tuberville's personal preference for being called Coach. Add it up and you have someone who is very obviously unqualified for the job of Senator in the rosier civic understanding of the gig, but perfectly prepared for it as it exists in this moment.

"No one plays the buyout game quite like Tuberville," Jon Solomon wrote at CBS Sports in 2016, in a post that credited Tuberville as a pioneer in the ongoing college football trend of coaches renegotiating their eventual and inevitable buyout fees upward. After it became public that Auburn tried unsuccessfully to replace Tuberville with Bobby Petrino in 2003, he continued to turn the screws on the program after a series of successful seasons. When Tuberville quit at Auburn in 2008, months after saying he planned to be there another decade, he still got a $5.08 million buyout. When he quit the Cincinnati job after going 4-8 in 2016, he banked another $2 million.

"By the end of his disastrous tenure as Cincinnati’s football coach," USA Today's Dan Wolken wrote, "when it was obvious Tuberville had checked out on pretty much all aspects of the actual job he was hired to do, the joke around the football building was that you’d be more likely to catch him in his office watching Fox News than film of the next opponent." By then, the main character on Fox News was Donald Trump, a famous but otherwise unremarkable man whose politics metastasized through prolonged exposure to conservative media from a fatty mass of blowzy rich-guy gripes and offhand biases into something much more virulent. It is easy to see how this all happened with Trump, as the network's unceasing tidal push of panic and ancient umbrage worked on the irritant lodged in Trump's own small self; it resolved, over time, to a resentment that he wasn't already president, when he so manifestly deserved to be. In time this friction created something very hard and very dense, a rancid and unappeasable pearl heavy enough to pin a whole stupid, sadistic worldview in orbit.

It is easy, too, to see how this might work on a similarly credulous viewer like Tuberville, especially during the years when Trump was both the most powerful man in national politics and the main character of a sprawling and busy cinematic universe. Conservative media has always existed to keep conservative voters in a state of ultra-receptive agitation. This keeps them watching through the commercial breaks, and convinces them to donate to candidates and campaigns that claim to have the same enemies, and is also the only thing that could possibly sell the impossibly unpopular and ruinous actual policies that conservative politicians tend to pursue in office. Trump was first just another unsatisfied customer of all this, and then—by dint of his celebrity, relentlessness, and capacity to recite all those toxic lines from memory, and also the lack of anyone more compelling—a client. Trump's brave brilliance and the various offenses and indignities against him is the only story he has ever cared to tell; by the time Tuberville announced that he was running for Senate in 2019, it was the only story that anyone in conservative politics really cared to talk about.

Tuberville, like other Republican candidates who realized they had nothing else to offer voters, ran first and foremost as someone who would Stand With Trump, which is to say someone who would frequently be photographed standing near or next to Trump. Tuberville defeated Sessions by accusing him of betraying Trump, which was more or less Trump's own gripe with the GOP lifer who was one of his first supporters and former attorney general. To the extent that he ran on anything in particular, Tuberville ran as a less-grandiose, lower-key local version of Trump: a recognizable face with a silly famous name attached that could make the appropriate television noises back to the voters.

Like Trump, Tuberville has a self-serving explanation for why every one of his signature public embarrassments was actually not what it appeared to be; unlike Trump, Tuberville is not wholly committed to proving that every cruel true thing ever said about him is a lie. He is out for himself in the shameless ways that Trump voters are, but he is also servile in the way that Trump voters are. There is no indication that Tuberville's pledge to stand with, near, and up for Trump was anything but his sincere goal, or anything but what he thought politicians did. "I want to do what’s best for President Trump and the people of Alabama and the people of this country," Tuberville told Yellowhammer News late last year when asked whether he would refuse to certify the election of Joe Biden. "They asked me, ‘Are you going to support President Trump?’ And, of course, I’m always going to support President Trump."

Because their entire political party has been replaced by one sour and unappeasable old man, and because every ostensible tenet of their broader movement's brutal and unlovable ideology has been replaced by the instinct to serve that one sour and unappeasable old man's every whim, basically every Republican politician feels compelled to say this sort of thing, up to and including those angling to replace him. Tuberville does seem to have a residual sense of civic duty that his thirstier counterparts in the House GOP's clown caucus lack, although this mostly means that while he does not really seem to know much about, say, the dredging project that will allow for bigger ships in the Port of Mobile, he at least knows that he has to talk about it.

But Tuberville signed up to Stand With Trump, because that is what he thought Republican senators did, and it is hard to escape the sense that he doesn't really know what to do or say now that Trump is golfing and blogging his little encyclicals in Florida. There is some undeniable dark comedy in all this, which is not the same thing as saying it's easy to laugh at. That he is ridiculous does not make him any less dangerous.

That Tuberville is so self-evidently unqualified for his job didn't keep him from trying to attach an amendment to March's $1.9 trillion spending bill that would have prohibited public funds from going to institutions that allow trans women to compete in women's sports. Tuberville is a grasping, vain, mediocre man, someone who would immiserate a thousand strangers to spare himself a moment's passing inconvenience or just win himself some attention. If he lacks Trump's singular appetite, it is also worth noting that every other vital thing Trump lacks—the essential human vacancies and yawning spiritual lacunae, the incapacities for empathy or shame—is also absent in Tuberville.

It seems a reasonable guess that what Tuberville admired about Trump, back in those formative Fox News tape sessions in his office at Cincinnati, wasn't much more complicated than a response to Trump's ubiquity and bluster. But I wonder if there wasn't also a moment of recognition—one shameless, highly adaptable hustler seeing a bit of himself in a master of the form, and identifying a new approach to his own relentless way forward. "Dr. Fauci," Tuberville said in March during a five-minute opportunity to question a panel of experts about the vaccine rollout. “You are the Tom Brady of the COVID team. You’ve had good days and you’ve had bad days.” Tuberville had made a big show in local media of holding the doctor's feet to the fire, but ultimately he asked the panel no questions, unless you count asking Fauci, in response to an anodyne statement about updating strategies to reflect new facts, "the game plan changes, doesn't it?"

"You bet," Fauci replied.

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