Former President Donald Trump welcomes U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama to the stage during a rally at York Family Farms on August 21, 2021 in Cullman, Alabama. Trump later rescinded his endorsement of Brooks for a Senate seat.
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images
June 22, 2022 2:27 PM EDT

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In the hours leading up to the chaos that descended on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021, Rep. Mo Brooks stood before the crowd just a few hundred yards from the Washington Monument and asked if they were willing to sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of freedom. “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass,” the Alabama Republican said, wearing a MAGA-red “Fire Pelosi” baseball cap and body armor.

A few hours later, many of those at the pro-Donald Trump rally at the Ellipse had breached the Capitol, laid siege to lawmakers, and broke the building’s defenses for the first time since 1814. Soon after, Brooks joined more than 140 colleagues in voting against certification of Joe Biden’s victory. But Brooks’ actions earlier in the day infuriated many of his colleagues, prompting some of them to consider the rare step of expelling Brooks from the House. Brooks doubled down, calling for a national forensic audit of the election, and sticking with unfounded claims that Antifa was partly to blame for the violence on Jan. 6.

Still, 14 months later, Trump withdrew his endorsement of Brooks to represent Alabama in the Senate, complaining that Brooks had gone “woke” and had been insufficiently supportive of his Big Lie. Trump may have been actually responding to Brooks managing to blow a 44-point lead in the GOP primary. In the end, the many times Brooks had bent over backwards to keep Trump appeased had proven to be irrelevant.

Such is the fickle nature of having Trump lead the Republican Party: support is never permanent, whims dictate strategy, and grievances outweigh evidence. Yet it is one of the most powerful drivers of America’s politics at the moment. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Alabama, which has seen its Senate representation more frequently and, at times, more effectively decided by Trump than any other state.

A quick summary of Trump’s meddling in Alabama to date: he plucked its incumbent senator to serve as attorney general, a tortured tenure that resulted in summary dismissal; he then waded into a fraught, messy race to fill the seat, which ended up in Democratic hands for the first time in over 20 years; he successfully campaigned against that aforementioned attorney general’s attempt to return to the Senate; and then he endorsed and un-endorsed Brooks before backing his opponent, who on Tuesday night won the nomination and, with it, likely the Senate race.

In other words, Trump’s gut-based endorsements and his overwhelming need to be seen as a winner may have a larger impact on Alabama’s voting patterns than any precinct in Huntsville, Birmingham, or Montgomery. His sway provided a striking contrast Tuesday night to the outcome in Georgia, where Republican voters passed over Trump’s picks for two House seats. If Robert Penn Warren crowned fictional Willie Stark as the king of a non-specified Southern state, then the real-life kingmaker in Alabama may well be Trump.

Alabama is, of course, an odd place for Trump to flex a political acumen. A New Yorker who now calls West Palm Beach, Fla., his home, Trump always seems as out-of-place as possible when he drops by the state. Yet Republican voters there hang on his every word.

Trump’s relevant political ties to the state go back to February 2016, when then-Sen. Jeff Sessions became the first sitting senator to back his bid for president, just days before Alabama participated in Super Tuesday. Sessions expanded his role as an informal adviser to the campaign and, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also helped Trump navigate his promises on Supreme Court nominees—a move that helped Trump win over skeptical Evangelicals who didn’t really like the thrice-married New Yorker but saw potential in reshaping the Court to overturn abortion rights. For a time, Sessions even made the short list for Trump’s running mate.

When it came time for the president-elect to name an attorney general, Sessions slotted in nicely. Several of his senior aides had already populated the transition team, including its executive director who was a Sessions chief of staff. And Sessions shared Trump’s views on immigration, a key ingredient that Trump’s team believed would hold together his coalition. (Instead, Trump treated his first attorney general like a punching bag and eventually fired him.)

Sessions’ exit from the Senate in early 2017 opened the door for Luther Strange, then the state attorney general, who had already said he planned to run for the seat whether he was appointed or not.

Trump had other thoughts. Although Strange was a reliable vote for Trump’s agenda and in no meaningful way had contradicted the president, Trump still wasn’t sure that it was the right pick. White House aides stepped in and convinced Trump to stick with Strange in both the primary and the runoff. Brooks, who was also running in that race, was convinced McConnell and his team had misled Trump and said so. Still, in the runoff, Strange came up short to Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court justice whose record included installing the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and his courthouse, and instructing jurors to pray.

Republicans in Washington warned against having anything to do with Moore, who had been accused of sexual assault and dating teens while he was in his 30s. Trump endorsed Moore nonetheless and campaigned for him. Moore would go on to lose to former civil rights prosecutor Doug Jones by 1.6 points in a state Trump had carried a year earlier by 28 points.

When it came time for Jones to face re-election in 2020, Trump once again decided to play ball. He waited until the runoff to throw his weight behind Tommy Tuberville, a retired Auburn football coach, in his bid against Sessions. Trump’s former AG tried to get right with Trump, but the president would have none of it and worked to help Tuberville, who would later try to help Trump’s Big Lie prevail during his first days in the Senate.

Which brings us to this week’s runoff. Initially, Trump had sided with Brooks. After all, Brooks had embraced Trump’s paranoia about election fraud, going so far as to sleep in his Capitol Hill office to avoid going home, where he believed he was vulnerable to a deadly threat from those conspiring against the former president. His Twitter profile was “Mo Brooks — Endorsed By President Trump” and his campaign literature called him “MAGA Mo.”

But as the fallout from Jan. 6 became more clear, Brooks had started to go wobbly in Trump’s eyes. Brooks dared to say it was time for Republicans to move past the 2020 elections. He called the certification on Jan. 6, 2021, the final word on the elections and said there was nothing Congress could do to “reinstate” Trump, who continues to insist that is still possible. Trump yanked the endorsement even as Brooks refused to testify to the panel investigating Jan. 6.

Brooks denied he had gone “woke” and he wasn’t wrong. Reportedly, he cheered on the mob and, in recent weeks, tried to get back in Trump’s good graces. When that failed, he lashed out at the former president as disloyal.

Trump didn’t blink. He endorsed Katie Britt, a former chief of staff to Sen. Richard Shelby, who is retiring. Britt and her husband sagely sought audiences with Trump, who seemed impressed by Britt’s husband, a former NFL player. Brooks and Britt fought to a draw during the May 24 primary, leading to Tuesday’s runoff, which Britt won by 26 points.

The results were not unexpected. Before he became a MAGA-soaked Trump critic, Brooks had linked himself to Trump, wrongly believing loyalty would be rewarded. Brooks by all accounts ran an uneven campaign while Britt—a Hill insider turned lobbyist—ran as an outsider. At 40, she stands to be the youngest woman in the Senate, and could hold the seat for decades. Which, of course, sounds pretty appealing whether you’re a Trump interested in cementing a legacy or if you’re a Trump simply fueled by vengeance.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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