Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, attacked the former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his sons for their lack of military service on Tuesday at a rally in Alabama for Senate candidate Roy Moore.
The event in Fairhope served as a sort of homecoming party for Moore, who has been accused by nine women of sexual misconduct in the 1970s when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
He has denied the allegations and portrayed them as part of a conspiracy that includes “lesbians, gays, bisexuals and socialists”.
Moore’s popularity dived as the allegations surfaced and his colleagues distanced themselves from him in the run-up to the Alabama Senate election next week. But in recent days, as Moore’s polling numbers crept back up, the Republican party, following Donald Trump’s lead, offered its support once more.
But some Republicans held out, and Bannon railed against them on Tuesday night. “What did Mitt say yesterday? Honour and integrity?” he asked the crowd of a few hundred people who packed into a barn at Oak Hollow Farm.
He was referring to the 2012 presidential candidate Romney, who a day earlier had alluded to an alleged 14-year-old victim on Twitter.
Bannon addressed Romney personally, launching into a startling attack on his duties as a Mormon: “You hid behind your religion. You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam. Do not talk to me about honour and integrity.
“You had five sons. Not one day of service in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have 7,000 dead and 52,000 casualties. Where were the Romneys during those wars?”
Military service was a particularly bold line of attack for a longtime adviser to a president who avoided Vietnam by receiving five draft deferments between 1964 and 1972.
But it brought whoops and shouts from the crowd, illustrating just how rapidly some parts of the Republican party have shifted behind Trump’s influence. Five years ago, Romney – apparently so reviled by the crowd in the barn – won 98% of the Republican vote in Alabama.
Republican senator Orin Hatch, who is also a Mormon, said he resented “anyone attacking any person’s religious views, but particularly our own Christian LDS faith and the selfless service of missionary work”.
He added: “I’d be more than happy to sit down with Mr Bannon and help him understand more about the LDS church at his convenience. I’ve got a copy of the Book of Mormon with his name on it.”
Bannon reserved some venom for Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona who has challenged Trump and Moore. A few hours before Moore’s rally, Flake made a donation to the campaign of Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, with a note on the cheque saying: “Country over party.”
“Come on brother, if you’re going to write a check, write a check,” Bannon scoffed, drawing laughter from the crowd. “A hundred dollars. Are you kidding me?”
As Bannon spoke, a protester climbed on to the risers and cried out “No Moore” several times. As police escorted him away, Bannon shook his head, indicated towards the press area and said: “Fake news.”
Other protesters gathered outside. Lynne Talbott, a Fairhope resident, said she felt compelled to come, after seeing Moore’s alleged victims cast as liars. “It made me mad,” she said. She said that she was raped as a student at the University of South Alabama in the 1960s: “I’ve carried my own secret for 50 years, and I decided now was the time to come forward.”
Another group of protesters dressed in the bonnets and long dresses of the handmaids in the recent TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s novel about a dystopian future where women are silenced. They covered their mouths with tape, on which they had written the names of Moore’s alleged victims.
Inside, before Moore began to speak, Dick and Carol Schneider of Fairhope frowned at the prospect of protesters. He is 80, and she is 72. “It’s all these liberals. They’d better not try to interrupt his speech,” she said, in a small, grandmotherly voice. And then she put one hand to her hip. “I almost brought my piece!”
Moore, who delivered a relatively cautious speech, is leading the race by between five and seven percentage points, according to various polls. He was careful not to mention the allegations against him.
In September, during the primary race, he caused a stir in the same barn when he pulled out a pistol and waved it before the crowd. This time, Moore offered vague criticism of the investigation into Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, quoted scripture and alluded to various conspiracy theories.
“They tell me [George] Soros’s army is here,” he said. “That’s probably what these protesters are about.”
After the speeches, 66-year-old Gary Paulzak stayed behind, sitting in a folding chair and basking in the glow of the fiery speeches. “Bannon has got to be one of the most influential figures in American politics, don’t you think?” he said. He had driven from Destin, Florida, in the hope of meeting Bannon.
“I mean think of it [of Moore]. A pedophile – well, I can’t say that, so let’s say the groper of a 14-year-old – comes back and wins this thing. Can you imagine that?”
Additional reporting by Ben Jacobs