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A Few Crucial Instances of Grace

Insight and justice at the end of the worst year in American political history.

We must be grateful for the smallest of blessings. Last week I saw and heard some things that provided a measure of hope and nuance in these grim and hysterical times. First, in San Francisco I saw two formidable legal teams contesting the guilt or innocence of a homeless Mexican man accused of murder in a case that was pivotal in Donald Trump’s political rise; their work restored any lost faith in the rule of law and American due process. A few days later, in Montgomery, Alabama, in the relics room of the first White House of the Confederacy, over a lock of Jefferson Davis’s hair, I talked with one of the museum’s staff members, an African American woman, about Roy Moore and the devil, God and repentance, and she offered rare insight into why such a man exists and how he might be useful. And in the Fellowship Hall of the Magnolia Springs Baptist Church, in Theodore, Alabama, after Roy Moore polluted their church with lies and cowardice, I spoke to the church’s congregants and pastors, and we tried to find common ground on issues of decency and democracy, truth and living a virtuous life. We succeeded, even if just a little bit.

Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015. Before the gilded walls of Trump Tower, he took what is usually a sober-minded occasion laden with bland rhetoric and familiar platitudes, and made it a shocking spectacle. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Hate groups rejoiced, but Trump was widely denounced by the Republican establishment. They disavowed him en masse. NBC, the network that carried “The Apprentice,” cut ties with Trump, as did Macy’s, the retailer that had been selling his line of apparel. In the popular imagination he was written off as racist and unhinged — and unelectable. He needed a miracle.

If one were to custom-make an incident to support Trump’s radical stance on immigration, to electrify the alt-right and stoke American xenophobia — barely dormant, easily awakened — you would start with a man from Mexico. He should be dark-skinned. He should be poor, unemployed, perhaps even homeless. He should be involved in drugs. He should have been deported many times before. Five times before. And then he would kill someone. Ideally a woman. Ideally white. Ideally someone young and white and beautiful, with a luminescent smile. And it would be best if all this happened in a sanctuary city. Not just any sanctuary city — the sanctuary city — San Francisco. That would, once and for all, teach the country the consequences of coddling undocumented immigrants.

On July 1, Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old salesperson for Medtronic, was walking along San Francisco’s waterfront with her father. While standing on Pier 14, a pedestrian walkway extending into the bay, a bullet struck Steinle in the back, tearing through her abdominal aorta. She collapsed into her father’s arms and died in a hospital two hours later. With the help of witnesses, the police apprehended a suspect that day — a homeless Mexican national named Jose Ines Garcia Zarate.* Under questioning, he admitted to holding the gun that killed Steinle, but he insisted it was an accident. He’d found the gun under a chair on the pier, he said, covered in cloth. When he picked it up, it went off.

(*With the permission of his defense attorneys, I’ll refer to Jose Ines Garcia Zarate simply as Zarate, to avoid confusion with prosecutor Diana Garcia.)

“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said two days after Steinle’s death. “And I am the only one that can fix it.” He proposed tighter restrictions on all immigration, and proposed building a 2,000-mile wall along the border with Mexico. In the weeks that followed, his poll numbers soared. Over the course of July, as Fox News covered the Steinle murder relentlessly and TV host Bill O’Reilly instigated legislation called Kate’s Law — which was brought to the House floor by Republican lawmakers, perhaps the first time a law had been written by a television host — Donald Trump stoked fears of an invasion from Mexico and sold Americans the idea of a wall that would keep out all danger. He catapulted from seventh in the polls to first.

Zarate, who had no money and owned nothing, could not afford a lawyer, so his case arrived in the office of the San Francisco Public Defender — in particular, onto the desk of Matt Gonzalez, a well-known figure in San Francisco politics. In 2003, Gonzalez ran for mayor in a race that Gavin Newsom, now Lt. Governor, won. In 2008 he was Ralph Nader’s running mate in his unsuccessful Green Party run for president. Since 2011, he’d served as chief attorney in the public defender’s office, normally a thankless enough task. But defending a five-times-deported drug addict who admitted to holding the gun that killed a defenseless young woman in broad daylight? The likelihood that Zarate would be found not guilty seemed remote. How could a man be acquitted of killing a woman who died from a bullet of a gun he admitted firing?

San Francisco public defender chief attorney Matt Gonzalez. Photo credit: Getty

To avoid the trial being politicized more than it already was, Gonzalez and District Attorney George Gascón mutually agreed to delay the trial until after the 2016 election. Like most, they assumed Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, and the trial of Zarate would take on less national importance. Instead, Trump was elected — in a manner of speaking — and by November of 2017, Gonzalez and Gascón had no choice but to begin the trial.

I sat in on the trial’s closing arguments, and the proceedings would have restored anyone’s faith in the American judicial system. Though San Francisco’s Hall of Justice is an old and well-worn building jerry-rigged to appear of this century, and though Room 13, where the trial was held, was small and humble in every sense, an exemplary display of due process happened there, involving dozens of dedicated professionals committed to making sure careful justice was served.

It started with Judge Samuel Feng. He is a genial man in his early 60s who personally brought chocolates for the jurors every day — each wrapped in red foil and stacked in a large glass vase he put on the jury bench before each day started. The jurors had grown accustomed to taking one, or a handful, on their way to their seats, and every day, as the lawyers prepared and the audience settled in, the jurors quietly unwrapped their candy and sat chewing as they got ready to hear evidence that would determine the fate of a man.

It must also be noted that in Feng’s courtroom, the audience was not required to stand when he entered or left. He did so with no fanfare at all. Instead, the bailiffs demanded that the audience rise only when the jurors entered the courtroom. It was a crucial distinction, and underlined Feng’s commitment to the jury. “You okay? You okay?” he asked them a dozen times a day. It bordered on doting.

On November 20, the first day of closing arguments, outside it was 65 and sunny, but inside the courtroom, due to a capricious HVAC system, it was uncomfortably warm. The jurors and spectators cooled themselves with clipboards and other makeshift fans, evoking a scene from Inherit the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird. All that was missing was a ceiling fan turning slowly overhead, or Gregory Peck.

The lead prosecutor was a red-haired veteran named Diana Garcia. A talented and authoritative speaker, Garcia issued her closing argument first and the narrative she presented seemed utterly insurmountable. She painted a vivid and horrifying picture of a man who had come to Pier 14 with the intent to commit violence. Four days before Steinle’s death, a gun had been stolen from the personal car of a ranger from the Bureau of Land Management, who was visiting from El Centro, CA. It was a loaded SIG Sauer. This was the gun used to kill Steinle, a gun Garcia insisted Zarate had brought to the pier that day.

Lead prosecutor Diana Garcia. Photo credit: AP

“It was a target-rich environment,” Garcia said, insisting that Zarate was “playing his own secret game of Russian Roulette.” He had been seen by other tourists; they thought he looked menacing, dangerous. I watched the jurors; they were riveted. Zarate brought the gun to the waterfront, Garcia insisted, and waited, searching for a victim. On a screen set up in the courtroom, Garcia showed pictures taken by various tourists, of Zarate on the pier, moments before the shooting. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the word CALI on the front in large white letters. In the photos, the pier is populated by happy tourists on a bright summer day. And in one, we saw Steinle herself, with her father. She was there, just down the way, resting against the railing. She had seconds to live.

As Garcia described the scene, Zarate sat motionless in the courtroom, staring up at the screen. He is a small man, and the large headphones he wore, through which he heard a simultaneous translation, made him seem even smaller. He looked less like a man accused of murder and more like a skinny teenager, lost amid the proceedings, listening to music. The translators, two women who took turns throughout the day, were in the courtroom, quietly uttering the words into a microphone. Next to the translator, and behind Zarate, two women sat in the gallery; these were the only family Zarate had in San Francisco. The older of the two held the other close, their heads tilted together.

Zarate seemed unwilling to look in the direction of Garcia and the jury. Instead, for much of the closing, he looked to his left and up at the screen, where for a long time a grainy photo showed him sitting on the pier, minutes before the incident took place. Perhaps he was trying to discern just what happened that day — after all, at the time of the incident, he was high on a mix of sleeping pills and other drugs. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to watch Garcia, who had after all spent twelve days trying to convince the jury to send him to prison for the rest of his life. Finally Gonzalez caught his eye, as if urging him to behave more normally, and Zarate turned his body to look forward. He still would not look in Garcia’s direction.

When Zarate saw Kate Steinle, Garcia said, he chose his quarry and fired the gun. Knowing he’d caused her mortal harm, he threw the weapon into the bay, and walked calmly off. “Everyone else went to help — except this man,” she said, pointing to Zarate.

As Garcia wrapped up her closing, I couldn’t see how Gonzalez could create a counternarrative as compelling as the one that Garcia had conjured. The jury, too, seemed to be inclined to side with prosecution. As juries go, they were an exceptionally young group, with only a few of them over forty. Quite a few were in their thirties, and would presumably identify with Steinle, a fellow thirtysomething living in San Francisco with a presumption of safety in daylight at a busy tourist pier.

The next day, the courtroom was even warmer. When Matt Gonzalez stood for his closing argument, his voice was so quiet that the audience at first had to strain to hear him. Despite his political aspirations, Gonzalez is a soft-spoken man of 52, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and gray hair worn long. With his loose-fitting black suit and violet tie, he looked this day like a singer-songwriter dressed hastily for traffic court.

While the jury had been riveted during Garcia’s bold closing, between the stifling room and Gonzalez’s whisper-soft voice, for a while, they were barely staying awake. For the better part of an hour, I watched one of the alternate jurors fight back sleep. Again and again this juror, an Asian-American man in his forties wearing a fleece vest, closed his eyes, woke with a start, and faded back to oblivion. In my notebook I wrote, “Defense very shaky. Not as convincing as Garcia.”

But then Gonzalez got going. He got louder. And over the next few hours and into the next day, Gonzalez took the prosecution’s case apart like a mechanic dismantling a rickety old car. Piece by piece he removed and set aside until Garcia’s narrative, which had seemed airtight and utterly likely, seemed ridiculous and impossible.

No aspect of the case was more important than the ricochet. When Trump and O’Reilly exploited Steinle’s death for the better part of two years, never did they mention the fact that the bullet that hit Steinle had first ricocheted. In fact, many right-wing radio hosts took pains to say that the bullet had not ricocheted — even though the San Francisco Police crime lab reported that it had. When the gun went off, the bullet traveled 12 feet, struck the concrete, and then traveled another 78 feet before hitting Steinle. It was the kind of shot no professional marksman could hope to achieve. James Norris, former head of San Francisco Police Department’s crime lab, said bluntly, “You couldn’t do this on purpose.”

During a break in Gonzalez’s closing, the courtroom emptied and most of the audience and bailiffs went across the street for coffee or food. I was standing at a traffic light myself behind two of the bailiffs, wearing matching khaki uniforms. I’d seen them in the courtroom the last few days.

“A shot like that’s easy,” one of them said, joking. “It’s like a bounce pass in basketball.” An older man, who had been watching the trial, too, said, “I’d love to see you guys get certified to make a trick shot like that.”

Thus Gonzalez had eliminated the possibility of convicting Zarate on murder in the first degree, which would require the jury to believe that Zarate had intent not just to kill, but to kill Steinle. When Gonzalez was done with his closing, jurors had two choices: they could confirm the prosecutor’s version of events, which asserted that a homeless man with no previous violent offenses, a man who had never before shot a gun, went to the waterfront, chose a target, then shot a bullet at the pavement, ricocheting it 78 feet to hit his target, Kate Steinle, executing a trick shot that the head of the police department’s own crime lab — and even the bailiffs — deemed impossible. Or they could believe Gonzalez’s version, which was that a homeless man picked up a rag, found a gun inside, and it went off.

There were many things that went blessedly unmentioned during the trial. Under the guidance Judge Feng, at no time during the trial did the prosecution or the defense mention the defendant’s heritage, his immigration status, his prior convictions, deportations, or the larger national debate about America’s undocumented immigrants. The concept of sanctuary cities was not discussed. The border wall was not mentioned. The name Donald J. Trump was never uttered.

There was really only one point made by either side that mentioned the wider American societal context that made this tragedy possible. “In a country of 300 million guns on the street,” Gonzalez said in his closing, “accidental discharges happen. If that is the society we’re going to have,” he said, “then you have to have all the peculiar ways guns are stolen, guns are ditched, guns are fired.”

To underline the point, in the middle of the trial, another officer’s gun was stolen from a car parked in San Francisco. This time, a sergeant from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, who happened to be working in San Francisco on an FBI task force — ! — parked his car in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood known for heavy drug-dealing and constant petty crime. At about 10 p.m. the officer’s window was smashed and a rifle, shotgun, ammunition and a Kevlar vest were stolen.

Police currently have no leads as to the perpetrator, or where these guns are now.

While the Zarate jury deliberated, I went to Alabama. After some weeks hiding from the maelstrom of accusations that he had pursued, dated, harassed or assaulted underage women while he was in his thirties and they were as young as 14, Roy Moore, the former judge now running for the U.S. Senate, announced he’d be speaking in Theodore, a small town just outside Mobile.

Mobile had a significant role in where we find ourselves today, because it was in Mobile that Trump’s candidacy first showed southern strength. In August of 2015, just a few weeks after announcing his candidacy and after he began to use Kate Steinle’s death as a campaign tool, Trump traveled to Mobile, Alabama, for a rally. It was not expected to be a large gathering, so his campaign had booked the city’s Civic Center, which holds about 4,000 people.

On paper, after all, what did a billionaire libertine New Yorker, married three times and living in a gilded tower, have in common with Alabamians — famously conservative and with the fourth-lowest median income in America?

People began lining up at 6 a.m. The crowd grew so large that the event was moved to the city’s Ladd-Pebbles Stadium, which holds 43,000. By the time Trump’s plane circled the stadium, much to the delight of the audience, there were 30,000 people waiting for him. “What a crowd!” he roared from the lectern. He couldn’t get over it. That a New York billionaire could attract 30,000 people in Alabama was the beginning of the end for the rest of the Republican field, and proved that Trump could take the South handily. He won Alabama by 26 points and every other Southern state, too.

Theodore is fifteen miles from Mobile. When you get off the highway, you immediately pass a condemned-looking strip club called Cookies and Cream. Then Theodore Dawes Road takes you past the Theodore Church of God, past an inordinate number of billboards for personal-injury lawyers (“I will personally return your call!” said one), past the 1–10 Kampground — a trailer park full of carefully decorated homes — and finally to the Magnolia Springs Baptist Church, where Roy Moore was scheduled to speak that night.

The sign out front, assembled from plastic letters in the church’s lighted display, said “Cars are not the only things being recalled by God.” Four TV trucks were parked in front, but at four o’clock, with the event scheduled to start at six-thirty, the area was empty. There were no crowds, no protesters in front of the clean pink-brick structure with a bright white steeple. I drove around a bit, and though much of Theodore confirms one’s assumptions about rural Alabama — I saw no less than three men wearing camouflage shorts but no shirts — and at one point found myself at the intersection of Plantation Road and Carol Plantation Road, I also saw a surprisingly diverse small town, with plenty of African American, Asian American residents and even a few Muslim American families. The one thing I didn’t see in an hour of circling the town was much visible support for Roy Moore; in all that time, I saw only one sign for him anywhere. If this was the kind of town that supports Moore — and by choosing it for a rare pre-election rally, Moore was implying this was his base — his support, even here, was decidedly muted.

Back in the church parking lot as the day darkened, more media trucks, and a few citizens there for the rally, began to arrive. I turned on the radio and heard an ad for a talk show called “Armed Alabama,” hosted by another former Alabama judge — this one named Rusty Johnson. Apparently the show discusses guns — buying guns and shooting guns and keeping guns from lawmakers who want to take them away. The show’s logo is the state of Alabama, rendered in red, in blue crosshairs.

It occurred to me that we could get shot that night. For those readers living outside the United States, you should know that living in the U.S. in 2017 involves a daily calculus of how likely, when we leave the house on a given day, we are to be shot that day. Usually, the country is violent, yes, but also vast, and the 300 million guns we have acquired are mostly locked away by responsible gun owners, or stockpiled by those waiting for the apocalypse. But periodically we go through a cycle of mass shootings whose perpetrators, emboldened by their predecessors, keep the rate of incidents to about one a week. And so when we leave the house, we think about probability. Events with mass attendance are risky. Political events are risky. And after Sutherland Springs, churches are a roll of the dice, too.

So sitting and listening to “Armed Alabama,” I had the passing notion that if a Trump-hating man could shoot at Republican lawmakers on a Maryland baseball field in June, and if a man could kill 58 people at a Las Vegas concert in October, and if a man could kill 26 in a Texas church in November, certainly there could be violence at an event featuring senatorial candidate Roy Moore, an accused child molester — and, outside of Donald Trump, perhaps the most divisive human in America.

When I entered the church at five-thirty, there were no security checks of any kind. There were no metal detectors, no frisking, no police at the door giving anyone a second look. We were all free to walk in and take a seat. I was carrying a large black backpack that was not examined. I could have been carrying — and with a permit to conceal a firearm, had the legal right to carry — as many guns and ammunition as would have fit into that backpack, and every other person entering the church had that right, too. Alabama is an open-carry state, and thus there are no laws to prevent me, or any other man or woman, from carrying a loaded semi-automatic rifle into any church. If I wanted to, I could display my gun during the service. The only law that would limit a gun owner and his gun would be the one that prohibits the owner from shooting innocent people with it. That is not legal anywhere.

As the audience entered and the church filled, the mood was ebullient. Most of the attendees were white, dressed in suits and bright sweaters, the average age in the realm of the retired. A few church leaders made their way around the pews, saying hello to congregants and newcomers. Two burly police officers in black roamed the church, and were soon joined by at least six constables — a kind of lightly armed, mostly elderly, auxiliary police force unique to Alabama. The officers scanned the room and strolled the aisles, nodding kindly at the attendees. A man walked in wearing a black leather vest, on the back of which was a skull flanked by two AK-47s. He took his seat and was not given a second look.

A very large man sat in front of me, and sat impassive while the audience clapped for the pastor of Magnolia Springs, Dr. David Gonnella, as he began the proceedings. I’d seen Gonnella on various news clips. He has been a vocal supporter of Roy Moore, and had recently made waves when he called Republican leaders in Washington “sissies” for opposing Moore’s candidacy. With a calm confidence and mellifluous voice, Gonnella is not shy in front of the cameras. He wore a three-piece suit and tends to stand with one hand gripping his suit jacket, in a way that recalls Teddy Roosevelt. Gonnella came to Magnolia Springs from Texas two years ago, to revive a church whose membership was dwindling. When he took the podium, facing three large TV cameras on tripods, it became evident that Gonnella intended to use the night, and the attention it brought to the church, to recruit new members.

“So many of you have said to some of the people of this church, ‘I wish so much that our pastor stood like your pastor stands. Well, if that’s what you want, come where the pastor stands!” The audience applauded heartily.

Then Dr. Gonnella said a remarkable thing. It was one of the moments of comparative grace I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Dr. Gonnella announced that following Roy Moore’s speech, there would be a reception in the church’s adjoining Fellowship Hall, where attendees could get refreshments and where the media would be invited to interview congregants.

“Now let me say this,” Gonnella said. “If you do not wish to be interviewed, please do not interfere with the interviews that are going on. Be respectful. If an interviewer asks a question that you don’t like, let the person being interviewed answer. Let’s be respectful and kind to the media, okay?” He waited for the audience to assent, and mimicked members of the audience who were grumbling. Everyone laughed. “The Bible says we’re to show kindness to all,” he said. “And that includes the media, okay? Okay.”

A few minutes later, Roy Moore stood and denigrated the media, everyone in Washington, D.C., the political agenda of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, and told the audience that Socialists were trying to threaten Alabamians’ way of life. Then he went on a long jag about how odd it is that all of his accusers, who hadn’t come out against him in his previous forty years of public life, have chosen to do so now. And though on the Sean Hannity show, he had admitted to dating a number of underage women — noting that he had first gotten the permission of their parents — this night he said he had never met any of the 14 women who have accused him of pursuing, and in some cases assaulting, them when he was in his thirties and they were under eighteen.

In the middle of his denial, the large man in front of me, so big that he blocked my view of the pulpit, stood up. “But the whole town says you did it!” he yelled in a southern drawl. “The entire town!” I checked the man’s hands to see if he was armed. He wasn’t. “All the girls are lying?” he asked the retired judge. Roy Moore looked at the lectern. He did not meet the man’s eyes.

The audience shouted the protester down, but he persisted, his voice pained. “Why don’t you confess it, man? Be real. Why would they lie?”

The constables made their way to him and gently moved him toward the aisle. Now a man I’d seen earlier in the day with all-white Roy Moore gear on, stood up from the front row. “The judge is a man’s man!” he yelled. He pointed to Moore. “That’s a man’s man!”

An Asian American man a few rows in front of the protester turned and pointed at him. “You’re not fit to shine his shoes!” he said, his voice faltering with emotion.

“You ought to be ashamed to be from here!” called out another voice.

“He’s a man’s man!” yelled the all-white Moore supporter again.

“Just be real!” the protester pleaded again.

“You telling me that’s the face of a molester?” the all-white Moore man asked, pointing to Moore.

When the large protester had been led to the exit and everyone was sitting down again, Dr. Gonnella returned to the lectern. “As the pastor of this church, I say we’re going to do things decently and in order.” The audience applauded heartily. “If you love Roy Moore, if you hate Roy Moore — listen,” he said.

There was not much else about Roy Moore’s speech worth recounting here. His denials of wrongdoing were not convincing. He had trouble reading the papers in front of him, often mumbling the ends of sentences and running through key points; when he quotes the Bible he does it so quickly that the words blur together and lose their meaning. His appeal to the voters in the room, and to the people of Alabama who have expressed a willingness to support him, is based on his status as a Republican, and, for some, his willingness to weave Biblical principles into government. That these supporters would stick with him in the face of the recent allegations is not hard to understand. It is too late for Republicans to raise up another candidate and win against the surging Democrat Doug Jones. If Republican voters want to win the election, they are stuck with Roy Moore, someone they have known for forty years, and who has not, until recently at least, surprised anyone.

There was just one new wrinkle in Moore’s presentation this night. Citing a new report from an online source called One America News, he explained that the women coming forth, all 14 of them, were part of an effort coordinated by a drug dealer. “Drugs are at the base of it,” he said, reading carefully from the pages on the lectern. “My prosecution of drugs when I was deputy district attorney angered quite a few people. They have one individual who is a drug dealer who I held in contempt, who is at the heart of this conspiracy.” Then he referred the audience to the Roy Moore campaign Facebook page for more details.

The story on One America News states that Faye Gray, who had been a security guard at a mall where the younger Roy Moore was banned for preying on girls, has a brother named Jimmy Wright. In 1981, Wright was arrested for distributing controlled substances, and the man who prosecuted him was Judge Roy Moore. The story does not explain how the mall security guard, and/or her brother, convinced 14 women to make up coordinated stories about Moore. The story then makes another connection between Moore’s judicial work and his current predicament. Apparently in 1994, Moore held a man named Richard Hagedorn in contempt over unpaid alimony and child support. Hagedorn’s brother David works at the Washington Post, the newspaper that spearheaded the pedophilia charges against Moore. The One America Network article ends thusly: “While the link between the Moore allegation and David Hagedorn isn’t clear, the connection is highly coincidental, says OAN.”

When Moore was talking about OAN and this new theory, acting very much like it was hard-fought vindication, I had the same revelation that I’ve had every day of Trump’s candidacy and every day of his presidency — in fact, I had it the first day I saw Trump speak in person, at a rally in Sacramento in July of 2016. It was the shattering realization that among all the people gathered, the most batshit crazy person in the room was the one who’d been given the microphone.

When Moore was done, Dr. Gonnella retook the lectern and again restored some dignity to the proceedings. He reminded the audience that refreshments would be served in the Fellowship Hall. “There will be brownies,” he said, “and they are to die for.” Then, though he didn’t have to, and though this opinion was at odds with everything the congregation had been led to believe by Roy Moore that night and much of what has been said by the president of the United States for the last 11 months, he again defended the fourth estate.

“Like I said, if you don’t want to be interviewed,” Gonnella said, “just tell them no. But don’t interfere with their interviews. The truth of the matter is I’ve been dealing with them for a couple days now, and every media person I have dealt with has been very cooperative, very gracious, and very professional, and very polite.”

Applause shook the room. It was far louder than had met anything Moore had said, and felt like catharsis — as if all these elderly church-goers wanted was some affirmation that people could get along and could agree on the fundamental value of acting with decency.

“We appreciate that, don’t we?” Gonnella asked the congregation, and then answered his own question. “Yes we do.”

The church emptied and outside and in front of television cameras, it became clear that the exuberant Roy Moore supporter who defended him as a man’s man was actually a comedian working for Jimmy Kimmel. I had seen him myself that day, around town and in the church, and I’d had no idea.

Meanwhile, I followed the congregants to the Fellowship Hall, feeling very good about the fact that we had not been shot, and about the fact that a man had stood and spoke up for Moore’s accusers, and good about the fact that a pastor like Dr. Gonnella can lead his flock with some measure of dignity and decency. I planned to stay and talk to Gonnella if I could, and to see if he could help me understand how a man of God like himself could support not only Roy Moore, but Donald Trump, too.

By the time I got to the reception, the brownies were long gone, but I immediately ran into the Asian-American man who had emotionally countered the protester, saying he was not fit to shine the shoes of Roy Moore. This was Mason Green, a 43-year-old volunteer with the Moore campaign. He was exceedingly polite, beginning his sentences with “yes sir” and “no sir” and, as if following Gonnella’s instructions to the letter, he answered every question I had with thoughtfulness and candor.

He favored immigration, he said, but done the right way. “I’m a half-breed,” he said, laughing. “My mom’s from Vietnam.” We both watched an older Vietnamese woman making her way among the brownies and lemonade. “But there’s a right way to do it,” Green said. “I don’t favor so-called jumping the line, you know?”

I thought in contrast to Moore, who considers homosexuality an affront to God, that perhaps Green might have more modern attitudes on the subject.

“Here’s my stance on it,” Green said, “I don’t care. I don’t care. If you are [gay], that’s fine! That’s between you and whatever god you believe in.” He paused and his face hardened. “But don’t make it my business. I don’t want to hear about it. When I hear about it, and you make it my business, you’re going to hear what I have to say about it.”

I asked what he meant by people making it his business.

“For example the gay pride parades in San Francisco,” he said. “If I were there, they would hear about it. I don’t want to know! I don’t want to know! I don’t talk about what my wife and I do behind closed doors. I don’t want to know!”

I asked if he could see a parallel between, say, a parade celebrating Vietnamese-American identity, and one celebrating gay and lesbian identity.

“There’s a difference between asserting your heritage and asserting a political agenda,” Green said. He said that only 3 percent of the country was gay, and even counting those sympathetic to gays and lesbians, it was a comparatively small group of people who were changing the fundamental character of the country. “If this thing were not so political,” he said, “I doubt I would have the same feelings about it. But because they have made it so political now…”

I asked how they were making it political.

“Gay marriage,” he said. “It’s not marriage. Marriage was defined in the Bible between one man and one woman.”

Something occurred to me then and has reverberated profoundly in the days since. Citizens like Mason Green, and the next few people I interviewed, are conservatives in the truest sense of the word, and this conservatism goes far beyond politics. In pure and uncomplicated way, they are wary of, and preternaturally opposed to, change. This is why the Bible offers such comfort: it is static. The text does not change. Its stories about and positions regarding any topic, from family to the pharaohs to the Assyrians to sodomy, have remained unchanged for two thousand years. And so in a world of daily upheaval and dizzying change, that so many people, and so many members of the Magnolia Springs Baptist Church, would find solace in the constancy of the Bible is not difficult to understand.

“I worked civil rights,” said Jeffrey Jones, an African-American man, heavy-set and in his mid-fifties, who was sitting at a nearby table. He said he had worked as Roy Moore’s campaign manager when he ran for governor in 2006. “When gays and lesbians meet, do they invite me to talk about issues of black people at their events? Who’s talking about the black agenda? You expect me to jump on the bandwagon and ride your horse on sexuality? How do white homosexuals feel about Black Lives Matter?”

How do you feel about Black Lives Matter? I asked.

“When I was 17 years old,” Jones said, “I watched three policemen shoot my cousin, handcuffed behind his back, and no one did anything. What we had in the 1960s was too many weak-kneed Negroes who would not address these issues of people and killing You got to be willing to stand up.”

I didn’t have to bring up the accusations against Roy Moore. Jones brought them up himself.

“I was born in Gadsen,” he said, referring to Moore’s hometown, and the town where Moore’s accusers are from, too.

“You’re probably cousins,” one of the men at the table joked.

“Listen, I graduated high school in 1977,” Jones said. “You don’t go out there and engage somebody’s daughter without the permission of the mother and father. I don’t care what color you are. That’s the way you do it.”

For a minute Jones and the other men at the table argued about the last gingerbread cookie. Their jostling was good-natured, even though two of the men around the table, I later learned, were liberal-leaning bloggers, one of whom had broken the story about Roy Moore being banned from the Gadsen mall.

“Let me tell you something,” Jones said to me. “If all you wanna talk about is that white man’s love life when he was a kid, I don’t wanna talk about it. Why aren’t they talking about the fact that Alabama has lost jobs in the steel industry? Where are those issues? Where are the issues of police killings? Things that really mean something to people?”

One of the bloggers, David Underhill, had a mordant wit. “And what about the fact that Mobile, a seafront city, will be underwater when the polar ice caps melt?”

Jones stood up and took me aside. He had things on his mind and didn’t want Underhill’s interrupting. He leaned into me.

“The moral compass,” he said, “they don’t teach that in school. I’ve watched Moore over the years, and those religious values and principles, ones that oppose abortion… Listen, I have three girls. Do you think I want my girls being taught they can kill their babies? My grandchildren?”

“Let’s be realistic,” he said. “What’s the conservative movement? Do you know who the most conservative black minister in the United States is?” I thought of Louis Farrakhan. “Minister Farrakhan!” Jones said. “Because black people keep relying too much on government to solve problems. As a father, do you think I’m going to allow government to just come in my house and take it over? Social programs and food stamps and housing? To replace me as a man?”

The congregants left one by one until it was only me and Dr. Gonnella. Everything had been cleaned up and the room was quiet but for folding of tables and chairs in adjoining rooms. I asked Gonnella if we could talk a bit, and he readily agreed. There was only the matter of the elderly man who was lingering in the Fellowship Hall with us. He was hard of hearing and near-blind, and was carrying a cardboard tray of small LED lights, the kind you might pin to a jacket or hat. He was wearing an exceptionally long scarf, and when he briefly wandered away from us, Dr. Gonnella quipped, “Must be a Doctor Who fan.” Then he was back.

“Has he left?” the elderly man asked, meaning Roy Moore. “I imagine so,” Dr. Gonnella said.

“Where are they staying?” the man asked.

“I have no idea,” the pastor said, now a bit impatient.

“These were donated by Wal-Mart,” the man said, indicating the LED lights. “John Wall, when he died, was one of the few billionaires that wore the Medal of Honor. A lot of people don’t know that. But everybody at Wal-Mart does.” He placed three lights on the counter. “Give these to three women who need them.”

The pastor said he would. The elderly man made his way to the door, his long scarf dusting the ground after him. “God bless you,” he said to Gonnella from the hallway. “You did a great job!”

“Anyway,” the pastor said and turned his attention to me. I asked him what the last three weeks had been like for him, with so much controversy hovering around Roy Moore, who he considers an ally.

“Well, it’s been a test as to whether I would be loyal to a friend,” Gonnella said. “It’d be different if proof had been brought forth that he had done wrong. But all we have are accusations with no substantiation, no proof, no evidence. In fact, the evidence we can dig up points to his innocence. But some people have deserted him.”

I mentioned the cultural reckoning the country was undergoing, the reassessment of men’s behavior, and asked if in the case of someone like Moore, accused by so many, we should take women at their word.

“No,” Gonnella said. “We should not take women at their word. We should demand evidence. I think it would be a horrible thing for men — and women — not to be able to pursue a career in the political sphere because somebody might accuse them of something and automatically they’re disqualified because they’ve been accused.”

“Sanctuary’s all locked!” an older woman’s voice called out from the distance. The church seemed to be empty but for me and the pastor. He was in no hurry to go, and seemed utterly willing and able to defend his beliefs.

“There are accusations,” Gonnella said, “but there is reasonable doubt. Now, there are some things Roy Moore has admitted to. He admitted to dating underage girls with the permission of their parents. Now that is not illegal in the state of Alabama. Is it wise? No. And I’m sure as a middle-aged man and as a senior citizen, if you’d asked Roy Moore, was that wise? No. But as a thirty-two-year-old, he probably thought it was okay. You and I probably thought things were okay when we were younger that we don’t think are okay now. He admitted that part. Now, he has not admitted the attempted rape, the sexual assault, the molesting, and um, there’s no evidence he did these things. I believe that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” he added, “and that means guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Immediately my mind went to the Zarate trial. In that case, the nation at large had a clear opinion and every confidence that the accused was guilty. In the courtroom, a very different and more nuanced narrative emerged, and Zarate was exonerated. The likelihood that fourteen women were all lying about Roy Moore was hard to fathom, but I had to grant Gonnella’s point in principle.

We went back and forth about Moore for a bit, but I knew that Gonnella and Moore were friends, and it was unlikely we’d change one another’s minds. What I did think was possible, though, was to see if this pastor might admit that our president did not act in accordance with Baptist teachings, or with any respect for God or the Bible. And here I think we made some progress.

At first Dr. Gonnella said, “We’d prefer that he practice civility and decency.”

I suggested that the church-going voters who helped elect Trump might demand more civility and an honorable path from him.

“We could do that, but whether he’d do it is another issue,” Gonnella said, chuckling.

I asked the pastor if he thought Trump was a Christian.

“His Christianity is not the same as ours,” he answered. “He was once asked if he’d ever asked forgiveness from God, and he said no, he didn’t think he needed to. As Baptists, we believe we do need to [ask forgiveness]. I would not define him as a Christian in the way I define Christianity,” he said evenly. “But does he promote principles that I as a Christian appreciate? Yes, he does. And so that’s why I vote for him.”

“He wasn’t my first choice in the primary,” Gonnella added. “My first choice was Ted Cruz.”

I spent the night at the Wind Creek Casino and Hotel in Atmore, Alabama — the only place I could find between Theodore and Montgomery. The casino was built on tribal land originally belonging to the Poarch Creek Indians, and next to the hotel’s bowling alley, there is a museum dedicated to their heritage; it’s about the size of a large bathroom. The rest of the hotel’s first floor is filled with slot machines and senior citizens smoking and pushing buttons on the machines, hoping for things to line up. In the free world, it’s unlikely there is a sadder place.

In the morning I went to Montgomery, to stop into the historical site known as the First White House of the Confederacy. It is a stately Italianite home in downtown Montgomery, across from State Capitol. Originally built by an ancestor of Zelda Fitzgerald, in 1861 it became the home of Jefferson Davis and his family, and the southern counterpart to Lincoln’s White House.

I would venture that the existence of the First White House of the Confederacy is largely unknown to most Americans who live in the north or western part of the country. Unless you have spent a significant amount of time in the South, you have no idea just how much Civil War history is preserved and revered, and how it’s understood. This is the introductory text on the monument’s website:

“In early 1861, as the Deep South states took up South Carolina’s lead and started to leave the Union in protest over the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, the city of Montgomery was proposed as a meeting site for a convention of the seceded states to consider matters of common importance, among them defence. The convention began on February 4, 1861, and quickly led to the establishment of a provisional government for the Confederate States of America.”

Notice that the reason presented here for southern secession was Lincoln’s election — not his opposition to slavery and the promise of its abolition.

The aid and comfort Donald Trump has provided to white supremacists has not happened in a vacuum. Though for most of the country and the rest of the world, and for most humans, the evils of slavery — and every economic and governmental force that supported it — has been well established since Reconstruction, there are still stubborn and bewildering attitudes that persist. At an event earlier in his Alabama senatorial campaign, Roy Moore was asked a question by an African American attendee: When, the man asked, did Moore think America was last great?

Before the Civil War, Moore answered. “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another,” he said. “Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

A few months ago, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former general who had been heralded by left and right as a positive addition to Trump’s team and a source of potential order, revealed that he, too, had peculiar opinions about the war between the states. In a television interview with Laura Ingraham, he asserted that the Civil War was caused by a “lack of an ability to compromise.” Historians had a field day with that, but Kelly didn’t apologize or amend his assessment. It was emblematic of this remarkable moment, where counter-historical theories and fringe opinions get fair hearing at the highest levels of government; it went beyond the ahistorical, fiction-filled first year of Trump, where no truths are beyond interrogation or inversion.

When I entered the First White House of the Confederacy, the building was near-empty, with just two people working onsite. At the front of the house, I was greeted by an energetic and loquacious white man who offered me a brochure and a bottle of water — both are free to all visitors to the museum, he said. Flipping through the brochure was a lesson in the tortured history of the South, and how conflicted even the makers of the museum’s brochures are about it. On page 12 of the booklet, a biography of Jefferson Davis began, but the next two pages had been cut with a fine blade. The booklet jumped from page 12 to page 15, and whatever history was contained on pages 13 and 14 was lost, at least to visitors to the First White House of the Confederacy. On page 15, though, quotes General Lee speaking about Davis: “The Southern people loved him. They are prepared to protect and guard his memory from the fierce future winds of prejudice.”

I had no real idea why I’d come to the museum, outside of being intrigued that such a museum still existed in an era when Confederate monuments were being torn down, and when the Confederate flag was disappearing from state buildings throughout the South. That the First White House of the Confederacy would escape controversy — and so far it has — seemed at least curious.

In the gift shop at the back of the house, an African American woman in her fifties was busy on her computer, but soon took notice of me, and we talked for a bit about college football — Auburn had just beaten Alabama, and that was significant to many — before I asked what she thought about the current state of things in the South, with Confederate monuments coming down. She stood up and approached me. Her nametag read Evelyn England.

“What do you really want to know?” she asked, her eyes narrowed.

I asked if, given the political climate, there had been any debate about the home we were standing in.

“Well,” she said, her voice a dramatic hush, “my stance is, you have to do history.” She had a way of drawing out words and imbuing them with mystery and import. Thus the word history became hissssstory.

“But there are those who are not doing history,” she continued. “You’re doing you. History is the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between. If people are interested in history, just let me tell you how evil your history is.”

And the monuments? I asked.

“I don’t believe in the taking down of the monuments,” she said. “And it’s just my opinion. That’s just a temporary fix. A temporary fix. I’m more focused on a permanent fix. I look at things in a whole different context.”

From there, Evelyn England and I had one of the more memorable talks I’ve had in my life. We walked through the first floor of the house and then upstairs, and between showing me the antebellum furnishings, many imported from France, she quoted the Bible extensively, Martin Luther King (“A lie cannot live forever”) and Shakespeare (“Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive”). As we made our way through the rooms, we wondered aloud if that was from Macbeth, and she said she’d almost given her first son that name. The other staffer at the museum overheard us debating which play it was from, and jogged downtsairs, saying he would look it up.

England took me to the Relic Room. “You’ll love this memorabilia,” she said. There were two long glass display cases full of guns and swords and handwritten letters. On the walls were Confederate flags and portraits of Confederate leaders and their wives. We stood over one of the display cases, where I noticed a small Bible bound in worn black leather. I noticed England’s earrings. They were gold loops, each with a tiny angel sitting, as if on a swing.

“I think the most valuable thing we have in this house is right here in this room,” she said.

The other staff member returned with his phone, and informed us that “What a tangled web we weave…” was actually written by Sir Walter Scott. We all laughed about that, and he left us alone again.

“I had a dream,” England said. When she was younger, she explained, she had dreamt about a fire, and later the fire had happened. She came to think she was touched, even if just a little bit, with the power of prophecy.

“I just hope I’m alive when the great truths come out,” she said.

I asked what truths she meant.

“The truths that are self-evident,” she said in a whisper.

She hadn’t revealed what the most valuable item in the house was, so I asked her what it was.

“What do you think it is?” she asked.

Given she’d been clear about her faith and was well-versed in the Bible, I nodded to the small Bible, but I was wrong. She pointed down to the glass case between us, to a plume of gray hair.

“That’s the hair of Jefferson Davis,” she said.

I told her I’d seen Roy Moore speak the night before.

“His soul is troubled,” she said, sighing. “His soul is troubled. But we all, at some point, have had troubled souls.” She was quiet for a time, still standing over the hair of Jefferson Davis. “I just feel he needs to address…” she paused again. “He needs to stop running, stop hiding.”

I told her that Roy Moore seems to know the Bible well.

“So does the devil,” she countered quickly. “So does the devil. The Bible warned us about false prophets. ‘There will be a wolf but in sheep’s clothing.’ All this originated through religious faith. All of it. All of it. Even the pilgrims. They wanted their religious freedoms. Well, when you got your so-called religious freedom, then you denied it to others. What is that?” She laughed. “Go back to early European history. These were the castaways of Europe. But all of a sudden, you’re high society? I mean, what the hell?”

We talked for a long time longer, over the hair of Jefferson Davis, as the sky outside went dark and rain began to tap the roof with tiny fingers. I asked if she thought Roy Moore could be elected.

“I feel for him. I feel for him…. But God can clean you up and put you to work. He can do that. He did it for Paul. He has an ultimate task for Roy Moore.”

I asked if Roy Moore needed to repent.

“That’s between him and the man upstairs,” she said. “Because He had to change us, our Lord did. Man had fallen from grace. All of us had — you know, ‘filthy rags.’ There was not enough Clorox in the world!” She laughed.

She led me downstairs and to the door. Outside, the skies were white with rain. She autographed my brochure.

“Don’t forget your cotton!” said a voice. It was the other staffer at the museum, the energetic white man. He handed me a small plastic bag full of raw cotton, white and dirty, its leaves hardened and jagged. Every visitor gets a sample, he said.

When I returned to my rental car, I got notice that back in San Francisco, the jury in the Kate Steinle trial had reached a verdict of not guilty. Zarate was convicted only of holding a gun while being a felon — an offense that wouldn’t likely result in any more jail time, given the two years he’d served while awaiting trial. “A complete travesty,” Donald Trump tweeted. “BUILD THE WALL.”

I met Matt Gonzalez and his team a few days later in San Francisco. It was lunchtime, and five attorneys, investigators and paralegals who had worked on the case were sitting in Gonzalez’s spartan office across from the Hall of Justice, eating Burmese takeout food. They looked exhausted. I asked how the reaction to the verdict had been.

“I don’t read the emails that start off calling me a scumbag communist,” said Gonzalez. “But people are hearing so many erroneous things about the case, like that we were high-fiving the jurors afterward, or that there wasn’t a ricochet, or that this was an illegal alien that was sent here to shoot her. When people are hearing that stuff, the vitriol that we get is, how dare we let this guy out?”

“But even if Mexico did send him to kill her,” noted Zac Dillon, a young and bearded paralegal, “he’d still get a defense attorney. That’s how our system works.” The rest of the lawyers nodded into their Burmese food.

I mentioned the call-and-response that seems to be happening between the Trump White House and the leadership and courts in San Francisco. The Ninth Circuit court had stopped the initial Muslim travel ban, for example. In the wake of Trump’s abrogation of the Paris climate accords, Governor Jerry Brown decided to pick up the slack and, by organizing hundreds of mayors and governors himself and getting them to commit to reducing carbon emissions, essentially do the work of the accord outside the purview of the White House. And the California state legislature had been working on making the entire state of California a sanctuary.

But Gonzalez’s legal team didn’t seem in the mood to elevate what had happened in the courtroom into a cause of national import, much less to use it to score points against Trump.

“I have family around the country,” said Francisco Ugarte, a lawyer in the public defender’s office who specializes in immigrants’ rights. “In Missouri, Massachusetts, New Hampshire. And they were just happy an innocent man didn’t get convicted of murder.”

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