Why would a social conservative vote for Donald Trump, who is the least socially conservative of all the Republican candidates? I can think of a few reasons:
1. The big issues for social conservatives are abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty (religious liberty being threatened as a consequence of gay marriage and civil rights laws).
2. On abortion, unless the Supreme Court were to revisit Roe v. Wade — something nobody foresees happening — the right to legal abortion is here to stay. Even if the Court overturned Roe, all that would mean is that the right to regulate abortion would return to the states. Most states would unhesitatingly protect abortion rights. Some would impose restrictions. In no state would it likely be banned outright. The possibility of there being an end to abortion achieved through judicial and legislative means is remote. That does not mean that having a pro-life president is unimportant, but it does mean that its importance has to be judged relative to other factors.
3. Anybody who thinks Obergefell is going to be overturned is dreaming. It won’t happen. Roe was less popular in 1973 than Obergefell is today, and we all know by now that the generation most opposed to same-sex marriage is passing away. Gay marriage is here to stay. Our side lost that battle, and we waste time and resources trying to re-fight it. The candidates who say they’re going to work to overturn Obergefell are either pandering or deluded. And socially conservative voters who are in touch with reality know that what’s done is done. Fighting same-sex marriage in the courts is the most lost of lost causes.
4. Religious liberty is where the real fight is, specifically the degree to which religious institutions and individuals will have the freedom to practice their beliefs without running afoul of civil liberties for gay men and women. This is where having a friendly administration matters most to religious and social conservatives. And this is an area where religious and social conservatives are in the most danger of being bamboozled by the GOP Establishment.
Why? Every single one of the GOP candidates will say the right thing (from a social conservative point of view) on religious liberty. But will they deliver? Don’t you believe it. The Indiana RFRA fight was the Waterloo of social conservatives. Big Business has come down decisively on the side of gay rights, and forced Gov. Mike Pence and the state GOP lawmakers to back down. They forced Gov. Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas to back down. As I cannot repeat often enough, I was told last fall by multiple sources in a position to know that the Congressional Republicans have no intention of making religious liberty an issue going forward. For one thing, they don’t want to be called bigots, and for another, the donor class is against it. I don’t doubt that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (at least) would like to protect religious liberty, but I am convinced that they are too beholden to the donor class to do anything more than make speeches.
5. That brings us to Donald Trump. He has said publicly that he will make protecting religious liberty a priority. Does he mean it? I have no idea, and you don’t either. He is no religious conservative. But he is a populist who doesn’t care what the donor class thinks, because he is not indebted to them. It is reasonable to think that religious liberty stands a better chance with Trump in the White House than any other Republican. Mind you, that’s the soft bigotry of low expectations, but that just goes to show you how weak the position of us religious and social conservatives has become within the Republican Party.
6. There are, of course, ramifications for social conservatism from the way the economy is run, for open-borders policies, and from the GOP-Democratic establishment’s hawkishness. “Invade the world, invite the world” ought to matter to social conservatives, as should economic policies that hollow out American industries and cities. FiveThirtyEight writes that GOP-leaning cities are under greater threat of losing jobs to automation. Job loss has tremendous impact on the social fabric. “Creative destruction” doesn’t sound so nice when it’s your job and your community being destroyed. Trump speaks to that reality in ways the other Republicans do not. Is he selling snake oil? He may well be. But he’s talking about it compellingly.
That’s a case for social and religious conservatives voting for Donald Trump. I’m not saying it’s a persuasive case; most conservative Christians I know are against Trump, for reasons strongly rooted in their faith convictions. And I’m not saying it’s what I personally believe. But I am saying here that it is by no means unreasonable for social and religious conservatives, facing down the unhappy realities of this field, to cast their lot with the much-married, amoral, pride-filled casino mogul. We live in interesting times.
UPDATE: A number of people seem to be under the impression that I’m supporting Trump. Not necessarily true. For one thing, you will remember last week that I called him a “hooligan” and a “threat to democracy.” For another, in all honesty I do not like any of the candidates, and have not settled on one, but when I do, I will not be saying who it is, because TAC is a 501(c)(3) entity, and that means we who write for it are not allowed to endorse candidates or political causes. Nothing I write in this space should be taken as an endorsement of any particular candidate. I was simply thinking earlier today, “How could a social conservative justify voting for Trump?”, and followed that thought.
As I’ve said before on many occasions — including in the post in which I called Trump a hooligan, mostly because he embraced torture! — I think he’s doing Republican politics a service, and I think the Republican Party, and Conservatism, Inc., has brought Trump on themselves. But that does not mean he should be president. I also think Bernie Sanders is doing a similar service for the Democrats, but that does not mean I want to see a socialist in the White House.
Like many people in my line of work, it took me a long, long time to understand why anybody would take Trump seriously, much less vote for him other than malign reasons. I think he’s a man of low morals and bad character. But I think George W. Bush is a true-believing Christian and generally an honorable man — Trump is neither — who led America into disaster. This is a disaster none of the Republicans other than Trump even recognize (publicly) as a disaster. (And by the way, George W. Bush also supported torture.) I think there are many reasons for social conservatives not to back Trump, and we see these reasons talked about every day on the Right. If you’re a social conservative who votes against Trump, that’s fine, you have reason, and maybe more reason than the social conservative who votes for him. But just be clear that on the political issues that have mattered most to social conservatives — abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty — it is by no means obvious that the non-Trump Republicans are going to be any better, and they may be worse.
What struck me about Ruffini’s comments was the absolute contempt he had for both Trump and for his supporters. In a matter of minutes, Ruffini referred to Trump’s supporters as a “cancer” that had to be contained, and said that it “wouldn’t be a stretch” to compare Trump’s tactics to those of jihadists. If you think that at least a third of your own party represents a “cancer” that needs to be kept in check, you won’t have the first clue how to respond to it. Trump serves as the vehicle to return the contempt that party elites and strategists have had for his supporters for decades. So naturally the “answer” that one these same clever strategists has is to heap more contempt on them.
Similarly, if it is impossible to understand why social conservatives may believe Trump, for all his sins and failings, is a better risk for them as social conservatives than the Republican Party regulars, the GOP is in more trouble than we thought.
Here’s an example. I think Trump’s language for talking about illegal immigrants is repulsive. On the other hand, in Texas, where I used to live, business conservatives routinely advocated for immigration “reform,” on economic grounds and grounds of compassion. I do not believe these folks were, or are, insincere. Hell, a lot of my friends were like this, and they are good, well-meaning, big-hearted people! But I think they genuinely do not see, and do not care, about the effect of mass immigration on their fellow Americans farther down the social hierarchy.
For people in our socioeconomic demographic, greater immigration meant more and better restaurants, and better lawn and garden care. Our kids weren’t having their schools overrun by children who couldn’t speak the language; they went to private school, or to public schools in parts of town immigrants couldn’t afford. We weren’t having the hospitals we used overrun by illegal immigrants needing care; we didn’t have to use the public hospital. Our neighborhoods weren’t changing in front of our eyes. And so on. The immigration issue was a chance for us to show our compassion — sometimes our explicitly Christian compassion — without it costing us anything tangible. The kind of white people my class looked down on and thought of as racist rabble were the kind of white people who had to bear a lot of the brunt of our politics and what we called compassion.
And you know what? A lot of those people are racist, and shame on them for it. Some of them are rabble. But they are not wrong to judge that many in our class looks down on them, and doesn’t share their interests. The kinds of social things they might like to conserve don’t really matter to people of my class. We can’t see it, we never could see it, and some of us are still bound and determined not to see it, until they make us see it.
UPDATE.3: Check this blog in the morning for “A Social Conservative Case Against Trump (For Social Conservatives Alienated From the GOP)”.