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Trump Christian Base Eroding

Trump at Friday press conference announcing that churches must re-open (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Politico says that some recent polls showing the president’s support among his white Christian base is eroding has prompted Trump to call for churches to re-open. Excerpts:

The anxiety over Trump’s standing with the Christian right surfaced after a pair of surveys by reputable outfits earlier this month found waning confidence in the administration’s coronavirus response among key religious groups, with a staggering decline in the president’s favorability among white evangelicals and white Catholics. Both are crucial constituencies that supported Trump by wide margins in 2016 and could sink his reelection prospects if their turnout shrinks this fall.

The polls paint a bleak picture for Trump, who has counted on broadening his religious support by at least a few percentage points to compensate for weakened appeal with women and suburban populations. One GOP official said the dip in the president’s evangelical support also appeared in internal party polling, but disputed the notion that it had caused panic. Another person close to the campaign described an April survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, which showed a double-digit decline in Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals (-11), white Catholics (-12) and white mainline protestants (-18) from the previous month, as “pretty concerning.”


Following the PRRI survey, which was conducted while Trump was a dominant presence at televised daily briefings by his administration’s coronavirus task force, Pew Research Center released new data last week that showed a 7-point increase from April to May in white Catholics who disapprove of Trump’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and a 6-point decline among white evangelicals who previously gave him positive marks.

The open-the-churches call from Trump today is just rhetorical. The president doesn’t have the power to re-open them; state governments do. The president is trying to send a signal that he is on the side of churchgoers. Not sure that’s going to do the trick. From Politico:

It’s unlikely that critics of church closings alone are responsible for the decline in Trump’s favorability among critical religious demographics. According to the Pew survey, 43 percent of white evangelicals and 52 percent of white Catholics think the current restrictions on public activity in their areas are appropriate versus 42 percent and 31 percent, respectively, who think fewer restrictions would be better. Greater shares of white evangelicals and white Catholics also said they are more afraid about their state governments lifting restrictions on public activity too soon than they are about leaving the restrictions in place for too long.

Read it all.

Maybe the truth is that conservative Christians may prefer Trump to Biden on issues that matter to them, but his handling of the global pandemic overrides everything else this year. No doubt that many Christian voters would vote Trump no matter how he performed on pandemic response. Andrew Sullivan writes today:

A year ago precisely, Trump’s approval rating was, in FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls, 53.8 percent disapprove, 41.1 percent approve. This week, the spread was 53.1 percent disapprove and 43 percent approve. Almost identical. None of the events of the last year — impeachment, plague, economic collapse — have had anything but a trivial impact on public opinion.

Sullivan unspools a merciless reel of Trump’s failures in the crisis — really crushing stuff. TAC’s Bob Merry wrote earlier this week that Trump will probably lose this fall because he has not been a very good president. Excerpt:

It is true also that Trump’s knot of popular support–about 43 percent of the electorate, based on approval surveys–is remarkably solid, willing to accept just about anything he does or says so long as he continues to attack those dastardly elites.

But presidential elections also don’t turn on any incumbent’s base of support. Reelection requires that a president build upon that base and create a governing coalition by bringing in new converts through Oval Office achievement. Richard Nixon, a 43 percent president following the 1968 election, pulled to his party much of the George Wallace constituency, nearly 14 percent of the popular vote in 1968. The result was a reelection landslide. Similarly, following the 1980 election Ronald Reagan pulled to his banner the so-called Reagan Democrats, which contributed to his margin of victory in numerous congressional battles and in his own landslide reelection in 1984.

Or consider the case of Bill Clinton, like Nixon a 43 percent president after his 1992 victory against incumbent George H. W. Bush and upstart candidate Ross Perot, who garnered 19 percent of the popular vote. Clinton had his head handed to him in the 1994 midterm elections following a sub-par performance during his first two years in office. But after that he brilliantly calibrated his leadership to capture a significant portion of the Perot vote. Thus did he build on his base through performance in office and become a two-term president.

Trump has proved himself incapable of this kind of political calibration. He can’t even talk to those Americans who might be receptive to his policies but haven’t yet joined up. He talks only to his base.

This is true. If Trump gets bad news, he blames the messenger. He attacked Fox News today over a poll showing him behind Biden nationally — as if reporting what their poll actually found was an act of disloyalty. As Sullivan writes,

 Directly challenging him, even when his numbers are wrong, appears to erode Mr. Trump’s trust, according to former officials, and ultimately he stops listening. In other words, the officials who tell him things he doesn’t want to believe are soon sidelined or fired.

Again, everybody knows that there is a solid rock of immovable Trump voters — I’m guessing that the 44 percent of Republicans who believe that Bill Gates wants to inject microchips into people with a coronavirus vaccine are part of that crowd — but they are not enough to win Trump a second term. What about everybody else? Why are those Christian voters who had a favorable opinion of Trump now abandoning him? I’d say a lot of it has to do with exhaustion. The country is facing a crisis like none it has seen in a century. It is crashing the economy. We can re-open, but if people start getting sick again, everybody’s going to stay home. These people who are normally inclined to Trump, but now going off of him — they’re going to make the difference between victory and defeat for the president. And they’re worn out with all this instability, and the stupid, pointless drama.

I mean, look at this. Whatever you think of Jeff Sessions, he stood by Trump early, when few others in Washington did. But he made the mistake of putting duty to the law above personal loyalty to Trump. This is the kind of thing that once upon a time, conservatives thought worth supporting. Trump has never forgiven him for it. Sessions is running for his old Senate seat back — and Trump is trying to keep him from getting it. Look:

See what I mean? What is the point of doing this to Jeff Sessions, except spite? I mean, come on, Jeff Sessions? Really? There are a certain number of conservatives who are just fed up with crap like this, and can’t stand the thought of four more years of it.

That’s my guess — but then, I’m talking about somebody like myself: never a fan of Trump, and genuinely frightened about what a Democrat in the White House would do, especially if the Dems take the Senate (which they will likely do if Trump loses in a landslide). But nobody knows what the future holds for the country in this pandemic, either in terms of public health or the economy. Can we risk four more years of this chaos and craziness and overall incompetence, especially not knowing what’s ahead on the virus and the economy? Is that prospect scarier than a Democratic president and Democratic Senate naming and confirming judges?

Maybe. I did not imagine anything like this in January, but then, I didn’t imagine that we would get to Memorial Day weekend with almost 100,000 Americans dead, and 40 million unemployed.

UPDATE: Reader Daniel (Not Larison)’s comment resonates with me:

This Pandemic, and the response to it, and the response of the public to the response, has left me utterly exhausted.

My Facebook feed is getting crammed with my conservative friend’s fear-mongering about how (a) the virus is just a “cold”, (b) the official death counts are greatly exaggerated (through wide-spread incompetence and fraud), (c) the left is using this crisis to destroy our freedoms, (d) masks are tyranny, (e) Trump’s response has been perfect, (f) blue state governors want to gain power and destroy their economies just to make Trump look bad, and (g) the people who died would have died from something else any way. Sprinkled among these responses are things like the Gates microchip thing, 5g causes the virus, it’s really Obama’s fault, etc.

Sometimes they post some actual true information, like the errors of 4 states in double-counting positive test results or that congressional democrats did try to pack the COVID-19 relief bill with a wishlist of progressive causes. But mostly I see wild assertions and baseless accusations. Anyone who agrees with Trump is smart and can be trusted, anyone who disagrees with him is stupid and/or evil.

It truly is remarkable how even this kind of a crisis has been politicized. There is nearly a perfect correlation between COVID-19 skepticism and Trump support. Tens of thousands of health professionals and medical examiners committing fraud or incompetent by including COVID-19 as a cause of death? Certainly, if it makes Trump look bad. Dozens of other nations adopting similar policies to blue governors? Yeah, they’re crashing their economies because they hate Trump, too.

It is utter madness. Rather than respecting genuine differences in opinion, rather than arguing with facts and data, we are responding with hatred, contempt, and raw emotion.

The left certainly is not above this–as we have seen in issues like transgenderism and Project 1619, the left certainly has engaged in this and continues to do so. I’ve lost count of how many liberal friends I’ve had to stop following on Facebook because of their utter contempt not just of Trump, but of anyone who would dare express support for him or his policies. And their cursing like sailors they wear like a badge of honor, as of it’s a mark of liberation.

Weimar America, truly. We’re facing a dual crisis of health and economic collapse that we hadn’t seen in a century, and rather than rising to the occasion, many of us are just attacking each other. It reminds me of what Josephus wrote in “The Jewish War” about the Jews, under siege by Roman forces in an incredibly over packed Jerusalem, were busy killing each other rather than facing the enemies outside.

Perhaps I am just a pessimist. Certainly not all Americans are rigidly divided into Team Red and Team Blue–maybe not even the majority. But enough are for me to lose much of my hope for the future of this country.

Yet I know God is in control, and this could very well be a manifestation of his judgment on our wicked, wicked culture. Or even from a secular perspective, our culture has built such a toxic response to crisis that we cannot survive. Either way, without change, I cannot see us surviving as a unified nation and people (if we truly are any more) too far into the future.



about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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