Friends of mine have wondered aloud how evangelical Christians, and a sizeable number of Catholics, can support a man who has been married three times. They didn’t ask the same question four years ago about Newt Gingrich, who has done The Donald one better.
True, my friends say, but how can these pro-life Christians trust a billionaire businessman who has donated money to politicians (including Hillary Clinton) who support abortion? Yet many of those asking that question (especially my Catholic friends) still trust Rick Santorum, despite the fact that Santorum endorsed the radically pro-abortion Arlen Specter in the 2004 Republican primary for U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. This wasn’t a pro forma endorsement of a fellow Republican who faced no serious opposition; Specter’s primary opponent, Pat Toomey, had impeccable pro-life credentials. So why did Santorum endorse Specter? The Bush White House regarded Specter as an important ally—not on the life issues on which Santorum had built his conservative reputation, but on the war in Iraq. Santorum set aside his pro-life principles because he was just as pro-war as Specter and Bush. Indeed, after he lost his own seat two years later, Santorum delivered his final speech on the floor of the Senate not on abortion or euthanasia or gay marriage but on the need for the United States to go abroad, searching for monsters to destroy. He then promptly decamped to the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he established and directed the “America’s Enemies” program. (That program, as you may imagine, wasn’t set up to promote social conservatism.)
All right, my friends say, but shouldn’t it bother pro-lifers that Trump has only recently converted to their cause? Isn’t that a sign that he would be unlikely to do anything to curb abortion if he were elected president? Tell me—what did George W. Bush do? For six years, the Republican Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, yet they advanced not a single significant piece of pro-life legislation. When Republican congressmen, Ron Paul among them, attempted to remove state legislation restricting abortion from federal court review (an effective constitutional procedure known as “stripping”), President Bush refused to back it. Yet the administration successfully pushed through a law stripping cases involving the detention center at Guantanamo Bay from the federal courts. Waterboarding merited Republican protection; 1.3 million unborn babies each year did not.
Yes, my friends say, we didn’t support the war in Iraq, either, and were critical of the Bush administration for prosecuting it. Yet surely it should bother evangelical Christians and Catholics that Trump’s Christianity seems only Two Corinthians deep. But remind me—whom did the Republicans nominate in 2012? Joseph Smith, while adopting much of the language of Christianity, created a polytheistic (hence non-Christian) religion. Mitt Romney was pro-abortion until it was politically necessary not to be so. And his healthcare plan in Massachusetts was, in fact, one of the models for ObamaCare. And oh, by the way, Arlen Specter, reelected with Santorum’s endorsement, abandoned the Republican Party and then cast the deciding vote in cutting off debate on the Affordable Care Act. (Sixty votes were needed; with Specter’s vote, the Democrats got 60.) Obama Care passed the Senate the very next day.
Since 1989, when the George H.W. Bush administration successfully scuppered a Supreme Court case (Turnock v. Ragsdale, originating here in Rockford, Illinois) that was widely expected to lead to a reconsideration of Roe v. Wade, the Republican Party nationally has paid little more than lip service to pro-life Christians. The Bush Junior administration had the opportunity to strip state marriage laws from review by the federal courts, which would have prevented last summer’s Obergefell decision; they chose not to, because Karl Rove wanted Republican candidates to be able to campaign on the issue in 2004. Politics and the prosecution of the war in Iraq, which bankrupted this country and destroyed our international reputation, took precedence.
Perhaps, then, the real story of the 2016 primary season is that evangelical Christians and Catholics are finally recognizing that they have simply been used. Since George H.W. Bush’s betrayal of pro-lifers in 1989, and his subsequent nomination of “stealth justice” David Souter, I haven’t voted for a single Republican nominee for president. (Needless to say, I haven’t voted for a Democratic candidate, either.) There’s a bit of schadenfreude in watching other Christians come to grips with the reality that the national Republican Party does not really care about the moral issues that we do.
Yet does Donald Trump? That the answer is almost certainly no—look at the man’s (very public) private life—hardly matters. If he does not, then social conservatives are in no worse position than we have been in for the past 25 years. We may, in fact, be in better shape, because, despite Trump’s nods to Christians and social conservatives, their issues haven’t been central to his campaign. It’s the national issues—trade, the economy, immigration, an end to foreign adventurism, confronting the threat of Islam not so much abroad as here at home—that have animated his supporters.
And it’s Trump’s patriotic positions on those national issues that have neoconservatives left and left threatening to leave the Republican Party, to back either a third-party candidate such as Michael Bloomberg, or even Hillary Clinton—despite the fact that both are anathema to the Christian and social conservatives whom the GOP has taken for granted for the better part of 30 years. Open borders, trade policies that have gutted the American working and middle classes, foreign wars that have bankrupted this country, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, destabilized the Middle East, and swamped Europe under a wave of migrants—these are the policies that the neoconservatives who control the Republican establishment want the next president to continue. The fact that they believe they are more likely to get their way under Clinton or Bloomberg than under Trump is telling.
Trump speaks to a similar American body politic that is also frustrated and doesn’t believe anything any professional politicians say. They believe America needs a president who is not beholden to special interest groups—that is why Trump’s self-funding candidacy resonates so well with them. They also want a president who is committed single-mindedly to the goal of creating prosperity for all Americans, while maintaining traditional values based on the delicate balance between order and liberty. They believe we need a leader who is unwilling to risk our country’s future on the social experiment of effectively open borders—not even to please the high priests of anti-Western multiculturalism, or corporate CEOs who profit from cheap labor in a shadow economy, or avoid the (false) criticism that secure borders are based on racist impulses. They want a man who will protect Americans at every economic level, not merely high-dollar investors with getaway homes on foreign shores. Americans are also war-weary and want a president who promises better care for grievously wounded veterans of the Iraq War Trump repeatedly calls a tragic mistake.
I appreciate that Donald Trump’s personality and temperament differ from Ronald Reagan’s. There are valid reservations to Trump from reasonable people, as there are to other candidates. But the objections we are hearing from the pundits in the US to Mr. Trump, and which are now being echoed in Europe, are conspicuously similar to those we heard about Ronald Reagan, who was regarded by media groups—incorrectly—as an unsophisticated low-brow and, in foreign policy, uninformed neophyte.
There are many differences between the two men in deportment, background, style, experience, personal history, and, notably, how they approach political opponents, but we should not overlook striking similarities. Reagan was once pro-choice, before experience and reflection changed his mind about abortion on demand. He once favored high immigration, until he saw what it was doing to our country. He was accused of being overly simplistic, lacking substance. Ronald Reagan’s stated plan to win the Cold War was stark: We win, they lose. He made his share of enemies among the powerful—the fiercest being in his own party. In the media, there were legions of critics, full of mockery and vitriol. But, he was a brilliant choice for president.
Like President Reagan, Mr. Trump is an ex-Democrat. In his role as a highly successful entrepreneur, he has contributed to Democratic politicians over the years and even said nice things about some of them—this is taken as a sign of inconsistency. Those who know the current American scene understand that prominent business people today contribute to both parties as a kind of insurance against being singled out by the regulators and enforcers of the big tax and regulatory bureaucracies. For these very individuals and the firms they represent, such contributions and compliments are, sadly, regarded as normal costs of doing business.