Trump Caters More to Evangelicals Than the Working Class
Last week President Trump appeared to undercut his repeated promises to get tough with China. He renounced his own administration’s sanctions on electronics maker ZTE and conceded on Twitter, “Too many jobs in China lost.”
The following day, Trump not only delivered on a promise to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but he invited two controversial evangelical Christian pastors to give prayers at an event celebrating the move. (Many evangelicals believe that the move is a step toward fulfilling biblical prophecy and the second coming of Jesus Christ.)
By the end of the week, Trump gave the evangelical community another big win: new regulations preventing health care providers who receive federal money from performing abortions (or referring women for the procedure), even if their abortion services are paid with private funds (federal money already can’t subsidize abortions). If the rules survive expected legal challenges, Trump will have successfully defunded the Christian right’s bête noire: Planned Parenthood.
Then yesterday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced a suspension of last month’s tariffs on China, telling “Fox News Sunday,” “We’re putting the trade war on hold.”
His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said at the Jerusalem ceremony, “When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it.” But Trump’s promises to his evangelical supporters seem more ironclad than his promises to the Iron Range. Why is that?
The first thing to understand is conservative evangelicals are a crucial ingredient for his political coalition. Before the 2016 election, I had argued that the Christian right had become an ideological albatross to the Republican Party. That may still be correct over the long term, as America’s religiosity continues to decline, but it certainly wasn’t true in 2016.
Trump had been cannily cultivating evangelical support for years, assembling a group of ministers back in 2011 and asking for spiritual counsel on whether he should run for president. In 2016, while some religious leaders kept their distance from Trump based on his character, others calculated that his personal behavior was not as important as what he could deliver to them on policy. And so, while Republican presidential candidates always do well with evangelicals, Trump’s share of the white evangelical vote managed to top that of George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, helping him eke out a narrow victory.
Of course, Trump also managed to outperform his Republican predecessors in winning the votes of the white working class, as well as white evangelicals. Both constituencies are critical to his political fortunes (and there is overlap between the two). However -- and this is the second key factor in Trump’s attentiveness to Christian conservatives -- there is no organized, lobby network advocating for the economic interests of the white working class, while there is for conservative evangelicals. (Of course, there are union lobbyists, but they are mainly Democrats who don’t have Trump’s ear. Furthermore, only 10.6 percent of white workers are union members; many don’t view the AFL-CIO as their voice in Washington.)
One reason why Trump did particularly well with the white working class is because he was more critical of corporations than the average Republican. The new book “The Great Revolt” by Salena Zito and Brad Todd surveyed 2,000 Trump voters and found 86 percent believe he “stands up for the working people against powerful corporate interests.” (I recently interviewed Zito and Todd on my “New Books in Politics” podcast.)
And yet the benefits of the Trump tax reform law are heavily skewed toward corporate America, after lobbyists spent ten of millions to influence the bill. Nevertheless, Trump’s poll numbers edged upwards in the aftermath of the bill signing, suggesting that it did not prompt any shedding of his base support.
However, soon after the tax law was enacted, evangelical activists began to complain publicly: What is Trump doing for us lately? Last month, Penny Nance of Concerned Women of America said her fellow travelers saw the subsequent “omnibus” spending bill as a “slap in their face” because it didn’t cut off funds to Planned Parenthood. And Christian conservative radio host Steve Deace warned, “If we go the next seven months and all they’ve done all year is that tax cut, I think that’s a danger zone. … You [will] have a huge enthusiasm gap.” One month later, Trump heeded the warning, and delivered on Israel and abortion.
Will blue-collar workers eventually complain if Trump flinches on China? I doubt it. White working-class voters appear willing to give him a lot of slack, because they agree with his general conservative bent, and they view him as at least trying to fight on their behalf.or example, a USA Today dispatch last month noted that things are not much different in the coal industry since Trump has been president, yet miners are still enthralled with him. Said an industry spokesman, “What we’re hearing from our leadership, as well as the rank and file, is we’ve got a future.” Last year, after 700 Carrier jobs were sent from Indiana to Mexico, despite Trump’s boasts of keeping those jobs in the U.S.A., one displaced worker told the New York Times she still backed Trump “100 percent” since “he did his best.”
In other words, it may be that workers expect less from Trump than do evangelical activists. They may get less as a result, but they probably won’t mind.
But one thing is certain. It doesn’t matter that Trump once appeared in a Playboy video. It doesn’t matter that Trump ran casinos. It doesn’t matter that Trump was a philanderer. It doesn’t even matter that he won’t answer a direct question as to whether he ever had a relationship with a woman that resulted in an aborted pregnancy. What Christian conservatives want from Trump, Christian conservatives will likely get, and that suits them just fine.