After winning the presidency on the strength of support from evangelicals, Donald Trump wants to know: Where is the love?
The religious right is abandoning him after he delivered on their decades-long project to overturn Roe v. Wade. They overlooked his personal failings and the Access Hollywood tape because he promised to appoint pro-life judges, which he did—including three on the Supreme Court, ensuring a hard-right conservative SCOTUS for at least a generation.
Now Trump complains pro-life voters didn’t show up in big enough numbers in last year’s midterms, which he equates with disloyalty.
He blames Republicans for turning abortion into a loser issue by insisting on no exceptions, even in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother. And now he’s bucking the party on entitlements, telling the House Freedom Caucus to exact a price from the Democrats to raise the debt ceiling—but to keep their hands off of Social Security and Medicare.
“To hold up the debt ceiling to cut social security, that’s just nuts, and the current Republicans are falling into that trap again,” says Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution.
Republicans go after these popular programs year after year, knowing they won’t gain votes beyond their narrow base of voters who think entitlements are welfare and go to people who don’t deserve them. Democrats are thinking: Make my day.
Could it be that the much maligned Trump has a better feel for the limits of far-right ideology than the sycophantic conservative leaders that worshiped him like a deity (at least, until Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared on the scene)?
Trump hopped on the pro-life bandwagon in 2016 when it could take him to the presidency (despite being a pro-choice New Yorker for basically his whole life), but he wasn’t going to drink the Kool-Aid on entitlements.
“On social security he was brilliant,” Kamarck told the Daily Beast. “He separated himself from the Paul Ryan wing of the party—the ‘Eat your peas, cut social security’ wing.”
That wing of the party was in decline until Republicans recently won a narrow majority in the House. But cutting programs championed by Democrats is once again back in vogue. Former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan, now a visiting fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute and still advocating for entitlement cuts, told Real Clear Politics, “I don’t think entitlement reform is as toxic as it used to be.”
We’ll soon see who’s right.
“Trump is all about attitude, not policy,” says Kamarck, who wrote in her Brookings blog after Trump’s 2016 win how big a factor his pledge to leave Social Security and Medicare untouched was in the election outcome. “He didn’t give Democrats the one thing we always used to beat the hell out of Republicans.” she says, noting that it was essential because his base is older voters, as is the GOP.
Vowing not to touch those entitlement programs made Trump a different kind of Republican and, along with his explicit commitment to appoint pro-life judges, became his ticket to the presidency.
But every so often the dog catches the car, as happened with Roe. After the SCOTUS decision was handed down, reports appeared in the media that Trump was telling friends, “This is a mistake,” and could cost the GOP politically. He was right.
Now that he’s running for president again, Trump is crying foul that the evangelical community has so far refused to endorse him for 2024. And he’s blaming pro-life voters for insufficient support, considering that he gave them what they’d been lobbying and marching for since the Roe ruling was handed down in 1973.
"The people that pushed so hard, for decades, against abortion, got their wish from the US Supreme Court, & just plain disappeared, not to be seen again," he said on his Truth Social media site.
Nobody has done more for the Right to Life movement than Donald Trump, he told conservative journalist David Brody in a podcast interview earlier this month. He pointed out that the three Supreme Court justices he put on the Court all voted for what the religious right had been fighting decades for, and that evangelical leaders withholding their support for him was “a sign of disloyalty.”
For Trump, there are more surprises like this ahead, as potential GOP contenders weigh the cost-benefit ratio of jumping into the race, and test how far they can go on the issue as a national abortion ban becomes the new litmus test for the far-right GOP base.
There’s an apparent softening in Trump’s support as Republican primary voters absorb the biggest lesson of the midterms—that some of Trump’s chosen candidates were losers, notably Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia, whose losses allowed Democrats to control the Senate.
But there’s an equally valid point that Republicans overplayed their hand on abortion and they’re about to compound the error by demanding cuts in Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, important and defining policy positions that pit them against huge majorities in the country. When it comes to basic political instincts, Trump is smarter about what will win votes from the broader electorate than pro-life activists and deficit hawks that never change their tune to suit the times.
He was elected president after all, and the odds of him doing it again are not zero.