Trumpvangelicals Are Bad at Politics
Trump-supporting evangelicals aren’t getting much from President Donald Trump because they don’t understand how to do politics well.
I’ve been critical of the alliance between certain evangelicals and Trump for spiritual and political reasons, but there’s a more pragmatic question at play: Why aren’t evangelical Trump supporters getting more from the president in return for their loyalty?
In order to bring about change in a democracy, political groups must (1) win elections, and (2) transform their electoral success into policy change. Trumpvangelicals have enjoyed some success with (1) but haven’t yet figured out (2).
The two main promises Trump made to his Trumpvangelical base was that he would get rid of the Johnson Amendment and defund Planned Parenthood.
He has not delivered on either. In fact, he’s barely even tried.
On the Johnson Amendment, Trump told a Trumpvangelical audience in Miami in January, “we got rid of it . . . and we’re going to make it permanent.”
Actually, no. He hasn’t gotten rid of it.
The Johnson Amendment, which was added to the tax code in the 1950s, says that nonprofits, including churches, can’t endorse or oppose political candidates. Getting rid of the Johnson Amendment would require an act of Congress and Congress has not repealed the Johnson Amendment. It’s true that Trump’s administration hasn’t enforced it, but then the Johnson Amendment has never been strongly enforced by any administration.
What Trump did do was issue an executive order with much fanfare amid Trumpvangelical leaders on the White House lawn on the National Day of Prayer in 2017. The order states that his administration will “to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.”
But, “the extent permitted by law” includes the limitations on churches and political speech in the Johnson Amendment. The order actually does the opposite of getting “rid of” the Johnson Amendment by reiterating Trump’s support for the current law.
On Planned Parenthood funding, Trump used a similar sleight of hand.
Abolishing government funding for Planned Parenthood has long been a goal of the pro-life movement. Trump agreed to this position when he was seeking the support of social conservatives in 2016.
As with the Johnson Amendment, the Trump administration made some regulatory reforms in regards to Planned Parenthood, allowing states and local governments to ban federal funds to abortion providers and denying Title X funding to clinics that provide abortion referrals. But Trump didn’t get any reforms passed, as laws, in Congress. Which means that any of his gains can be easily undone by the next Democratic president.
In fact, Planned Parenthood has done quite well so far under Trump’s tenure. Its annual report released last month showed record highs in 2019 for government funding and abortions.
When you try to explain to Trumpvangelicals that the president hasn’t delivered for them, their typical response is to lament that these reforms couldn’t pass in the Senate. But that’s a curious diminishment of Trump’s agency.
One of Trump’s main selling points was the idea that he’s a successful dealmaker. He entered the presidency with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. So if he couldn’t deliver for Trumpvangelicals on their issues, then either he wasn’t a very good dealmaker, or he wasn’t actually willing to fight for them on substantive policy grounds that they care about.
Think about it this way: Donald Trump cares about corporate tax cuts so much that he made his “tax reform” package his first—and only—legislative achievement when he had unified control of the government.
Trump cares about the border wall somewhat less than the tax cuts, which is why he didn’t make it a priority when he could have passed legislation for it. But he cared enough to shut down the government and then, when that didn’t work, to blow up the idea of “emergency powers” funding. (Which is absolutely a thing that will come back to haunt Republicans one day.)
But when it came to the issues Trumpvangelicals said they care about, Trump folded at the first sign of resistance and then simply declared victory and hoped they wouldn’t understand how he’d sold them out.
Why can’t Trumpvangelicals, with all their apparent influence on Trump, get more traction on their issues? They clearly don’t understand how to use the influence they have. They’re satisfied with candy (stump speeches and mean tweets about their perceived enemies) rather than a substantive meal (legislative reforms).
Trump can’t get reelected without Trumpvangelicals. This means Trumpvangelicals could have a tremendous amount of influence right now, if they knew how to use it.
In his Exit, Voice and Loyalty economist Albert Hirschman noted that organizational change primarily happens one of two ways:
(1) By members expressing their views to leadership (voice), or
(2) By members leaving or threatening to leave if they don’t get their preferences (exit).
While voice is the usual method for getting the changes your group wants, exit is the stronger method.
In an optimal arrangement, the client group strengthens its voice by making it clear that exit is an option.
And in the worst-case scenario, the client group removes exit as an option and then has to hope that the organization altruistically listens to their voice.
Which is the situation Trumpvangelicals find themselves in now: They have taken exit off the table.
Consider that many Trumpvangelicals claim that they have to support Trump in order to prevent a Democrat from winning. (Which would mean that they will always back any Republican who is marginally better than the most-antagonistic Democrat.) Other’s preach that Trump must be supported because he was chosen by God. (In which case there it literally nothing he could do to lose their support.)
Their loyalty is their undoing. If the president believed that Trumpvangelical support was more conditional—like that of union workers or soybean farmers—they would have more power and could extract better results from his administration.
As it is, they treat him more like an identity politics avatar, where the simple fact of his being is all of the payoff they need.
This might be psychically satisfying. But it’s no way to change the world.