Think you understand Trump’s relationship with white evangelical Protestants? Think again

Think you understand Trump’s relationship with white evangelical Protestants? Think again
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.
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Long overdue is our discussion of the criminally indicted former president, his reportedly vexed link to white evangelical Protestants and antiabortion politics – especially, the GOP’s post-Roe yearning to ban access to abortion.

First things first.

Be skeptical.

There are multiple and competing camps seeking to influence the public’s understanding of Donald Trump’s alleged struggles to maintain the support of white evangelical Protestants. These camps include: his competitors for the Republican nomination; anti-Trump conservatives who want to see him keep falling; Republican elites who know he can’t beat the incumbent; and journalists and pundits looking for ways to complicate existing narratives.

READ MORE: How white fundamentalist evangelicals keep moving far-right as the US grows increasingly 'secular': author

Inside these are partial truths. That makes divining the whole truth harder than it was when the question wasn’t whether a lying, thieving, philandering sadist like Donald Trump could win over white evangelical Protestants but why. After all, these same people years ago urged the Republicans to impeach a president for lying about that time he shtupped the intern.

They supported Trump for a simple reason. White evangelical Protestant leaders, most of them men, believe what he believes. Men are superior to women. Every measure must be taken to ensure that men stay superior. So everything about antiabortion politics is oriented in that direction whether true believers know it or not. This is why Bill Clinton had to be punished. His sin wasn’t an act of sex. It was a sex act, though – standing with federal law and court precedent endowing women with the social standing of men.

We should be skeptical of reporting that suggests that Donald Trump is struggling with antiabortionists, because such reporting tends to take the antiabortionist viewpoint at face value – as if saving babies were the goal.

Saving babies was never the goal. The goal was always removing tools at women’s disposal that permitted them degrees of personal autonomy they might never otherwise have had at their disposal without federal law and court precedent providing equal privileges that men have long enjoyed.

READ MORE: 'It wasn't my fault': Trump may have alienated the religious right wing. It's an opening for rivals in Iowa

We should be skeptical for another reason. Trump isn’t saying anything about abortion that white evangelical Protestants haven’t heard him say.

He has long viewed the total ban on abortion as a losing position in swing states whose populations are dominated by white working-class women who won’t tolerate total bans on abortion. There wasn’t much to worry about as long as Roe was law. But now that Roe is gone, thanks to Trump, Republicans in swing states whose populations are dominated by white working class women are barrelling forward without fear of the political consequences. That, for Trump, means there’s a lot to worry about now.

(To put it differently, no Republican candidate can win without Wisconsin. Voters there recently decided the victor of a race for a state supreme court seat. They handed the Republican candidate his ass on account of his colleagues in Madison passing a near-total ban on abortion. Trump has many problems, but one of them is not misunderstanding the political whims of white working class voters in white working-class states.)

According to a new report in Rolling Stone, he has told private audiences that in order to avoid “losing big,” the Republicans must back away from total abortion bans and instead “emphasize ‘exceptions’ to abortion bans, including in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the life of the mother. In these frank talks, Trump has stressed this is his 2024 plan, saying it’s necessary to prevent Democrats from painting him as an ‘extremist.’”

According to the same report, this soft pedaling is giving antiabortionists reason to have second thoughts about Trump. His “retroactive focus has left some unsatisfied, including anti-abortion advocates who previously endorsed him,” Rolling Stone reported. “During one of these conference calls held around early March, one of the participants gently told Trump that his 2024 policy commitments were vague, requesting clarity and specifics. Trump responded by boasting about his past accomplishments.”

The tension between Trump (a politician hoping to background abortion to get what he wants) and white evangelical Protestants (supporters hoping to foreground abortion to get what they want) is what has given quick rise to speculation that Trump is struggling with white evangelical Protestants. “One recent participant wondered to Rolling Stone: Is Trump ‘going to try to make us swallow getting next to nothing in return for our support?’”

But the people who are doing the speculating about the true nature of the relationship between Donald Trump and white evangelical Protestants are taking, as they usually do, the antiabortionist viewpoint at face value.

Trump knows better. So do white evangelical Protestants. Saving babies was never the point. Keeping women in their place was always the point. If “saving babies” is necessary to keeping women in their place, so be it. The planned worked. The “saving babies” gambit ultimately overturned Roe.

White evangelical Protestants are right to worry whether Trump is going “to try to make us swallow getting next to nothing in return” for their support. Participants in electoral politics seek returns on investments. But from Trump, the antiabortionists are not seeking assurances on abortion. They’re seeking renewed commitments to keeping women in their place.

That’s hard to do when the incentive now is against talking about things in the way they’d gotten used to talking about things. According to Rolling Stone, GOP strategists say, right now, the best word on abortion is mum.

They used to talk about suppressing the rights of women by way of talking about suppressing abortion rights. But now that talking about suppressing abortion rights seems risky (it does to Trump, at least), they must find new ways of talking about the timeless goal of maintaining male superiority.

Until they figure out new ways of talking about old agreements over “the proper role” of women, the two sides will misunderstand each other. From that misunderstanding will arise more speculation about the true nature of the relationship between Donald Trump and white evangelical Protestants.

The key to truly understanding is skepticism.

This long overdue discussion is pointless without it.

READ MORE: How a deluge of GOP anti-sex bills reflects Christian fundamentalists’ 'post-Roe strategy': report

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