Are evangelicals distancing from Trump?
There are a lot of discussions in political and even religious circles these days about whether the marriage between Donald Trump and evangelical Christians is officially over. Prominent evangelical leaders are backing away from Trump heading into the 2024 campaign, and Trump is openly disparaging them. I know that's an exciting prospect to many on the left but I promise you: This relationship is not over. The truth is that Trump's evangelical voters love him, and that love is not going away.
This article first appeared in Salon.
It is entirely true that the Republican establishment does not want Trump to win the nomination this time around, and the foremost evangelical leaders probably don't want him either. Gov. Ron DeSantis is the guy they want. He is seen as a solid politician with plenty of charisma and "Christian values," and he loves cruel political theater, like sending planeloads of Latin American migrants to Martha's Vineyard. The problem is that Republican leaders and evangelical pastors only get one vote apiece during the GOP primary season. It's actual Republican voters who will decide.
Remember that when Trump first ran in 2015, almost no evangelical leaders lined up behind him. The Republican establishment probably wanted Jeb Bush to win the nomination, and a number of evangelical leaders preferred Sen. Ted Cruz, who was seen as one of their own. Only after Trump started winning primaries one after another did the evangelical leadership start to get behind him. It was the people that wanted Trump, not any leadership group. Hell, back then there were plenty of Democrats who tried to elevate Trump as the Republican nominee, believing he would lose easily to Hillary Clinton.
At this point, Donald Trump is perceived by the GOP establishment as a three-time loser. In 2018, 2020 and 2022, he was essentially rejected by this country as a whole. But you may have noticed that the primary season is not about the whole country, and on the Republican side it's about the true believers and right-wing activists who are highly motivated to vote. As I see it, most of those people still prefer Trump over DeSantis. Once Trump really starts campaigning, we'll see the polling numbers favor him even more than they do now.
That's equally true for evangelical voters, if not more so. Most of them still love Trump and will show up in large numbers to make sure he wins the nomination. When that happens, suddenly all these evangelical pastors will start talking about what a great president Trump was, and how great he will be again. It's obvious that nearly all Republicans will support him rather than betray their own party, whatever private misgivings they may feel.
Understand that pollsters have never quite been able to predict the voting patterns of evangelicals. These simply are not the type of people who will answer the phone or be honest with some pollster. We have to assume that Trump's 80% support among evangelicals will remain intact as long as he's alive and keeps on running for president. Quite frankly, this is a case of reaping what you sow: Evangelical leaders spent so much time and energy convincing their followers that Trump was the chosen man of God, and they can't take that back so easily.
The relationship between Trump and his evangelical followers is true love, although it pretty much runs in one direction. Sometimes when you love someone that much, you end up staying with them no matter how they treat you. We've all seen it happen. Trump is the equivalent of an abusive, neglectful and hopelessly selfish partner. One of the biggest problems we face in life is that sometimes we love the wrong person.
Democrats have two options to combat this issue. They can simply ignore it, betting that the larger voting public outnumbers the evangelical base and that Trump's window of possibility for winning national elections has closed. I certainly hope that is true. The second option is to recognize that Trump really could win again and do everything to avoid that, by trying to connect to those evangelical voters who may be questioning their loyalty to this abusive boyfriend.
Reaching at least some of those evangelicals can be done. It is not true that the entire 80 percent is head over heels in love with the guy. Many are working families desperate to give a better life to their children. If the left can speak the language of the blue-collar everyday American, without being superior or condescending, some of those voters can be won over. Not so much by specifically targeting evangelicals as by talking to them about issues that unite us all.
Remember that there was a significant chunk of the electorate who voted for Barack Obama twice and then for Trump, and a whole lot of those people were evangelical Christians. At least some of those working-class Trump voters, according to polling at the time, might have been willing to support Bernie Sanders. It's crucial to remember that the voting public is not as predictable as many observers believe, a lesson we learned again in the 2022 midterms. People are complicated, and so are the reasons that drive their votes.
The relationship between Trump and his evangelical followers is true love. But sometimes when you love someone that much, you end up staying with them even when they're abusive, neglectful and hopelessly selfish.
But the hard truth here, which we all have to face, is that the marriage between evangelical voters and Donald Trump is far from over. The leadership will come around once Trump starts winning primaries again. They might not like it but they will support him in the end. My own opinion is that because of this hidden strength among evangelicals, Trump is still capable of winning a national election, and that Democrats must at least attempt to reach a few evangelical voters who feel uncomfortable with him.
Of course it's true that evangelicals generally hold views about abortion and the LGBTQ community that are completely unacceptable to Democrats. I'm not suggesting there's some middle ground on those issues, only that evangelical leaders care about a lot more about those things than ordinary evangelical voters do. They mostly care about taking care of their families and paying the bills, like everybody else. Liberals and progressives can do a much better job at communicating to all voters that Democratic policies on health care and the economy will benefit most Americans in a real and measurable way, while Republican policies are actively harmful.
America is in a very difficult place, but I pray that people begin to understand that our country is not the same as its political leadership. Years ago I had the great privilege of hearing the brilliant poet Maya Angelou speak in person. She told us over and over again that we are all much more similar than we are different, and that we should respect that everyone has a story to tell and veryone deserves to be heard. We all want to be loved, and to love. We all want a better life for our children, to grow old with dignity, and to have a job with value and purpose. Those who voted for Trump or for Bernie or for Obama are not as different as many believe — and sometimes are the very same people. If we can accept that, then just maybe America can finally rid itself of one of the most unhealthy and damaged people ever to enter the political world. Then perhaps evangelicals will finally break it off with their abusive, neglectful and narcissistic boyfriend.