April 21, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Think you understand Trump’s relationship with white evangelicals? Think again
Post-Roe, they’re still figuring out new ways of talking about old agreements over the proper role of women in American society.
Long overdue is our discussion of the criminally indicted former president, his “struggle” with white evangelical Protestants and antiabortion politics – especially, the GOP’s post-Roe yen for totally banning access to abortion.
First things first.
There are multiple and competing camps seeking to influence the public’s understanding of Donald Trump’s alleged struggles with white evangelical Protestants. These camps include: competitors for the GOP nomination; anti-Trump conservatives who want to see him keep falling; elites who know he can’t beat the incumbent; and journalists and pundits looking for ways to complicate existing narratives.
In these camps are partial truths. That makes divining the whole truth harder than it used to be. Back then, the question wasn’t whether a lying, thieving, philandering sadist could win over white evangelical Protestants but why. Years ago, they urged the Republicans to impeach a president for lying about that time when he shtupped the intern.
White evangelical Protestant leaders, nearly all of them men, believe what Trump believes. Men are superior to women. Every effort must be made to ensure that men stay on top. 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.
Be skeptical of reporting that suggests Trump is struggling with the antiabortionists. Such reporting tends to take the antiabortionist viewpoint at face value – as if saving babies were the goal.
That was never the goal. The goal was 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.
We should be skeptical for another reason. Trump isn’t saying anything that white evangelical Protestants haven’t heard him say before.
He has long viewed the total ban on abortion as a losing proposition 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, Republicans in swing states are barreling forward without fear of consequences. That, for Trump, means there’s a lot to worry about.
(For instance, no Republican candidate can win without Wisconsin. Voters there recently decided 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 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 some of the antiabortionists the vapors. 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. “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 those speculating about the true nature of the relationship between Trump and the white evangelical Protestants are taking, as they usually do, the antiabortionist viewpoint at face value.
Trump knows better. So do the white evangelical Protestants. Saving babies was never the point. Keeping women in their place was the point. If “saving babies” is necessary to keeping women in their place, so be it. The plan worked. “Saving babies” 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. Investors in politics seek returns. 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 current incentive is against talking about things in the way they used to talk about them. According to Rolling Stone, GOP strategists say that the word of the moment 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 so risky, they must find new ways of talking about the timeless goal of maintaining the superiority of men.
Until they figure out new ways of talking about old agreements over “the proper role” of women in American society, the two sides will likely continue misunderstanding each other. From that misunderstanding will arise more speculation about the true nature of the relationship between Donald Trump and the white evangelical Protestants.
The key for us is skepticism.
This long overdue discussion is pointless without it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.