- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If Donald Trump wins the White House in November he will have shattered the conventional thought shared by many country club Republicans: In order for the Republican Party to expand its base, it needs to abandon social conservative issues, and stick to speaking about fiscal conservative dogma.

“I think that the Republican Party, in order to get bigger, will have to agree to disagree on social issues,” former presidential contender Rand Paul said in 2014. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said conservatives “focus too much” on abortion, and that limits their reach.

Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator and key backer in the #NeverTrump movement, in 2012 wrote: “It is time to throw the social conservatives out of the GOP. Look at what they got us — Barack Obama. It was the social conservatives who did it. They insisted the GOP support real marriage and children. To hell with that.”

It seems the definition of a “true conservative” is subject to whatever Mr. Erickson defines it as today.

For as much as Mr. Trump has abandoned key fiscal conservative issues — like saying he may raise taxes on the wealthy and dismantle free-trade agreements — he’s tried to stay true to the social conservative movement’s causes. And evangelicals, in return, have played an important role in helping him build his coalition. If they decide to help proselytize for him come November, he could win.

You can say what you want about Mr. Trump’s positions before he entered the race, but since declaring himself a Republican candidate, he has not yielded ground on his pro-life stance. The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, said Mr. Trump’s list of 11 recommended justices to the Supreme Court is “exceptionally strong.”

He’s also repeatedly criticized the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, calling it “illegitimate and wrong.”

Mr. Trump’s campaign has highlighted the persecution of Christians overseas — many evangelicals are frustrated that the issue receives little attention in the mainstream media — and he has vowed to destroy radical Islam, another sticking point for many social conservatives.

Yes, Mr. Trump has turned off some evangelicals because of his name-calling brashness, his inability to name a Bible verse — or ask God for forgiveness — but the majority of evangelicals seem to appreciate his honesty and forgive his gaffes.

And activists and leaders in the social conservative movement in Washington, after being very critical of Mr. Trump in the primary season, are showing signs of warming to him.

“He’s not my first choice. He’s not my second choice,” said Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, who actively campaigned against Mr. Trump, to The New York Times. “But any concerns I have about him pale in contrast to Hillary Clinton.”

Social conservative movement leaders have struggled to understand why Mr. Trump has been doing so well within their base given his more moderate history.

David Brody, the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, put Mr. Trump’s connection with evangelical voters this way: “You see, Trump operates in a world of absolutes where there are winners and losers; there is the right way and the wrong way. In short, it’s a world painted in black and white. Evangelicals see the world in much the same way, in that accepting Jesus is the only way to heaven and the Bible is the inerrant word of God. They are publicly ridiculed for their unbending, non-negotiable approach, just as Trump is widely mocked for his adamant positions. It’s called a common psychological bond.”

Indeed, a recent Pew study found that white American evangelical Christians think they experience more discrimination than blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, atheists or Jews — that there’s a cultural war being raged by the left and they’re losing.

Mr. Trump seems to innately know this, and he’s tapped into their frustration. He’s championed himself as their warrior, and in turn, evangelicals are flocking to him despite all his flaws.

Mr. Trump draws 38 percent of white evangelicals, according to a Pew Research poll. He’s swept blue-collar, self-identified Christians throughout the Republican primary, and won a good share of suburban weekly churchgoers, as seen in the exit polls in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Like it or not, evangelicals — or those pesky social conservatives — are helping Mr. Trump win. And they’re going to be essential come November.

Mr. Trump knows it. That’s why he’s not swaying in his commitment to them, and when he realizes he’s made a mistake with the base — like transgenders can go to the bathroom of their choosing — he quickly backtracks. If you notice, the only time the Trump campaign immediately corrects its stance, is after his social conservative gaffes.

White evangelical or born-again voters accounted for nearly a quarter of the electorate in 2004, and nearly eight in 10 of them voted for George W. Bush. In 2012, 43 percent of all the votes Mitt Romney received came from white evangelical Christians.

Mr. Trump will need to expand on these numbers in order to compete in November, given his path to the White House is not through minority voter gains, but by turning out more white, blue-collar voters.

In the end, will all evangelical voters coalesce around Mr. Trump? Probably not, but no demographic is monolithic. Will they energetically proselytize for him like they did Mr. Bush? We’ll see.

Kelly Riddell is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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