Donald Trump won the presidency, and all I got was this MAGA T-shirt?
Republicans who held their noses, sacrificed their dignity and consistency, and voted for Trump in 2016 might be asking themselves this very question today.
Back-to-back Supreme Court decisions on gay and transgender rights for workers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program conspire to undermine a central premise of Trump’s presidency: At least he was delivering on judges.
In 2016, conservatives made a Faustian bargain that involved looking the other way on Trump’s many sins in exchange for his delivering on lifetime conservative judicial appointments who would, presumably, deliver conservative results. But like the humming economy he was running on, that “deliverable” has been rescinded at the worst possible time—the year of his re-election bid.
Unlike the border wall he promised, Trump’s early success on judicial confirmations (particularly his two Supreme Court confirmations) allowed even Trump-skeptical conservatives to rationalize their vote. No matter what happened, they could always reply, “BUT GORSUCH!” For now, at least, that slogan rings hollow.
This week’s landmark LGBT decision was authored by Gorsuch, a Trump appointee. And although a George W. Bush appointee, Chief Justice John Roberts, led the DACA ruling, his decision was based on the White House having botched its reasons for the DACA decision. This is not a good look for a president who is already getting trounced in the polls.
Stung by the court’s decisions, Trump is hoping to cast himself as their victim and make the 2020 election about appointing even more conservative judges. But conservative voters might just as easily conclude that the effort is futile—that the conservative legal movement was a failure.
After all, for decades, they were told the key was originalism, a judicial philosophy that suggested judges should defer to the original intent of the founders (or authors of the legislation in question). But nobody on the broad right believes the authors of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 meant to include trans rights, which means Gorsuch’s decision constitutes “legislating from the bench.”
To understand why this is potentially backbreaking and demoralizing, it’s important to appreciate just how important Supreme Court justices are to conservatives.
Going back to the Earl Warren court, there has long been a sense that GOP appointees turn into liberals on the bench. The importance of the court took an even greater importance for social conservatives in the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Conservative worries continued as liberals were able to block conservative picks like Robert Bork, and as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ended up with too many “stealth” nominees—David Souter being the most infamous—who continued to disappoint conservatives by “evolving” on the bench. Then, John Roberts disappointed conservatives when he saved Obamacare by contradicting Barack Obama’s own insistence that it wasn’t a tax.
Add now, add Trump to the list? Wasn’t he supposed to be the guy who would change things??
With more announcements to come, the court could still redeem itself in the eyes of conservatives this term. Again, though, what we are witnessing is the unraveling of what is probably the most important part of the deal conservatives made with Trump.
Remember, in 2016, Trump was only able to consolidate conservative support after publicizing an impressive list of conservative Supreme Court picks. What is more, it is plausible that Trump would not have turned out enough conservatives to win the general election had it not been for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who raised the stakes on the 2016 election by guaranteeing the next president would start his or her presidency with a Supreme Court nomination because of the way he blocked Merrick Garland that year.
To justify backing Trump, otherwise smart and decent conservatives had to sacrifice a ton of principles. Implicit in the deal was that conservative judges would deliver conservative results—particularly on landmark culture-war legislation.
But for now, at least, this looks like one more disappointment. And it’s one more disappointment Trump can’t afford. This comes at the same time that former Fox News contributor and once-upon-a-time conservative hero John Bolton’s book accuses Trump of approving of China’s concentration camps. Not only is Bolton a credible messenger, but religious freedom and persecution are galvanizing issues for evangelicals. On the heels of Trump’s photo-op at St. John’s church in Washington, D.C., this is one more reminder that Trump’s worldview is at odds with an important bloc of his base.
Trump was supposed to be a fighter for the faithful, but religious conservatives are left with a common lament: They did their part for the GOP, but what do they have to show for it?
If conservatives believe that Trump’s re-election in 2020 is going to deliver the goods, it’s worth asking what this assumption is based on.
If this sounds overwrought, consider this stinging rebuke from conservative Erick Erickson:
“If you got in a time machine, went back to 2016, went on Sean Hannity’s show, and said by 2020 the Supreme Court would put transgenderism and sexual orientation into Title VII without Congress, Obamacare was not only still legal but expanded, churches could not meet, socialists had taken over part of Seattle, the economy had cratered, Planned Parenthood is funded, and the national debt was bordering $30 trillion, Hannity would insist the only way to prevent all of that and more was to elect Donald Trump.”
Actually, though, it’s a mistake to suggest that Trump hasn’t delivered anything. His presidency is pushing the country to the left.
In 2018, he delivered Democrats control of the House. In 2020, he very well might deliver control of the Senate to them.