Trump and Social Conservatives Form a Marriage of Necessity

NEWS ANALYSIS: GOP delegates gave Trump a standing ovation at the close of the 2016 convention in Cleveland, but Sen. Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse his onetime rival hinted at problems ahead as the battle shifts to the general election

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (left) and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence acknowledge the crowd at the end of the Republican National Convention on July 21 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (left) and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence acknowledge the crowd at the end of the Republican National Convention on July 21 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. (photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — Delegates to the 2016 Republican Party Convention hoped Donald Trump’s nomination as the GOP presidential pick would cement an election-year message that affirmed a strong commitment to critical social issues, along with the candidate’s reset on trade and immigration.

To some extent, the four-day convention fulfilled that expectation. Trump used his 76-minute acceptance speech July 21 to focus on jobs, the economy, national security and law-and-order issues, but he was flanked during the July 18-21 gathering by respected conservative leaders, including Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, his running mate.

“It is time to show the whole world that America is back — bigger, and better, and stronger than ever before,” Trump told the convention attendees and the national television audience.

Sketching out his plans to address a stagnant jobs market that has made upward mobility tough for working-class Americans, he vowed that he would make a difference: “People who work hard but no longer have a voice — I am your voice.”

During his speech, Trump said he “will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” His remarks were made in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack on a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that catered to a mostly homosexual clientele.

He also vowed to appoint socially conservative jurists to the U.S. Supreme Court and backed legislation that would secure free-speech protections for churches.

But Trump did not mention the right to life of the unborn child, a critical reminder that pro-life advocacy will not be a focal point of his administration. It was left to trusted conservative leaders, from Pence to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to bolster hopes that a future Trump administration would not abandon the party’s long-standing goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.

“I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican — in that order,” said Pence in his July 20 acceptance speech.

“For the sake of the rule of law, for the sake of the sanctity of life, for the sake of our Second Amendment and for the sake of all our other God-given liberties, we must ensure that the next president appointing justices to the Supreme Court is Donald Trump.”

For those with lingering doubts about Trump’s suitability as the party’s leader, Pence pointed to the billionaire businessman’s children, four of whom gave strong speeches at the convention.

“If you still doubt what I’m saying, as we say back home, you can’t fake good kids,” added Pence. “How about his amazing children?”


Cautious Support

But even as GOP leaders signaled an end to a divisive primary season and cautious support for the Trump-Pence ticket, the Cleveland convention hinted at unresolved questions about Trump’s priorities as president.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin only mentioned Trump twice in his convention speech. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz went further and refused to endorse Trump during a prime-time speech that prompted boos from the convention floor. But it also generated a wave of support in online conservative forums, where resistance to the brash political outsider remains strong.

“Stand and speak, and vote your conscience. Vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom,” said Cruz in his convention speech.

“We must … protect our God-given rights, even of those with whom we don’t agree, so that when we are old and gray, and when our work is done and we give those we love one final kiss good-bye, we will be able to say freedom matters, and I was part of something beautiful,” added Cruz, in remarks that touched on Trump’s controversial pledge to suspend the resettlement of Muslim immigrants.

At National Review, David Harsanyi applauded Cruz’s stand.

“He used his platform to express principles, not to fall in line.”

But on the convention floor, most holdouts seemed to have made their peace with Trump and turned their attention to the general election and the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

“We are leaving here unified,” said Jessica Colon, a Cruz supporter from the Texas delegation who served as the political director for Rick Santorum’s campaign during the primary season.

The lineup for the final day of the convention featured Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, and pro-life U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — all major figures in the conservative movement.

“Trump paid significant homage to the conservative movement tonight,” Colon told the Register during an interview after the close of the convention.

Trump’s acceptance speech left Colon inspired by his “fortitude, passion and drive,” as well as his striking expression of respect for the “dignity of working people.”

Asked for her reaction to Trump’s silence on abortion, Colon pointed to his pledge to nominate conservative jurists, though expressed regret he had not said more.

Further, she noted that his speech, which did not endorse same-sex “marriage,” but sent a strong message of support for the pro-homosexual-rights segment of society, might raise questions about his future plans as president.

Even so, Colon appreciated Trump’s authenticity.

“He didn’t try to be someone he wasn’t,” she said.

Most importantly, she predicted that Trump will give social conservatives wide berth to advance their mission and presented the party’s platform as the catalyst for political action.

“This is where we are,” she concluded.

“We all saw that he won’t be a juggernaut on these movement issues.”


Supreme Court in Mind

Perkins was consulted in the drafting of the party platform. He underscored the importance of its clearly articulated conservative principles.

“The Trump campaign allowed the elected delegates to do their work, and now we have a clearly articulated stand by the party on the issues,” Perkins told the Register.

“He understands what motivates conservative voters, and I believe he will allow us to do the work that needs to be done.”

While some Republican leaders and activists were cautious about predicting Trump’s likely course of action on many key policy areas, they appeared convinced that he would make the right call for Supreme Court nominees. Two recent rulings from the high court — Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which overturned Texas’ restrictions on abortion businesses, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which invalidated state laws barring same-sex couples from legal marriage — have stirred broad concern within the party.

During an interview with the Register, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback noted that the next president will shape the direction of the Supreme Court for a generation.

“Whoever replaces Justice [Antonin] Scalia … will have an enormous impact on the interpretation of religious liberty” cases, said Brownback.

Republican lawmakers and activists are especially alarmed by fresh efforts to challenge conscience protection for individual believers and institutions that oppose abortion on moral grounds.

During an interview on the convention floor, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina applauded the recent passage in the House of the Conscience Protection Act, which would protect health-care providers from being forced to participate in abortions. She insisted that Trump’s nomination would not weaken the party’s commitment to its stated principles.

But Foxx did not deny that her party needs to draw support from a broad swathe of the electorate and that some voters will support the ticket because of Trump’s distinctive message.

“Republicans have said for a long time we are a big tent,” Foxx told the Register.

“We welcome many people into that tent, and that is what it will take … to win.”

Indeed, even as Trump celebrates the large influx of voters who have registered with the party since he launched his campaign, he will also need a galvanized conservative base to defeat Clinton.

Pro-life leaders, like Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, are ready to work with Trump.

“Unless we engage and elect a president who can appoint Supreme Court justices who believe in protecting conscience and life, we may never get [the court] back,” Dannenfelser told the Register.

“It is cavalier not to get involved right now.”

Jessica Colon is ready to join forces with Trump to stop a common foe.

“The primary is behind us, Clinton is ahead of us, and we are heading for the White House,” she said.


Some Not Yet Convinced

But other conservatives, who have helped transform the GOP into the party of life, are not reassured that Trump’s course of action will accommodate, if not promote, their mission to overturn Roe. Further, they contend that the problem with Trump goes much deeper than his woeful lack of pro-life credentials.

“We haven’t even the consolation of thinking of Trump as a certain kind of Republican who is not actually conservative but who at least recognizes our vocabulary when he hears it,” stated Matthew Franck, director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute. “No, Trump would not know a conservative principle if it kicked him in the shins. This is a nominee who, in my estimation, cannot earn my vote, even as a 'lesser evil' or an 'at least he’s not Hillary' candidate.”

Conservative public intellectuals like George Weigel echo the sense of gloom. 

“What is the thoughtful Catholic voter to do when neither of the presidential candidates is even minimally committed to human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity, as the social doctrine understands those concepts?” said Weigel in a column for First Things that probed the source of the problem.

“[O]ur political culture is sick. And if the political culture is sick, that must have something to do with the state of the culture as a whole. Did we really imagine that a culture of self-absorption and vulgarity, taking its cues from the passions of adolescence, was not going to cash out in our politics?”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a senior editor for the Register.

Matthew Bunson, also a Register senior editor, contributed to this report from Cleveland.