As I write on the morning of Super Tuesday, March 1, the Republican establishment is in hysterics. The writing is on the wall. By the end of the day, Donald Trump will have all but sewed up the 2016 Republican nomination for president. And I write those words confidently, even though voting has just begun in the first of the 11 states where Republican delegates are up for grabs.
Like an old wino huddled in an alley, braving a March snowstorm, the GOP leadership just keeps mumbling, It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Yet the party establishment has only itself to blame. In 2014, they made changes to the primary process designed to prevent a long, drawn-out battle for the nomination. That Mitt Romney had to spend most of the first half of 2012 fighting off Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum was (they were convinced) the real reason for his defeat in the general election—not that Romney was just as unlikable and out of touch with voters as his two opponents were.
In 2016, they wanted primary voters to coalesce quickly behind a nominee, and they got their wish. They should have been more careful what they wished for.
Yet the mundane procedural explanation is only the tip of the iceberg. The Republican establishment made Donald Trump possible—and not in the way that leftists with no sense or understanding of history mean when they compare Trump to Hitler or to Mussolini. Donald Trump has risen to where he is today not because the GOP has shifted radically right over the last three decades but because it has lurched to the left. There’s nothing conservative about the Republican Party today; it is, in almost every aspect, a revolutionary force. And that has put Trump in the unlikely position of standing athwart the Grand Old Party, yelling Stop.
Some who will agree with what I have written here would likely take exception to my use of Republican establishment and GOP leadership, and insist that those responsible are simply the neoconservatives. Today, however, that is a distinction without a difference. The influence the neoconservatives nurtured in the latter years of the Reagan administration came into full flower under George H.W. Bush, particularly in the D.C.-based conservative think tanks (with the exception of the Cato Institute). Under George W. Bush, the neocons did not simply dominate the administration; they set the agenda for the “conservative movement” nationally and coopted the party establishment. Today, there is no distinction between that establishment and the neoconservatives, though that may well change if prominent neocons make good on their threats to abandon the GOP when Trump captures the nomination.
Friends of mine have wondered aloud how evangelical Christians, and a sizeable number of Catholics, can support a man who has been married three times. They didn’t ask the same question four years ago about Newt Gingrich, who has done The Donald one better.
True, my friends say, but how can these pro-life Christians trust a billionaire businessman who has donated money to politicians (including Hillary Clinton) who support abortion? Yet many of those asking that question (especially my Catholic friends) still trust Rick Santorum, despite the fact that Santorum endorsed the radically pro-abortion Arlen Specter in the 2004 Republican primary for U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. This wasn’t a pro forma endorsement of a fellow Republican who faced no serious opposition; Specter’s primary opponent, Pat Toomey, had impeccable pro-life credentials. So why did Santorum endorse Specter? The Bush White House regarded Specter as an important ally—not on the life issues on which Santorum had built his conservative reputation, but on the war in Iraq. Santorum set aside his pro-life principles because he was just as pro-war as Specter and Bush. Indeed, after he lost his own seat two years later, Santorum delivered his final speech on the floor of the Senate not on abortion or euthanasia or gay marriage but on the need for the United States to go abroad, searching for monsters to destroy. He then promptly decamped to the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he established and directed the “America’s Enemies” program. (That program, as you may imagine, wasn’t set up to promote social conservatism.)
All right, my friends say, but shouldn’t it bother pro-lifers that Trump has only recently converted to their cause? Isn’t that a sign that he would be unlikely to do anything to curb abortion if he were elected president? Tell me—what did George W. Bush do? For six years, the Republican Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, yet they advanced not a single significant piece of pro-life legislation. When Republican congressmen, Ron Paul among them, attempted to remove state legislation restricting abortion from federal court review (an effective constitutional procedure known as “stripping”), President Bush refused to back it. Yet the administration successfully pushed through a law stripping cases involving the detention center at Guantanamo Bay from the federal courts. Waterboarding merited Republican protection; 1.3 million unborn babies each year did not.
Yes, my friends say, we didn’t support the war in Iraq, either, and were critical of the Bush administration for prosecuting it. Yet surely it should bother evangelical Christians and Catholics that Trump’s Christianity seems only Two Corinthians deep. But remind me—whom did the Republicans nominate in 2012? Joseph Smith, while adopting much of the language of Christianity, created a polytheistic (hence non-Christian) religion. Mitt Romney was pro-abortion until it was politically necessary not to be so. And his healthcare plan in Massachusetts was, in fact, one of the models for ObamaCare. And oh, by the way, Arlen Specter, reelected with Santorum’s endorsement, abandoned the Republican Party and then cast the deciding vote in cutting off debate on the Affordable Care Act. (Sixty votes were needed; with Specter’s vote, the Democrats got 60.) Obama Care passed the Senate the very next day.
Since 1989, when the George H.W. Bush administration successfully scuppered a Supreme Court case (Turnock v. Ragsdale, originating here in Rockford, Illinois) that was widely expected to lead to a reconsideration of Roe v. Wade, the Republican Party nationally has paid little more than lip service to pro-life Christians. The Bush Junior administration had the opportunity to strip state marriage laws from review by the federal courts, which would have prevented last summer’s Obergefell decision; they chose not to, because Karl Rove wanted Republican candidates to be able to campaign on the issue in 2004. Politics and the prosecution of the war in Iraq, which bankrupted this country and destroyed our international reputation, took precedence.
Perhaps, then, the real story of the 2016 primary season is that evangelical Christians and Catholics are finally recognizing that they have simply been used. Since George H.W. Bush’s betrayal of pro-lifers in 1989, and his subsequent nomination of “stealth justice” David Souter, I haven’t voted for a single Republican nominee for president. (Needless to say, I haven’t voted for a Democratic candidate, either.) There’s a bit of schadenfreude in watching other Christians come to grips with the reality that the national Republican Party does not really care about the moral issues that we do.
Yet does Donald Trump? That the answer is almost certainly no—look at the man’s (very public) private life—hardly matters. If he does not, then social conservatives are in no worse position than we have been in for the past 25 years. We may, in fact, be in better shape, because, despite Trump’s nods to Christians and social conservatives, their issues haven’t been central to his campaign. It’s the national issues—trade, the economy, immigration, an end to foreign adventurism, confronting the threat of Islam not so much abroad as here at home—that have animated his supporters.
And it’s Trump’s patriotic positions on those national issues that have neoconservatives left and left threatening to leave the Republican Party, to back either a third-party candidate such as Michael Bloomberg, or even Hillary Clinton—despite the fact that both are anathema to the Christian and social conservatives whom the GOP has taken for granted for the better part of 30 years. Open borders, trade policies that have gutted the American working and middle classes, foreign wars that have bankrupted this country, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, destabilized the Middle East, and swamped Europe under a wave of migrants—these are the policies that the neoconservatives who control the Republican establishment want the next president to continue. The fact that they believe they are more likely to get their way under Clinton or Bloomberg than under Trump is telling.
Whatever else may result from Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination (and, as seems likely at this point, the presidency itself), this realignment of political priorities is not only welcome but necessary. Social conservatives were never going to win the big battles in Washington, D.C.—and not just because the Republican Party has sold us a bill of goods for the past quarter-century. This country is simply too big, too diverse, too divided to return to a sane moral consensus—let alone Christian moral teaching—at the national level.
That does not mean, however, that all hope is lost—far from it. Over the last decade, for instance, the pro-life movement has made great progress at the local and state levels. States have passed new laws regulating abortion clinics as medical facilities; as a result, abortuaries are shutting down in record numbers. The number of pro-life pregnancy-care centers in the United States is now an order of magnitude greater than the number of abortion clinics. The Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford (on whose board I serve as president) has saved more babies locally over the course of its existence than the Partial-Birth Abortion Act has saved nationwide. And it’s just one of over 4,000 such centers in small towns and big cities throughout the country. The Republican Party in Washington, D.C., in or out of Congress and the White House, has done nothing to bring this change about; Christian pro-lifers on the ground, mostly conservative but sometimes of other political stripes as well, have made all the difference.
Whether he wins the Republican nomination or not, whether he wins the presidency or not, Donald Trump has already done this country a great service. The destruction of neoconservative hegemony over the Republican Party and the return of social issues to the local and state levels where Christian conservatives can make a real difference is a victory in itself.