Has Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump "demonstrated the fraudulence of social conservatism," as Business Insider's Josh Barro claimed last week while Trump addressed the Values Voter Summit? After all, as The New York Times' Alexander Burns pointed out, the GOP nominee has all but ignored the top issues social conservatives supposedly hold dear:
Words not mentioned so far by Trump at Values Voter Summit: life, marriage, abortion, unborn, Israel
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) September 9, 2016
It's easy to make cutting observations like this about Trump and social conservatives. And indeed, there's a serious case against the GOP nominee's appeal to social conservative audiences, including Jonathan Merritt's argument that "Trump-loving Christians owe Bill Clinton an apology." After all, social conservatives skewered America's 42nd president for just the sort of shortcomings Trump has exhibited for decades. In terms of personal character and probably even personal religious devotion, this contention is unassailable.
But conservative Christians and their political allies didn't oppose Bill Clinton solely because of his "bimbo eruptions" and "zipper problem." They also opposed his social liberalism.
Hillary Clinton is running well to the left of her husband's 1990s positions. The Democratic Party no longer views social liberalism as a national political liability. Trump is profane, twice-divorced, and given to personal indiscretions even as his understanding of religious issues is woefully thin. But social conservatives still have lots of reasons to support him.
Trump is less likely than Clinton to threaten the tax-exempt status of churches that continue to oppose same-sex marriage. He says he wants to repeal existing restrictions on outright politicking by tax-exempt religious institutions. A Clinton administration would definitely work to revoke the Hobby Lobby decision and push for narrower religious exemptions from the ObamaCare contraceptive mandate; it is at least plausible that a Trump administration would not.
Even if you doubt the sincerity of Trump's conversion to the pro-life position on abortion — and there is good reason to — Hillary Clinton's position is unambiguous. Trump may be wobbly on public funding for Planned Parenthood, but Clinton will certainly defend it. Even concessions Democrats generally make to pro-lifers, like keeping in place the Hyde Amendment's prohibition on most Medicaid support for abortion, would be in danger.
There's no guarantee that Trump will follow through with his campaign promises to be significantly better on these issues from a socially conservative perspective. But he'll have some political incentives to do so.
For similar reasons, conservatives whose priorities are heavily dependent on the composition of the federal judiciary have good reason to roll the dice on Trump. Many executive and legislative actions on abortion and religious liberty can easily be blocked by Congress or undone by a future Republican president. But judicial decisions are much more difficult to roll back and can long outlast any president. Roe v. Wade, for example, has survived 43 years and five Republican presidents. Clinton would have an opportunity to install a liberal majority on the Supreme Court. Those appointments are for life. Only Trump can stop her.
Liberal judges could remove some issues of importance to social conservatives from the legislative process entirely. Eroding the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision would endanger the state and federal abortion restrictions that have been enacted since 1992, perhaps even wiping them out completely. Social conservatives could become as powerless over abortion policy as they now are at legislating their marriage policy preferences.
That powerlessness could last a long time. It could last forever. Conservatives have waited decades to overturn decisions legalizing abortion and banning school prayer. No constitutional amendment on these issues has even come close to ratification.
If you disagree with social conservatives on these issues, that may not mean very much to you. But it is a pretty large risk to ask social conservatives as a political movement to take. Again, Trump may break his promise to nominate conservative judges. But we know for a certainty what kind of judges Clinton will appoint. No Democratic Supreme Court pick has turned out to be an unexpected conservative since John F. Kennedy nominated Byron White in 1962.
Trump's comment about "Second Amendment people" may have been dumb, but his claim that "if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks" is pretty accurate. Is it any wonder social conservatives are in his corner?