So the justice pick does look like an attempt at distraction, but its more important effect—in keeping with Trump’s statements on the stump—may be to knock conservatives back in line. It’s just as he warned them during the campaign: Conservatives, especially social conservatives, may have their differences with Trump, but he is still a Republican president with the chance to solidify conservative dominance on the Supreme Court for years to come.
That threat sufficed at the ballot box, where, according to exit polls, Trump overwhelmingly drew the votes of evangelical Christians, 80-16. That’s higher even than the margin by which they supported George W. Bush in 2004, which is especially striking since Bush was himself an evangelical, while Trump’s religious convictions seem shallow if held at all. Conservative Christian voters took a gamble in November, reasoning that even if Trump himself was not a man of great morality, he would be an instrument for conservative policies.
So far, that wager has been rewarded. The conservative radio host Eric Metaxas told my colleague Emma Green, in an interview published Monday, that Trump has “been shockingly, and perhaps even ironically, the most pro-life president in the history of the republic.” (Metaxas wrote a controversial column in The Wall Street Journal in October, calling for Christians to vote for Trump even though his behavior was “odious.”) That is ironic, given Trump’s past support for abortion rights; while plenty of former abortion backers have changed their mind to oppose it, such flips usually come with a conversion narrative, while Trump has offered little evidence of a change in moral conviction. His record is also short so far, and Metaxas’s judgment relies largely on Trump’s order barring government funds from going to organizations that back abortion overseas.
In the same interview, Metaxas spoke measuredly about Trump’s immigration executive order. On the one hand, he worried that the immigration order was being misrepresented by the media, but he also said, “I don’t think that the people who voted for him, most of them, would ever be for not caring for immigrants or refugees. People in the church know it’s our obligation.”
Bringing the focus back to the Supreme Court—and, by implication, Roe—is a way for Trump to remind his social-conservative backers about the deal they made in backing him, and of the importance of maintaining a unified front in favor of the president. After all, if social conservatives were willing to forgive Trump’s coarse statements and ideological flexibility during the presidential campaign, why would they abandon him now, over a matter as minor as disagreements about an executive order, when the prize of a conservative replacement for Scalia is now at hand?
If Trump’s nominee is to their liking, they might very well hesitate before criticizing him on other matters as long as the opportunity to more seriously reshape the Court remains on the table.