How Trump Can Use the Supreme Court to Get Conservatives in Line

The president moved up his announcement of a nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia by two days, just as his immigration order is coming in for criticism from social conservatives.

Donald Trump speaks at Liberty University in January 2016.
Donald Trump speaks at Liberty University in January 2016. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

The blowback to Donald Trump’s immigration executive order may have come more fiercely than the president expected, but he was planning for such a moment months ago on the campaign trail, and the gaming veteran knew he had the right ace up his sleeve.

“Even if people don’t like me, they have to vote for me. They have no choice,” Trump said, for example, on August 2 in Virginia. “Even if you can’t stand Donald Trump, you think Donald Trump is the worst, you’re going to vote for me. You know why? Justices of the Supreme Court.”

Trump made many comments like that, from the spring of 2016, when he seemed to suddenly become interested in the court, right up until the closing days of the race. While there are a range of issues where the Court deals with conservative priorities, Trump and his audiences knew that what this really referred to was the Roe v. Wade decision asserting abortion rights, which social conservatives have long sought to overturn. Whatever Trump may not have understood about the pro-life movement or conservative jurisprudence, he well understood the bludgeoning power that Supreme Court appointments gave him in keeping the Republican Party in line when he got into a pinch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made himself an ally in that fight, holding open the seat belonging to deceased Justice Antonin Scalia by blocking Barack Obama’s nominee for the slot.

The president is now employing that tool sooner than he might have expected, but precisely as he predicted. Trump’s order last week sparked chaos and mass protests in Washington and at airports around the nation. Many of those protesting most fervently may have never supported Trump in the first place, but the problems with the order have rattled Republicans, too, whether in Washington or at the grassroots level. In Gallup’s daily tracking poll, Trump’s approval/disapproval numbers—which had been hovering around even—suddenly dived underwater, with 51 percent disapproving.

A trickle of Republican members of Congress have criticized the order, many finding objectionable elements even when they support the broad strokes. Christian leaders, including evangelicals, have also reacted against the law. The National Association of Evangelicals called for the reversal of the order, as did a group of leaders of Christian organizations. The outcry is not unanimous—Franklin Graham, who has long characterized Islam as a “religion of hatred” and was a vocal supporter of Trump, has been supportive of the order. But there is, at the very least, unease about Trump’s moves, despite his telling David Brody of the evangelical outlet CBN that persecuted Christians will receive priority status as refugees.

With political pressure increasing on him, Trump announced an announcement for the Supreme Court on Twitter Monday morning:

That’s an accelerated announcement: Last week, he announced, also on Twitter, that he would announce his pick of a justice on Thursday. With political pressure on, however, he’s decided to move the pick up 48 hours or so.

There has been no shortage of speculation on Trump’s public-relations strategy. Each new move, tweet, or appointment is hailed by some commentators as a feint to distract voters from the real issue, which is generally whatever that commentator cares about most. It’s an open question how true that is. When Trump was at his low points during the presidential campaign, he was similarly chaotic in his approach, sometimes undermining his own messaging efforts.

But it’s indisputable that Trump has benefited from his firehose approach. He weathered a series of scandals and missteps during the campaign that would have sunk any other presidential candidate, seemingly in part because the ceaseless march of stunning stories meant that none truly sank in. Trump has also scheduled the announcement of his selection for prime time, a break from the standard day-time announcements presidents have recently favored, which encourages the impression that he’s trying to change the subject away from immigration.

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.