Conservatives Are Scared, Even Under Trump

Liberals decry the forward march of a right-wing agenda. But people on the right believe they’re on the defensive.  

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

On a side wall of the lobby of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., there’s a little exhibit that inadvertently testifies to the organization’s current level of influence in Washington. It displays a 1995 photo of Elsa Prince posing with Rich and Helen DeVos at the ground-breaking of the group’s new building on G Street, right across from the National Portrait Gallery. The two wealthy West Michigan families, which have donated significantly to FRC over time, share a daughter in common: Betsy DeVos, the current secretary of education.

For groups like FRC—which exists “to advance faith, family, and freedom … from a Christian worldview”—the Trump era should be a time of total triumph. FRC’s leader, Tony Perkins, is a regular White House visitor and one of the president’s evangelical advisers. The administration has prioritized issues that top the group’s agenda, including religious-freedom protections and rights for the unborn. Officials like DeVos, sympathetic to the religious right, have been working to promote private religious education and roll back Obama-era protections for LGBTQ students, for example. And with Brett Kavanaugh’s potential appointment, the Supreme Court is slowly shifting toward a solid conservative majority.

But Travis Weber, FRC’s vice president of policy, is not feeling particularly buoyed. “The law will never provide a bulwark against a culture that ultimately disintegrates in terms of its foundational philosophical principles,” he said in an interview. Despite recent policy wins, “I’m not totally optimistic.” Many Americans hope for the “banishment” of religion from the public square, he claimed, and “unless that changes, things are not going to be good, long term, in the United States in a lot of ways.”

While liberal activist groups paint President Donald Trump’s Washington as an unmitigated forward march of conservative victories, conservative activist groups—including Weber’s—don’t necessarily perceive things the same way. Rather, some of these groups see the next few years under Trump as a brief window of opportunity to create defenses against a culture that is moving away from them. In parts of the conservative movement, the long-game strategy is to defend their position by devolving power away from the federal government and the Supreme Court, using the momentum of the Trump years to batten down the hatches against the inevitable cultural storms ahead.

Somewhat counterintuitively, Kavanaugh’s nomination has revealed certain differences in posture among conservatives. When Trump nominated Kavanaugh to the high court, groups from all neighborhoods of the conservative movement cheered the move. Social conservatives rejoiced and immediately began predicting the end of legal abortion. The administration reportedly asked business trade groups to tout Kavanaugh’s business-friendly record, and they apparently obliged. Libertarian-leaning groups like Americans for Prosperity pledged more than $1 million dollars to support the judge’s nomination.

But these organizations are drawn to Kavanaugh for different reasons. “People talk about conservatives being a monolithic entity, which they’re totally not,” said Joshua Wilson, a political scientist at the University of Denver. “Kavanaugh is a nod to the Christian right, but he’s not of them.” Trump has picked nominees, Wilson said, who “can straddle the divisions within the conservative coalition.”

This has been evident in the split messaging around Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some groups have argued explicitly that the confirmation battle is really a fight to overturn Roe v. Wade, the original 1973 decision that legalized abortion across the United States, or the case that later refined that decision, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. Other groups, however, have studiously avoided making this fight about abortion, claiming that Kavanaugh is an “originalist” or “constitutionalist” who will merely stick to the text of America’s founding documents. While that might lead to a decision that restricts abortion, they say, that’s not the goal of the nomination. Carrie Severino—the head of the Judicial Crisis Network, one of the major advocacy groups working to confirm Kavanaugh—told NPR that talk of the end of Roe, especially on the left, “is a lot of scaremongering … I just think that that is very premature to assume that anything like that … [is] around the corner.”

In part, this reflects a strategic divide: Different conservative groups have different ideas about the messaging that is most likely to get Kavanaugh confirmed. But it also reflects a split in attitudes: Under Trump, some conservatives see an opportunity to fundamentally change America, while others see themselves as playing defense against long-term cultural changes.

Many socially conservative groups are among the defensive players. Kavanaugh’s nomination comes on the heels of conservative Supreme Court victories like Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the justices ruled in favor of a cake baker who refused service for a gay couple’s wedding. But Jessica Anderson, the vice president of Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, does not see this decision as advancing an agenda.

“What the Court is doing is protecting against hostilities that are rampant across the country, that are a result of a targeted effort by the left to go after churches [and] nonprofits … that are not within their view of what right and wrong looks like,” she said in an interview. “We’re thinking of it more in terms of a restoration, as opposed to softening the ground and moving forward.”

This vision of “restoration” and protection seems to be shared by the Trump administration. At a recent summit on religious liberty in Washington, D.C., Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that “a dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.” Trump’s election, he said, “gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends. Such a reversal will not just be done with electoral victories, but by intellectual victories.”

He went on to describe a conservative nightmare scenario for religious liberty:

We have gotten to the point where courts have held that morality cannot be a basis for law; where ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit; and where one group can actively target religious groups by labeling them a “hate group” on the basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs.

This president and the Department of Justice are determined to protect and even advance this magnificent heritage.

Parts of this picture are arguably exaggerated: Legally, the government cannot regulate what pastors preach, for example. But the fear reflected in his statements—the seemingly earnest belief that traditional religious beliefs are under existential threat—permeates conservative spheres in Washington.

There is a “reason that I don’t just wash my hands and [say], ‘Work’s done,’” Weber said. “Without some level of agreement on how America should be ordered, there are going to be problems long term. Because ultimately, that will be reflected at some point in government authorities that … do not think it’s a good thing to have people of differing views in the public square.”

This fearful rhetoric is nothing new. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan told of “a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” The conservative movement that came to be known as the “religious right” rose in the 1980s and ’90s on the strength of this “culture war” frame.

But American culture has actually become much more hostile toward social conservatives in recent years, Weber claimed. Especially on issues related to same-sex marriage and sexual identity, he said, “when [conservative] views are expressed in public, there’s a reaction to that. That reaction is very different to what it would be years ago, and I would argue even 10 or 12 years ago.” He pointed to the backlash against Memories Pizza in Indiana or to Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla. “It’s an intolerant reaction, saying, ‘You have no place in polite society,’” Weber said. “In so many words, ‘You need to change, or get out of the public square.’”

For its part, Heritage sees this political moment as an opportunity to insulate America against a further cultural slide of this kind. For all the celebration around Kavanaugh’s nomination, the Supreme Court needs to be less powerful, argued Tim Chapman, the executive director of Heritage Action. “The shift that’s happening on the Court is … healthy for the country because it will take down the political temperature,” he argued. “Can we begin to convince our fellow Americans that it’s a very good thing to have these conversations taking place at the local level rather than at the Supreme Court level?”

“What Tim is articulating is our grand strategy,” Anderson added. “Our goal here is that Congress, the Court, [and] federal bureaucracy spends less time dictating culture, and more time legislating.”

All of this adds up to a peculiar, mismatched mood in Washington. While socially liberal and progressive groups are constantly sounding the alarm of existential crisis, social conservatives are warning of a different existential crisis that will be waiting at the end of the Trump era. This is why some groups that may disagree with Trump’s actions in other policy areas are keeping their heads down and working, for example, to put judges in place: They’re trying to build an infrastructure that will last well beyond Trump.

It’s not all doomsaying in the conservative world, however. This week, as Sessions announced a new religious-liberty task force to address the dark threats he described, Perkins, the head of FRC, was triumphant. “We are witnessing a revival of freedom!” he said in a statement. “The formation of this task force puts bureaucrats on notice: You will respect the freedom of every American not only to believe but to live according to those beliefs.” This, he seemed to be saying, is just the kind of defense American culture needs.