On the eighth floor of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, Marjorie Dannenfelser stabbed anxiously at a plate of salad while offering a series of defensive and unconvincing answers. It was June of last year, and Dannenfelser, a social conservative titan and president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, was one of nearly a thousand Christian activists to attend a summit that afternoon with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. She also was one of roughly 50 to join him for a VIP meeting beforehand. Many of these leaders, including Dannenfelser, had opposed his candidacy from the outset of the campaign; now that they were closing ranks around a thrice-married Manhattan socialite and self-described womanizer with a history of running casinos and supporting partial-birth abortion, I had a simple question for Dannenfelser: Why would social conservatives stake their credibility and moral authority on Donald Trump?
After several halting responses, Dannenfelser leaned forward and lowered her voice. “All along the way, he was our last choice,” she told me. “But when you get to the end, to the point of having a binary choice, you must choose.”
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Dannenfelser chose Trump. So did dozens of other prominent Christian leaders, inviting the scorn and skepticism of critics who accused them of abandoning their principles in the pursuit of partisan victory. There was considerable downside: If Trump lost, they would have nothing to show for allying themselves with someone whose lifestyle was a manifest rebuke to their values; if he won, Trump could easily turn against them, tacking leftward on issues of life, marriage and religious liberty to broaden his appeal. “It was a risk,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who organized last summer’s New York meeting, tells me this week. “But it was a calculated risk.”
It paid off—and then some.
The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency have been pocked with disappointment for various constituencies: Immigration hawks haven’t seen funding for a border wall; Obamacare haters haven’t seen a repeal-and-replace bill pass either chamber of Congress; Wall Streeters haven’t seen a realistic plan for overhauling the tax code; protectionists haven’t seen China tagged a currency manipulator; and America-first proponents have seen neither NATO pushed aside nor the Middle East placed on the presidential back burner.
The one group Trump has paid outsized attention to—and consistently delivered for—is the social conservative movement. He reinstated and even toughened the Mexico City Policy, which eliminates U.S. funding for international nongovernmental organizations that perform abortions. He rescinded President Barack Obama’s protections for transgender students to use preferred bathrooms in public schools. He signed legislation that routs federal money away from Planned Parenthood. He cut off funding to the U.N. Population Fund, which critics say has long supported coercive abortions in China and other countries. He stockpiled his administration with pro-life evangelical Christians in critical roles, including Tom Price as secretary of Health and Human Services, Betsy DeVos as education secretary and Mike Pence as vice president. And, most significantly, his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, a conservative originalist in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, won confirmation.
Once a punch line in conservative circles and a walking worst-case scenario for many on the religious right, Trump has emerged in the early days of his administration as something else entirely: a crusader for traditional social values.
“I think a generation away, we’ll look back at this wild moment, where there were low expectations and fantastic delivery on promises, and we’ll say this was the turning point," Dannenfelser tells me this week, reflecting on what seems like a watershed in America’s culture wars. She laughs when I bring up our conversation in New York. “It was a leap of faith. Trump was untested,” she says. “It became very hard to stand [by him]. But all that disruption, all that anxiety, all that tension—it was worth it. Because he has turned out to be a man of his word.”
“How ironic it is,” says Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “that Donald Trump, of all people in the Republican Party, would become a champion for social conservatives.”
These sentiments echo across pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming discussions with some of the most influential figures on the right. Trump hasn’t just made good on campaign pledges, they say; he has involved them and embraced their input since the day he took office. Dannenfelser has been to the White House seven times since Trump’s inauguration, and notes that Pence was the first vice president to speak at the March for Life in Washington. (He’s also keynoting the Susan B. Anthony List’s annual dinner in early May.) Other top activists have also been repeat visitors, having received invitations to attend bill signings, coalition meetings and, of course, Gorsuch’s nomination and swearing-in.
After eight years in which conservatives—and particularly evangelical Christians—believed themselves to be under siege from secular forces in the federal government, the judiciary and popular culture, Trump’s presidency feels like a renaissance. Not only do they have a seat at the table again, as they did during the famously evangelical-friendly George W. Bush years; many of these activists say Trump has already surpassed the 43rd president as an ally and advocate.
“The Bush administration didn’t come close to being this friendly to social conservatives,” says Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America. (“Who knew?" she adds, laughing. “I can’t say I would have ever guessed that a billionaire playboy from Manhattan would wind up being the closest ally of Christian conservatives.”) Perkins, for his part, tells me: “I’ve been at the White House for meetings more in the first four months of the Trump administration than I was during the entire Bush presidency.”
Pete Wehner, one of several high-ranking evangelicals who served in the Bush White House, takes issues with that characterization. “I think it’s the expectations,” he tells me. "People knew President Bush was a committed Christian and a social conservative and they expected him to govern that way; Trump is a Manhattan liberal and I don’t think anyone believes in their hearts that he believes in these issues.” Still, Wehner, one of Trump’s toughest critics throughout the campaign, gives him credit for following through on his commitments to social conservatives—especially in appointing Gorsuch to the high court. “I found it very reassuring.”
Wehner still hasn’t come around—he’s been a blistering detractor in the early stages of Trump’s presidency, and he certainly wasn’t supportive of the Republican nominee on Election Day. But most of his brethren were: Eighty percent of self-identified, white, born-again Christians voted for Trump, and just 16 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, exit polls showed, the biggest margin in modern presidential history. It was a jarring conclusion to a campaign in which many conservative leaders had coalesced around Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Republican primary, some of whom publicly mocked Trump for cringeworthy incidents like his citation of “Two Corinthians,” and others who swore him off after the October release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasted of grabbing women by the genitals. What changed?
Short answer: the Supreme Court. Tim Goeglein, who worked for Bush as the White House liaison to faith leaders, says the community’s “natural skepticism” of Trump started to soften last May when he released his list of potential replacements for Scalia. Two months later, his selection of Pence signaled a serious partnership with social conservatives, as did his embrace of what was arguably the GOP’s most conservative platform ever. And yet, many who voted for Trump did so primarily out of loathing toward Clinton, wary even after Election Day of the president’s intentions. Only when he began filling his administration with their allies—and when he picked Gorsuch for the Supreme Court—did they put their trust in Trump. “Personnel is policy,” Goegelin, now the vice president of external relations at Focus on the Family, says. “The nomination and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch is what cemented the relationship.”
This doesn’t mean social conservatives are resting easy. Nobody I spoke with thinks Trump has undergone a road-to-Damascus conversion and is suddenly a subscriber to all of their core convictions. (The exception being abortion; everyone believes Trump is now authentically and entirely opposed.) What’s fascinating is that some activists believe it’s Trump’s distance from their worldview that has made him such an effective partner. “It actually gave him a greater degree of freedom to advocate in a very transparent and forward-leaning fashion on their behalf,” Reed tells me. “Not necessarily as one of them, but as a friend and an ally.”
Indeed, the social conservative leaders I spoke with believe Trump is doing what a smart politician does: delivering on promises to a key constituency whose mobilization is essential to executing other parts of his agenda and, eventually, winning reelection. Perkins repeatedly emphasizes that Christian voters were “critical” to Trump’s victory last November, heavily implying that the president, who is suffering from historically high disapproval early on, can’t afford to lose their support. I ask whether Trump advocating for his agenda feels transactional. “Transactional?” Perkins replies. “Yeah, probably so.” Because of this, activist leaders are applying steady pressure on the White House, hoping to preempt any drift toward the middle as they plot a series of further victories in the remaining 1,360 days of Trump’s first term.
Conservatives are anxious about the scores of federal judgeships with lifetime appointments that remain vacant, wondering why Trump has yet to fill them. They want to see Trump sign a sweeping set of pro-life policies into law, including a permanent ban on federal funds going to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers as well as a nationwide ban on abortions after five months. They also want the administration to eliminate the Obamacare provision that requires employers’ health plans to cover contraceptives. Perhaps most urgently, they are waging a fierce battle behind the scenes to ensure that Trump issues an executive order on religious liberties—an issue that has exposed some of the ideological fault lines inside the White House.
A draft of the original executive order, which would have established broad exemptions for people and groups to claim religious objections under virtually any circumstance, was leaked to The Nation on February 1. Liberals blasted it as government-licensed discrimination toward the LGBT community. Conservatives fumed that the leak was strategic on the part of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who have made no secret of their progressive social views. The White House distanced itself from the draft in a public statement and the episode was scored internally as a victory for the Ivanka-Jared camp. But conservatives inside the administration—namely, Pence and his longtime allies in the legislative affairs shop, Marc Short and Paul Teller—have teamed with allies on the outside in re-wording the executive order and pressuring Trump to sign it. The fight has until now played out privately but might soon burst into public view with dozens of congressional Republicans writing a letter to Trump, urging him to sign the original draft order.
If this is indicative of a tug-of-war inside the White House—“a creative tension” over cultural issues, says Ken Blackwell, a longtime fixture on the right who led the president’s domestic transition team—conservatives feel confident that they have already triumphed over Trump’s more liberal advisers. “You start from the reality that the president is not a movement conservative, he’s not a church leader, and a lot of the folks who came into the administration haven’t been Republicans and aren’t Republicans now,” Blackwell says. “The president has delivered. … There are a couple big items still outstanding, but people have a greater sense that it’s down to a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’”
And yet, 100 days is a mere fraction of the president’s first term. Ideologically, Trump has been consistently inconsistent throughout his public life. Some on the right opposed him for this very reason, and continue to urge caution now. “In my experience over the last 30 or so years of political life, there’s hardly any group in American politics that is as easily won over or seduced by power as Christians,” Wehner tells me. “The fact that the Trump people are paying attention to them makes them feel very, very good, and especially because they didn’t expect to be paid attention to very much. So they’re just over the moon.”
But Wehner fears Trump’s affection could prove fleeting. “These are not convictions for him. He’s a recent convert on every one of these issues, from judges to abortion to other issues. And there’s going to be a pushback among more cosmopolitan liberals, including his daughter and son-in-law,” he says. “But for now, social conservatives have reason to be happy with him. And they are.”