Some social conservatives are expressing anger about Donald Trump’s “religious liberty” executive order because, unlike what was feared by LGBT activists because of an earlier leaked draft, there’s nothing in the order giving exemptions to business owners or government workers who are opposed to marriage equality or LGBTQ rights in general.
Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation slammed the order as “woefully inadequate.” David French at National Review called it “worse than useless.” Brian Brown of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage said it “falls far short of what is needed to protect people of faith from governmental persecution.” And Bryan Fischer, the bombastic, fire-breathing radio host for the American Family Association, is furious that the order doesn’t allow bakers, florists and adoption agencies to discriminate, and he’s blaming Ivanka Trump for it:
Ivanka wore out her red pencil eviscerating the original order, leaving us with today’s order which has very nice language but is virtually entirely lacking in substance.
This has led some LGBTQ people, namely gay Republicans, to continue to believe Donald Trump ― in spite of the promises he made to anti-LGBTQ supporters ― is a different kind of Republican.
Don’t be fooled.
There’s a long history of Republican presidents stringing along the hungry base of the Christian right and not giving them a big prize before they are needed again. The classic example is George W. Bush, who equally disappointed some anti-LGBTQ activists in his first few years, but then bowed to their demands and promoted a federal marriage amendment just before the 2004 election to energize them to get out and vote in what was expected to be a close election after dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and Bush’s dismal approval numbers.
As I pointed out last week, Trump needs the Christian right for re-election and to keep Congress controlled by the GOP more than even Bush did. Though Trump had a higher Electoral College win than Bush had in 2004, that was only because of less than 80,000 votes in three states ― less than 1% of the vote in each of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan ― while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million. (Bush won the popular vote over John Kerry in 2004 by 4 million votes.) And Trump’s approval numbers are lower than Bush’s were at any point in his first term, even at his low in the election year of 2004 (48% in the Gallup Poll).
Mike Pence, who represents the religious right wing in the White House, is perhaps the shrewdest player among the various players. A former House member and former governor of Indiana, he is the only one close to Trump who has any legislative and executive political experience. Certainly as governor, Pence learned the hard way that pushing too fast on “religious liberty” issues can backfire. The leader of the white nationalist wing of the White House, Steve Bannon, on the other hand, was inexperienced and sloppy, rushing through orders on banning Muslims and threatening sanctuary cities, and seeing massive public outrage and eventually legal challenges that stopped them for now.
Pence appears to be playing the long game, consolidating his power base. As head of the transition team, he’s brought in quite a few anti-LGBTQ figures and placed them in the cabinet and throughout the government, even if an occasional one ― like the recent Army Secretary nominee, Tom Green, who withdrew his nomination ― gets too above the radar and is thwarted. (It’s hard to know if Green’s anti-LGBTQ actions and comments as a Tennessee legislator, or his anti-Muslim statements, did him in ― or if it was both ― but he was rapidly losing ground in the Senate in recent weeks, including among Republicans).
Unlike the grass roots base, more mainstream (within the Republican Party) social conservative figures, like Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), and Franklin Graham, expressed great satisfaction about the religious liberty order, thanking Trump and withholding any criticism. (The order is still abhorrent, opening the door to allowing churches to engage in politics while still receiving tax exemptions, and helping to allow employers who have religious objections to refuse contraception coverage in employees’ health care plans.)
FRC is, in the social conservative world, similar to the Human Right Campaign among LGBTQ groups: Its primary concern, which it sees as paramount to its mission, is access and power. Similar to FRC in the early Trump administration, HRC, during the early years of the Obama administration, applauded the president for mere crumbs and resisted criticizing him for his slow pace on LGBT equality. But the grass roots of the LGBT movement wasn’t happy, and ultimately began protesting, with activists interrupting the president’s speeches and chaining themselves to the White House fence.
Because of that grass roots push, President Obama and the Democrats moved on key issues, like getting “don’t ask, don’t tell” repealed in the last days of Democratic control of Congress, a full two years into Obama’s administration. Had that not happened, and had Obama not in fact come out for marriage equality in early 2012, the base of his party could likely have been depressed enough to cost him the election, rather than energized and getting the vote out.
But again, it took a while. Right now, just almost four months into the Trump regime, the social conservative establishment is playing nice, retaining its access. But the grumblings from the base and the grass roots were unmistakable last week.
It’s unlikely Trump will be able to get the religious right grass roots energized for his re-election ― something he needs desperately ― without doing something major to inhibit LGBTQ rights. We’ve of course already seen the administration rescind guidance to schools regarding transgender students, effectively block the executive order President Obama signed banning discrimination against LGBTQ people among federal contractors, install bigots in important posts and much more.
But to the religious right, as we saw in the reactions last week to the executive order, none of that is satisfactory. With Pence, Trump has someone in the driver’s seat who knows what they want, and who will know when to pull the trigger on something that will definitely satisfy them. Stay alert, and be prepared.