The 2016 Republican presidential campaign began last year with Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum – among others – flashing Bible passages and competing for support from social conservatives in Iowa. It will end in July with the all but certain nomination of Donald Trump.
The rout of social conservatives in this campaign is absolute. Their future looks grim.
The problem isn’t that Trump has a disco ball where his moral compass should be. It’s that he isn’t particularly interested in the social conservative agenda – or even in pretending that he is.
Aside from a few comic forays into biblical scholarship early in his campaign and later comments about abortion that were so off message that they merely confirmed his lack of interest in the topic, Trump is running free and clear of the entire movement. He’s leaving social conservatives in the dust.
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The country as a whole deserves some credit for this turnabout. Americans have taken seriously the social conservative complaints that mattered most. The Guttmacher Institute reported earlier this month that in 2011 U.S. teen pregnancy, birth and abortion rates all reached their lowest points in almost four decades. Teen pregnancies were down almost a quarter since 2008.
Of course, trends in divorce have migrated from cosmopolitan America to the Bible Belt, as has a great deal of drug use and addiction. And even the good news on teen pregnancy has a downside for social conservatives: The kids are still having sex. “The available evidence suggests that increased contraceptive use is the primary driver of this decline,” said Kathryn Kost, the study’s lead author.
But social conservatives can take some credit for pushing Democrats to adopt the Clintonian mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” There is an implicit moral calibration in that last word. Whether or not it has influenced the overall decline in U.S. abortions, many liberals have accepted that reducing the number of them should be a priority.
Calibration is not condemnation, but it’s as close as conservatives are likely to get for a while. Even in states seeking to regulate abortion out of existence, such as Texas, Republican legislators feel compelled to pretend they’re merely advancing the cause of women’s health, not saving their souls.
If abortion represents a highly qualified success, however, the social conservative attack on the “homosexual agenda” has been a comprehensive fiasco. If gay rights were more controversial, even among Republicans, it’s doubtful that Trump, who has lived his entire life in New York City without registering objection to its customs, could have skated so freely through the primaries.
With a Republican nominee hailing from the most hostile psychographic terrain in the nation, it’s unclear where, outside of the deepest South, social conservatives can go to find a sympathetic ear for righteous anger.
When Republican politicians in North Carolina recently targeted transsexuals, a minority of a minority, they surely expected an outcry from some Hollywood liberals. However, they seemed unprepared for the devastating and swift response from corporate America. Without fingers to the wind or focus groups to guide them, corporations big and small unambiguously denounced the action, making it clear they viewed North Carolina leaders as the kind of bigots and kooks they’d take pains to avoid at the local Rotary.
This election will likely cut a swath of destruction through conservative America. If social conservatives hope to survive as a credible political force outside the South, they’re probably going to have to surrender on gay rights – at the very least – and cultivate more relevant issues. The battle against drug abuse could use a hand, along with lots of other worthy causes. Accepting gay rights may seem alien, even impossible, to social conservatives at first. But many in their ranks have already embraced Trump. It can’t be any more awkward than that.