I noted the other day that Sen. Ted Cruz is very effectively working the Religious Right, making sure they know he is one them. (And he is.) But it appears that he's got some serious competition -- and it's not from Scott Walker or Mike Huckabee, the two candidates previously assumed to have the inside track with the conservative evangelical crowd. (As with most every constituency that was presumed to naturally be in his corner, Walker has stumbled badly with this group, but he's plugging away. Huckabee just seems like old news.) Instead, Cruz -- whose Iowa state chairman introduces him by saying that “God has prepared” him to "go to Washington and throw the money-changers out” -- is being challenged for evangelical affections by none other than the billionaire braggart Donald Trump.
In South Carolina this week, Trump explained that evangelicals love him, and he loves them. And he loves the Bible more than anything, even his own book, "The Art of the Deal," which he loves very, very much. He declined to identify his favorite Bible passages, because he says the Bible is so intensely personal to him, but he was more forthcoming awhile back when pollster Frank Luntz asked him if he'd ever asked God for forgiveness.
"I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't…” Trump said. “When I drink my little wine -- which is about the only wine I drink -- and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed. I think in terms of 'let's go on and let's make it right.'"
His piety and spirituality are very moving.
The funny thing is that while it may not be quite correct that evangelicals "love" him, they are, so far, supporting him over the other candidates in the race. Last month a Washington Post poll had him at 20 percent support among evangelicals, followed by the far more doctrinaire Walker and Huckabee at 14 and 12 percent respectively. His poll ratings went up dramatically among Iowa evangelicals after his debate performance, and leaders such as Franklin Graham have publicly praised him on Facebook for "shaking up" the race. This is a man who has been married three times, previously supported abortion and gay rights and has pretty much been a poster boy for urban, elite decadence. So what gives?
According to writer Amy Sullivan, who covers the religion beat, evangelicals are not that different from other Republicans, in that they are perpetually let down and disappointed by their leaders, but more than anything are just looking for a winner after eight years of living in a liberal horror movie. Apparently, they are just as mad as hell as the rest of the GOP base and Lord knows Trump is the one who's most effectively channeling that rage.
But this article in The Daily Beast, by Betsy Woodruff, shows that Trump has surprisingly been cultivating the religious right for several years, making substantial donations to various Christian organizations and reaching out to Christian leaders and groups. All the way back in 2012, he spoke at Liberty University, where Jerry Falwell Jr. called him "one of the great visionaries of our time" and praised him for his leadership and political skills in "singlehandedly forcing President Obama to release his birth certificate."
Apparently a couple of those very secret, deeply personal Bible passages that Trump loves so much say that one should always get even, because that's the advice he offered the very excited Liberty U students. He also had this to say about the sanctity of marriage:
"I always say, always have a prenuptial agreement. But I won’t say it here because you people don’t get divorced, right? Nobody gets divorced! OK, so I will not say have a prenuptial agreement to anybody in this room! I just want to end — who else would say that but Trump, right? See? I said I should say it, but I won’t say it — how do I get my point across without saying it, I just did it, right?"
This did not seem to bother anyone; they were just thrilled that Trump hung around all afternoon and schmoozed with the faculty. (He is a very wealthy TV celebrity, after all -- fans of all kinds like that.) According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump has invited another group of conservative Christian leaders to his very fancy gilt offices in Trump Tower next month for a "prayer meeting," which should be very exciting for them as well.
Woodruff agrees with Sullivan's take that the evangelicals are very upset with the status quo and like the fact that Trump isn't taking any guff from the GOP establishment. And rather than thinking he might be wobbly on the issues they care about, they seem to be impressed with the only kind of evolution they believe in: the evolution from pro-choice to pro-life, which Trump has embraced with the fervor of the recently converted. This stands in sharp contrast with their concerns about Scott Walker, who has been a committed evangelical his entire life and yet has been put on notice by the leadership for having very slightly deviated from approved religious-right rhetoric.
One might think this was odd, but I've long observed that the right has a very different way of looking at hypocrisy than the left. They actually appreciate it when someone respects their power enough to pander to them and pretend that they believe something they don't. Perhaps the conservative Christians in particular see religious hypocrisy in terms of the old cliché that it's "the tribute vice pays to virtue," and feel that a blatant phony like Trump might actually be more likely to follow through on his promises to them, whereas someone like Walker took them for granted.
Trump announced yesterday in South Carolina that he's going to partner with Cruz on a big event in Washington next month to stop the Iran nuclear agreement. This agreement is loathed by virtually all Republicans for a variety of reasons, but the Christian right hates it because they believe it is bad for Israel, which is central to their political involvement. Trump and Cruz together is a potent combination for them (and a terrifying combination for everyone else). But ultimately they are rivals for this constituency and it will be interesting to see how they end up fighting it out. At this point it's fair to assume that both of them have some sort of game plan in mind.
It always feels as though Trump is winging it, running off at the mouth, not knowing what he’s going to say and basically just riding the wave without any idea where it's going to crash. What this religious outreach shows, though, is that Trump has been strategizing this presidential run much more consciously than perhaps anyone realized. It's hard to know what's more disconcerting -- that Trump is winning because he's crazy, or that he's winning because he's crazy like a fox.