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Trump’s trump card: Social conservatism

Illustration of President Trump hugging an elephant trunk
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Social conservatives say they've gotten more from President Trump than from any other president. And a lot of it will last.

The big picture: Activists and advocates are happy with Trump’s policies. They are thrilled about his judicial confirmations. But what has really sent them over the moon, they say, is the way he talks about them and their issues — loudly, constantly and without reservation.

What they’re saying: “If I could just pick one, I would pick Trump every time. I would pick Trump over any other president in terms of his energy and his commitment and his follow-through,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List.

Trump has overseen a hard push to the right on abortion, LGBTQ rights and religious accommodations. Some of that, you might expect from any Republican president — but Trump has repeatedly upped the ante, going further than even his supporters expected.

  • One big example: Moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to move to Jerusalem, which had been a talking point on the right for years.

Evangelical voters "are not only not disappointed that they backed Trump, they will likely back him and support him in even higher numbers in 2020," said Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Some advocates said they couldn't imagine Mitt Romney or John McCain going as far as Trump has.

  • Even George W. Bush doesn’t measure up, some advocates said, even though he — unlike Trump — was personally a member of the religious right.

What Trump has done:

  • On abortion, Trump reinstated and expanded the so-called “Mexico City policy,” which says international organizations that receive U.S. funding cannot “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning."
  • He eased Obama-era rules designed to protect Planned Parenthood’s funding.
  • His administration recently banned the use of fetal tissue in government-funded medical research.
  • On LGBTQ rights, Trump reversed the Obama administration’s decision to let transgender troops serve in combat.
  • The White House is planning to roll back Obama-era rules that require adoption agencies receiving federal funding to serve same-sex parents.
  • The administration has changed a legal interpretation so that it would no longer be a violation of federal civil rights law for doctors to discriminate against transgender patients.
  • A similar reinterpretation also cleared away nondiscrimination rules for housing.

What’s next: Some of Trump’s executive actions will likely only last as long as his administration. In many cases, he has reversed Obama-era policy decisions — some of which reversed Bush-era policy decisions, and which the next Democratic president could simply reverse again.

But Trump’s ability to reshape the courts will help him build a longer-lasting legacy in other areas — especially abortion.

  • Bush replaced one moderate Supreme Court justice who had voted to uphold Roe v. Wade — Sandra Day O’Connor.
  • But the true sea change didn't come until Trump replaced the last remaining swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, enshrining a solid conservative majority for years.
  • And the Senate has confirmed wave after wave of federal appeals judges, which will pull the courts to the right nationwide and shape the kinds of rulings that make it to the high court.
  • “That’s the most transformational thing he could possibly do, and we’ll be living with that for generations," Dannenfelser said.

Between the lines: Social conservatives supported Trump in 2016 — they weren’t that worried about how he would govern. And they knew Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would prioritize judges.

  • But, partly because Trump wasn’t a part of the community in his personal life, they weren’t necessarily expecting him to go all in for them. That part has been a surprise.
  • Dannenfelser noted that a big chunk of Trump's most recent State of the Union address was devoted to abortion, and praised the fervor with which he attacked Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam over an abortion bill in the state.

The bottom line: “It's been a stellar record," Reed said.