When it became increasingly clear in the spring of 2016 that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president, a group of Catholic Thoughtfuls penned a letter that March warning that the Catholic project was in “grave danger” because of Trump’s “vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance and . . . demagoguery.” They made a point of emphasizing Trump’s” demagoguery,” in fact, while also charging him with making a racist appeal to voters.
Strong stuff. More the stuff of Roughnecks than of Thoughtfuls.
The letter came out at the time when Trump had winnowed the field of candidates to just three others, with only one of them—U.S. Senator Ted Cruz—having any more than a whisper of a chance.
So, the letter was quixotic at best. At worst, it was an intellectual temper tantrum.
Reasonable People May Differ
Now, I want to emphasize, a lot of dear friends and longtime allies of mine signed that letter, including a member of my organization’s board of directors, also several members of my board of advisers. The pedigree of these men and women, and the anti-Trump atmosphere among the smart set was so strong that the letter gained national attention. It was painful for those of us who, while not supporting Trump at the time, nonetheless looked kindly upon him.
My wife and I were early and enthusiastic Cruz supporters and stayed with him until the moment he dropped out. I thought he could deny the nomination to Trump by sticking it out until the convention and win on the first ballot. Even so, we defended Trump all along. We liked his roughness, his willingness to bruise the tripartite enemies of all that is good: the GOP establishment, the media, and the Democrats. Boy, did we take our lumps for defending him.
The letter stated that key Catholic issues were under threat from Trump including “providing legal protection for the unborn, the physically disabled and cognitively handicapped, the frail elderly, and other victims of what Saint John Paul II branded ‘the culture of death’.” They worried that Trump would do nothing to protect or further endanger freedom of religion and conscience, and that he would do nothing to protect and promote man-woman marriage nor would he “reestablish constitutional and limited government” as if any Republican had taken any real steps to do this to date.
Mote, Meet Log
It’s worth noting George W. Bush, whom many of these men and women enthusiastically supported, also failed these tests. Government expanded extravagantly under Bush. He was quite fine with nominating justices with unknown or questionable pro-life judicial pedigrees. Recall, he had to be forced to withdraw the nomination of his friend and former counsel Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bush didn’t do an awful lot to promote man-woman marriage in his last presidential campaign and did even less in his last four years. But the Catholic Thoughtfuls assured us, they were worried because Trump said he would torture terror suspects—never mind that was something Bush had actually done.
One of the more shameful charges was that Trump appealed to voters along racial and ethnic lines. The Catholic Thoughtfuls offered no evidence for this. It was supposed to be self-evident. After all, blacks were yelling at white Trump supporters who were yelling right back. Blacks were being punched at Trump rallies, except what we know now, and what many of us knew then, is that these were agents-provocateur sent by the DNC into Trump rallies to cause trouble and establish a narrative that even the Catholic Thoughtfuls fell for. I attended a Trump rally in Northern Virginia, and it was remarkable for its “diversity.” Brown people all over the place. Even turbans.
Trump did get tough rhetorically on illegal immigration from Mexico, specifically on some of the authentic criminals coming across the border. He also went after “radical Islamic terrorism” and called for closing borders to them. But the charge of “racism” was an echo of the racialist Left that continues to cause bloody strife all over this country and it was probably the worst part of a regrettable letter.
So, how has Trump done so far? How has he done for the concerns of the Catholic Thoughtfuls?
The nomination of Neil Gorsuch alone should be enough to refute the concerns of the Catholic Thoughtfuls, at least with regard to the issues of life and religious freedom, but also as regards Trump’s commitment to returning us to “constitutional and limited government.” But Trump has gone far beyond Gorsuch alone and he has gone far beyond what George W. Bush did with the federal judiciary.
Kimberly Strassel published a remarkable piece in the Wall Street Journal called “Scalias All the Way Down.” As of October 12, Trump had named 60 judges, more than Obama appointed in his entire first year. There are another 160 to come. It’s not just the numbers, though; it is those he is appointing. Strassel says the contrast between Trump and Bush is stark. Granted, Bush worked with Leonard Leo and Ed Meese on judicial nominations but, according to Strassel, Bush picked judges and justices by committee with a premium placed on caution. Strassel says, “Dozens of advisers hunted for the least controversial nominee with the smallest paper trail.”
Trump has given his team carte blanche to work with Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society to find “the most conservative judges.” This means Trump will remake the federal judiciary in ways the Bushes didn’t even dream of doing.
But that’s not all. Trump has appointed pro-life and pro-family Evangelicals and Catholics all over the administration, including at the White House. I will not name names—no need to put more targets on their backs—but a few dozen of them are personal friends who are committed social conservatives and orthodox Christians. This includes picks high up in the State Department. This includes the most pro-life vice president and cabinet in history.
Where previous Republican presidents signed the Mexico City Policy, which traditionally restricted U.S. family planning money from going to groups overseas that promote or perform abortions, this only affected a relatively paltry $500 million worth of aid. Trump expanded the restriction to include all global health foreign aid, subjecting $9 billion to this test.
He signed an executive order to protect the religious liberty and conscience rights to pro-life people and groups, settled 16 of the contraceptive mandate cases with plaintiffs seeking relief from the Obamacare contraceptive mandate (including Catholic bishops and Notre Dame). Notre Dame has subsequently voluntarily restored contraceptive coverage, so it seems Thoughtful Catholics might consider how much more they have to fear from feckless Catholics.
President Trump even waded into the transgender issue by rescinding the Obama-era guidance letter of the Department of Education mandating the transgender agenda on school kids. This effectively ended various bathroom lawsuits. And he banned transgender people from military service.
Trump even withdrew the United States from the government-expanding job-and-economy killing Paris Climate Accords.
Any Second Thoughts?
I asked a few of the signatories to the “Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics” what they thought of the letter at this remove and whether Trump is still “manifestly unfit to be president.” Most did not want to comment, even without attribution.
Only Professor David Upham of the University of Dallas responded on the record, “He has, I think, been less bad than feared in three respects. First, his rhetoric has been less divisive, as he has not, as president, issued sweeping indictments of immigrant groups based on religion (e.g., Muslims) or national origin (e.g., Mexicans). Second, he has been less vulgar as president than he was as a candidate. Third, and most importantly, his policies and appointments have thus far been as pro-life as one could reasonably hope for from any President. Still, such action has been in the President’s short-term political interest. It remains to be seen whether Trump will remain pro-life if it is no longer in his short-term political interest.”
To be fair, Robert George of Princeton, who appears to have been the primary author of the letter, along with George Weigel, has praised Trump when he has done good things. Most of the signatories, as far as I can tell, have been silent, even when Trump has done things that demonstrate their worries were misplaced.
I wonder if the essential repugnance they felt, then, was merely stylistic. They live and work in highly refined circles where Roughnecks are mostly embarrassments. Trump is the Roughneck-in-chief. I wonder if many would prefer a gentlemanly loser to a vulgar winner.