Should social conservatives avoid criticizing Trump?
Less than two weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump, I began seeing arguments that social conservatives should mute their criticism of the new President. Hillary Clinton would have been a disaster—so the argument goes—and we should be grateful for the friendly initiatives that Trump has already unveiled.
That argument, I suggest, is 100% wrong. While we can welcome some of President Trump’s early moves—the reinstatement of the Mexico City policy, for instance, and an extremely promising Supreme Court nomination—we should never stop asking for more. Moreover, our criticisms will help Trump, not hurt him.
Let me tell a story: appropriate story for today which would have been the 106th birthday of Ronald Reagan.
In 1980, when Reagan was elected, I was working in Washington, at the Heritage Foundation. Reagan’s victory in that November election delighted conservatives, since (unlike Trump) he had been identified with the conservative movement for years. We looked forward anxiously to his inauguration, confident that his plans would closely match our hopes. Shortly before he entered the White House (or maybe it was soon thereafter; my memory is a bit uncertain), Reagan held a meeting with some of the key conservative leaders in Washington. Ed Feulner, then president of the Heritage Foundation, attended that meeting. When Ed returned, we all naturally wanted to know what Reagan had said. I have never forgotten the response.
“Reagan said that he needs pressure from the Right,” Ed told us.
Reagan knew (Ed explained) that the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the three major TV networks would batter away with their criticism, consistently pounding him with liberal criticism. Without countervailing pressure from the opposite side of the political spectrum, he reasoned, there would be a natural tendency to drift toward the liberal perspective; the squeaky wheel would be greased. Reagan wanted conservatives to neutralize that leftward pressure, and in the process to keep his administration faithful to its conservative principles.
Reagan wanted constructive criticism. He knew that he could not satisfy every conservative hope, but he wanted us to keep pushing for more. A canny politician, he knew that if he could deliver 75% of what we demanded, and we complained about the missing 25%, his policies would appear more moderate, more acceptable to the general public.
By the same logic, social conservatives—those of us who hope that the Trump administration will prove friendly to family, faith, and natural law—should not hesitate to criticize our new President, for what he does and what he fails to do. We can welcome and support his Supreme Court nominee, without ceasing to question his promise of support for gay federal workers. We can thank him for his executive order reinstituting the Mexico City policy, yet continue to push for another executive order defending religious freedom. Such criticism has two benefits: it provides pressure for continued action on our issues, while allowing Trump to appear closer to mainstream opinions.
Having virtually declared war on the mass media, and thereby assured himself of non-stop hostility from that corner, Trump could definitely use the latter sort of help. Whether he recognizes it on not, he needs criticism from the right.
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