President Trump is a man who knows the value of a good public performance to make something seem like a bigger deal than it really is. But a Rose Garden ceremony he conducted yesterday — not the one you’re thinking of, but another one — raises an interesting question: How long can he convince Republican constituency groups that they’re getting more from this administration than they actually are?
The ceremony in question was for the signing of a new executive order on “religious liberty,” which is code for “special privileges for conservative Christians.” But the order doesn’t do much of anything. In that, it’s much like most of the executive orders Trump has signed: a big show about how he’s giving a generous gift to some part of the Republican coalition, with almost nothing behind it.
Like many people who have followed this issue, I was expecting the worst when the White House announced that Trump would be signing an executive order on the topic. That was particularly true after the Plum Line’s own Sarah Posner obtained a draft version of the order a few months ago and reported that it “seeks to create wholesale exemptions [from laws and regulations] for people and organizations who claim religious or moral objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity, and it seeks to curtail women’s access to contraception and abortion through the Affordable Care Act.”
But when the final order was written, it turned out to be a whole lot of nothing. Instead of creating broad exemptions from laws and regulations for conservative Christians who want to discriminate against LGBT people or not follow the law on providing contraception benefits in employee health plans, it merely instructed various departments to enforce current law or issue guidance to other departments.
The one area that was addressed in detail was the Johnson Amendment, the law that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits (such as churches) from endorsing candidates or directly involving themselves in political campaigns. While Trump promised a couple of months ago that “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” this order does nothing of the sort — nor does he have the authority to do so on his own.
Instead, it essentially tells the Treasury Department (including the IRS) not to go any farther than it has in the past in going after churches that get too close to the partisan line. Which was why many on the religious right publicly expressed their disappointment with the order. Most of them are perfectly fine with the Johnson Amendment, which is almost never enforced anyway.
In other words, this was a lot like most of the executive orders Trump has signed. Consider some of what he has done with his power-packed pen:
- Ordered the Interior Department to determine where offshore drilling might be expanded.
- Ordered the Commerce Department to investigate whether other countries are dumping steel in the U.S. market.
- Ordered the Commerce Department to investigate whether trade agreements are helping or hurting the United States.
- Ordered the Treasury Department to examine which financial regulations might be done away with.
- Ordered the attorney general to create a task force to figure out how to reduce crime.
- Ordered the attorney general to determine ways to protect law enforcement officers.
- Created a commission to study the opioid crisis.
- Ordered a review of how the government designates national monuments.
- Ordered the Education Department to review whether the federal government is promoting local control of schools.
Seeing a pattern? Over and over, the White House takes some issue that Trump has promised to aggressively act on, and then issues an executive order that studies it, examines it or investigates it but doesn’t actually do anything about it. As Michael Grunwald explains:
Trump’s first 30 executive orders will create a lot of federal reviews and reports, along with some new task forces and commissions, but not a lot of substantive change. So far, they’ve been more about messaging than governing, proclaiming his priorities without really advancing his priorities.
That’s not true of every executive order — the ones he has signed on immigration are already having an impact — but it probably has a familiar feel to members of the religious right in particular. In the past, they’ve greeted the election of Republican presidents with great hope, only to grow dissatisfied with what they felt was a lack of concrete progress on their issues. Previous GOP administrations have struggled to make them feel as though they were being properly cared for, offering regular conference calls and White House meetings, which some grumbled felt like access as a substitute for action.
This is an issue for every administration of either party. When you get elected, the constituency groups that make up your coalition are going to be eager to finally get all the policy changes they had been hoping for, but unfortunately, the gears of change move slowly in Washington and compromises are inevitable. The risk is that if those constituencies grow dissatisfied, they won’t be there, or at least be there with the vigor you’d like, when you need them to mobilize — as in a midterm election, or a presidential reelection.
It was one of the great triumphs of Trump’s 2016 campaign that he got such extraordinary support from the religious right. Despite his comically insincere professions of faith, he won the votes of 80 percent of white evangelicals, better than any candidate in the history of exit polls. There were many reasons for that, including their urgency to get a justice on the Supreme Court who would be a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, which they’ve already gotten. But whether he can keep them and other Republican constituencies happy is an open question.
Trump’s own penchant for grandiose promises could wind up undermining him in that effort. He over-hypes what he’s going to do, and then over-hypes what he’s actually doing. That can work for a while, but when it’s aimed at people who have a very specific interest in a particular issue, they’re unlikely to be fooled. At least not for very long.