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Opinion Why Trump’s Charlottesville response won’t hurt him with a key chunk of his base

President Trump is greeted by Pastor Robert Jeffress. (Olivier Douliery/European Pressphoto Agency)

A new poll out today finds that President Trump continues to earn high marks from a key part of the Republican base: white evangelicals. The poll, from the Public Religion Research Institute, finds that 65 percent of white evangelicals have a favorable view of Trump. What’s more, they are “among the most resistant to the idea of impeachment,” with 79 percent of them opposing it.

The support for Trump from this base has been remarkably steady since the election, when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for him. Today’s poll is further evidence that despite a nearly incessant stream of controversy and scandal, white evangelicals will continue to rally behind him, viewing him as a strong leader in the face of a growing storm.

As Trump’s approval ratings among other demographics continue to slide, and an array of scandals close in on him, evangelicals could very well turn out to be one of the keys to Trump’s ability to survive. Trump will continue to depend on their support, even as he faces widespread ignominy over his response to the white-supremacist mayhem in Charlottesville last weekend.

During previous times of trouble, such as the news about the meeting with the Russian lawyer, evangelicals flocked to Trump’s side. In a meeting in the Oval Office, two days after that story broke, a group of evangelical leaders prayed for Trump and laid hands on him. Three days later, Trump gave an interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Pat Robertson to return the favor. “I’m so proud of everything you’re doing,” Robertson said to open the interview. “The evangelicals were so great to me,” Trump told Robertson. “They came out in massive numbers.” Robertson defended Trump, dismissing the “visceral hatred” the president supposedly receives from “the Left.”

After President Trump's rhetoric on the Charlottesville violence inflamed more criticism, a handful of GOP lawmakers are speaking out while many stay silent. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Today’s new PRRI poll helps shed light on just how solid this evangelical support may remain for him, through scandal and racial controversy alike. White evangelicals are among the least likely groups to believe Russia interfered in the election. Seventy percent of them do not believe there is clear evidence of Russian meddling.

Nor is Trump’s response to Charlottesville likely to shake this devotion.

White evangelical support for Trump has been “incredibly consistent and incredibly loyal,” PRRI’s research director, Dan Cox, told me today. Although the poll released today was conducted before this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Cox added, “it’s hard to conceive of an event or an action taken by Trump that would lead them to abandon him at this point.”

Public statements from Trump’s most fervent defenders among white evangelical leaders are starting to bear this out. They are stepping up for him even after his unglued Tuesday press conference, during which he blamed “both sides” for the violence and claimed that the Friday night torch rally where marchers chanted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” actually constituted “people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”

In response to that presser, one of Trump’s most vocal white evangelical supporters, Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network to defend him — and reprised a familiar line of attack against Trump’s perceived enemies. “There is an effort to do whatever is necessary to take this president down,” Jeffress said. Trump doesn’t have a “racist bone in his body,” Jeffress insisted, but “the media has painted, the liberals have painted — a false narrative that the president is a racist.”

Jeffress added that he knew why Trump was elected, despite these supposed efforts by the media and liberals: “He was very honest in what he said, he refused to be politically correct.”

And Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and one of the earliest evangelical endorsers of Trump, tweeted:

The durability of Trump’s evangelical support has been surprising to some. White evangelicals have long demanded that political figures display piety, religious fluency and a clear commitment to a “biblical worldview.”

Yet evangelicals have jettisoned these requirements in favor of Trump’s combativeness. Why?

One plausible explanation is that Trump’s bashing of political correctness and unwillingness to be constrained by convention have proven to be the very characteristics that draw white evangelical support. Cox of the PRRI says it is rooted in their belief that cultural and demographic changes have made the United States worse off than it was in the 1950s.

“They see him as the best way to return to a time when they had more power and influence,” Cox said. “They want someone who is going to be strong and unapologetic in helping them to recapture what they believe is lost.”

And so, many of Trump’s actions could be helping to feed this loyalty to Trump among evangelicals, from the nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, to the effort to ban transgender military service.

And that includes his current defense of the “history and culture” of Confederate monuments. It’s yet another signal to this segment of his base that he “gets it” about their greatest, driving fear: loss of prominence in American culture and politics — which, he signals, he is clearly bent on trying to restore to them.