Last week, Donald Trump tried to win over a roomful of pastors by noting that he was struggling in Utah, which he called “a different place.” This was a barely disguised attempt to profit from anti-Mormon sentiment among evangelicals.
Now, a week after insulting Mormons, he is shamelessly asking for their vote. “Earning support and trust from the voters of Utah is a top priority for me,” Trump declared Monday in the Mormon-owned Deseret News. Yet his pitch to them was lazy and uninformed, a barely disguised admission of how little he thinks of voters.
Mormons, as Trump seems to understand with his “different place” comment, are not exactly like evangelicals. Mormon theology, culture, institutions, history, language and political preoccupations are different. In a recent Deseret News piece of her own, Hillary Clinton addressed this unique identity, acknowledging and quoting Mormon leaders, using Mormon terminology and relating her points to important periods in Mormon history. Trump, on the other hand, did not care enough to adapt his message any more than he already has for a generic conservative Christian audience.
Most of Trump’s Deseret News op-ed was a rehash of familiar campaign rhetoric — he promised to make the country great again, destroy the Islamic State, support cops, crack down on illegal immigrants, cut taxes and fight abortion. Some of these points, taken from traditional Republicans, resonate strongly with conservative Utah voters. Some do not. Trump, for example, should have downplayed his focus on immigration. Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have publicly advocated for a comprehensive immigration bill and opposed immigration policies that separate families. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the second counselor to the president of the church, has been a vocal advocate for these reforms. He is also a dual citizen of Germany and the United States, reflecting an openness to the world that does not cohere with Trump’s nativism. Mormons’ global view comes in part from an international missionary system in which all young male members in good standing are expected to participate and in which increasingly large numbers of young women choose to take part.
When Trump tried to offer a faith-oriented message, he played up a position favored by Trump-booster Jerry Falwell Jr. that the GOP nominee adopted in order to appeal to Christians — apparently failing to consider whether Mormons prioritize Falwell’s concerns. Trump attacked a federal law that, in his telling, threatens “pastors with the loss of their church’s tax exempt status if they opposed or supported a candidate for election or re-election from the pulpit.” To an evangelical Christian, this reads fine. To a Mormon, it reads as though Trump is talking to someone else. Mormons do not have pastors — or even a professional clergy at most levels of the hierarchy. Moreover, local Mormon leaders do not have independent control over individual churches. The LDS organization is highly centralized, and its leaders in Salt Lake City strongly profess their desire to keep the institution out of nakedly partisan politics. The church no doubt cares about maintaining its tax-exempt status while engaging in issue-based advocacy. But the leadership denies any interest in endorsing candidates. Trump, or whoever wrote his piece for him, did not do some basic research, instead assuming that a single act of pandering would appeal to all Christians.
Trump gets at least one thing right in his piece, appealing to Utahns’ distaste for the federal government and the way it handles its vast land holdings in the state. “The people of Utah know best how to manage their land,” he wrote. Having an “R” next to your name and staking out a few traditional GOP positions can get candidates pretty far in deep-red Utah. Many Mormons — a lot of whom, probably, have never voted for a Democrat — will no doubt vote for Trump. Though the tally may be much closer than usual, Trump still has a strong chance of winning the state.
But he shouldn’t. In a month in which Evan McMullin, a conservative graduate of Brigham Young University, has emerged as a ballot-eligible non-Trump alternative to Clinton, a reasonable candidate would have had someone on his campaign spend a few minutes figuring out how to talk to Mormons, or at least refrained from insulting them. Trump didn’t bother. Instead, he highlighted one of his core attributes: a carelessness that is so obvious it reeks of disrespect.