Tony Perkins is head of the Family Research Council, a prominent evangelical organization that regularly challenged the administration of President Barack Obama on moral grounds. In 2013, it released a report documenting the Obama team’s “abuse of power and troubled ethics,” citing things like the Affordable Care Act and a loan to the green-power firm Solyndra alongside standard-fare conservative critiques of the administration.
After the Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump’s personal lawyer had made a $130,000 payment shortly before the election to a porn star to buy her silence about a sexual encounter she’d had with Trump, Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere asked Perkins for his thoughts. Trump got a “do-over” on those allegations, Perkins said, a blank slate because he was fighting the good fight.
Evangelical Christians “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists,” Perkins said. “And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
In other words, because Trump was willing to engage in a fight against the liberal left on behalf of those evangelicals, his own personal moral failings were given a pass. Obama may have not demonstrated personal moral failings, by extension, but because his administration was engaged in advocating the sort of policies that evangelicals (often through the partisan Republican lens of that identity) opposed, his administration itself was seen as less moral.
On Thursday, Gallup released new poll data tracking views of the moral and ethical climate in the country. In 2017, 37 percent of Democrats said that they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the nation’s moral climate, compared to 22 percent of Republicans.
Mind you, Democrats had been consistently more likely to express satisfaction with the moral climate since 2011, when they were 15 points more likely to say they were satisfied with the moral and ethical climate than were Republicans. That 2011 survey was the first since 2008, at which point the two parties were about even in their assessments. (In fact, the parties had offered similar views on the question since 2001.)
The 2011 survey was also the first under Obama.
In the new survey, Gallup reports that Republicans saw a big upswing in their satisfaction with the moral and ethical climate of the country while Democrats saw a sharp plunge. While last year Democrats were 15 points more likely to say they saw the ethical climate as satisfactory, now Republicans are more likely to hold that opinion by 8 points. That’s a 23-point swing in one year — a year that happened to be the first of Trump’s presidency.
This goes to Perkins’s point. The fight against liberalism in the context of morality and religion is conflated with the fight against liberalism in the political sense. This isn’t entirely new; there’s always been overlap. But the partisanship of views of the moral climate of the United States looks a lot like the partisanship we see in everything else.
Clearly some of this is a reflection of the actual policy changes Trump has advocated and the steps that he’s taken. But clearly some of it is also just Trump.
In August of last year, Pew Research published the results of a survey in which they asked people if they approved or disapproved of Trump and what they liked about him.
Most of those who disapproved of Trump said they didn’t like anything about him. Most of those who approved of him, though, were more likely to point to his approach to the job and his personality as the main thing they liked than they were to point to his policy positions or personal values.
They like that Trump fights. They like that he challenges the perceived bully. And, per Gallup, this correlates with an increased sense in the morality of the country as a whole.