Falwell — the son of the man who helped turn White evangelical Christians into a potent political force, and one of Trump’s most fervent advocates on the Christian right — has now resigned as the president of Liberty University after a social media post showing him with his pants half unzipped and his arm around a young woman went viral.
Falwell says they were all just kidding around. But now, the salacious “pool boy” story — in which Falwell and his wife, for no discernible reason, gave an enormous amount of money to a 20-something pool boy for the purchase of a youth hostel — has gotten even more lurid. The young man, Giancarlo Granda, now says he “was involved in a long-term sexual relationship with Falwell’s wife, Becki,” in which Falwell “sometimes participated by looking on,” as Politico put it.
When this story first emerged a year and a half ago, it turned out that Trump and Falwell had some complicated connections. Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen had helped the Falwells put the lid on some “racy photos” they were worried could become public, and Cohen used an IT expert from Liberty University to rig online polls for Trump in 2015. Just a bunch of upstanding citizens helping each other out.
So is this an embarrassment to Trump, that one of his closest allies on the religious right is being so publicly shamed? Don’t bet on it. The truth is, while White evangelical leaders may still gather around to lay hands on Trump, he doesn’t really need them. He has their followers in a grip that won’t ever be loosened.
I spoke Tuesday to Sarah Posner, the author of “Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump,” who told me that when Falwell endorsed Trump in 2016 — an endorsement that came when Trump was working to win socially conservative voters in the GOP primaries — it wasn’t as important as many in the media believed.
Though Falwell was the first high-profile religious right leader to endorse Trump, the hesitancy of the leadership over Trump’s encompassing moral depravity was not shared by the grass roots. “The base didn’t like Trump because Jerry Falwell endorsed him. They already liked Trump,” Posner told me. The leaders were just following the followers.
And while that relationship is sometimes described as a bargain, in which the evangelicals put aside their moral beliefs in order to obtain tangible benefits, that’s not really what it is. Their support of Trump isn’t grudging; it couldn’t be more enthusiastic. They see Trump as their champion.
Whether Trump cheated on all of his many wives is irrelevant. What matters is that he hates who they hate and will fight crudely and viciously on their behalf. As Posner writes in her book, they “have chosen to see him not as a sinner but as a strongman, not as a con man but as a king who is courageously unshackling them from what they portray as liberal oppression.”
And they could not be happier with what he has given them. They’ve gotten far-right judges committed to undermining abortion rights and expanding “religious liberty” if it benefits conservative Christians. The Trump administration is well stocked with religious right activists. Trump has given them both substance and symbolism; for example, while other Republican presidents would send a taped message to the March for Life, the annual antiabortion demonstration in Washington, Trump went there in person.
While Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes tried on occasion to be subtle about their close ties to the religious right, Trump is unashamed. Just as in so many areas, he favors the bullhorn over the dog whistle. As Posner says, he “has made them central to the ceremonial, public-facing aspects of his administration, but also policy.”
Another interesting aspect of the relationship is that while Trump is not himself religious, he’s only too happy to bring groups of evangelical pastors to the Oval Office. “They’re the people he wants to have around him,” Posner told me, “because they tell him how great he is, how God’s hand is on him, and how he was chosen by God to save the country.” What more would Trump want to hear?
At the first night of the Republican convention, there were plenty of mentions of God, as well as descriptions of Trump as a near-deity himself. Tuesday night’s convention will feature a speech from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, delivered from Jerusalem. Given this and the fact that Pompeo is an evangelical who has said, “I am confident that the Lord is at work” in Trump administration foreign policy, it could be the most explicit statement of the convention that Trump is God’s instrument.
But as Posner argues, White evangelicals probably aren’t watching to confirm that they’re getting the proper attention from the president and the GOP. They don’t need to be convinced that their contributions are appreciated or that Trump truly cares about them. They already know, and the relationship couldn’t be any stronger — no matter what happens to Falwell or any of a dozen Trump-supporting evangelical leaders.