Republican support for President Donald Trump is soft - particularly among social conservatives. They have always been uncomfortable with Trump, his divorces, his poor understanding of faith of any kind, his tenuous relationship to the truth and his pride. The party that once said “character counts” accepted Trump, however, once he had the nomination locked up.
Social conservatives comforted themselves with the thought that at least Trump would appoint conservative judges.
And he has. On Friday, he appointed Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Willett and Dallas attorney James Ho to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. This comes after Trump appointed conservative Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even many on the left say it was a gamble that’s paying off for social conservatives.
“Arguments that Trump was not really a conservative peppered that race,” writes the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey. “Here’s a golden oldie from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then a presidential candidate himself, in the summer of 2015: ‘Let no one be mistaken - Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded. ... He offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as Trumpism - a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.’ Perry, as you know, got over it. He is now a member of Trump’s Cabinet - the president’s energy secretary.”
The rhetoric was heated, as all rhetoric is during a hard-fought campaign. But Perry wasn’t far wrong. Trump is not and never has been a traditional conservative. He’s a populist, and those aren’t the same thing.
Sen. Ted Cruz was also critical of Trump during the campaign. But Cruz eventually endorsed Trump, on the basis of the promise to appoint good judges.
“We are only one justice away from losing our most basic rights, and the next president will appoint as many as four new justices,” Cruz said, speaking specifically of the U.S. Supreme Court, though the principle stands for the lower courts.
Ramsey points out that social conservatives made a reasonable bargain. Judges are important.
“Most presidents serve for only four or eight years,” Ramsey notes. “Judges, on the other hand, outlast the people who appoint them and most of the people who vote to confirm them, too. The Texas redistricting case, for instance, has been handled by three federal judges appointed by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.”
Willett and Ho could be around for a very long time; they’re both young. And Willett has been mentioned for the U.S. Supreme Court, so he could rise even higher than the Fifth Circuit.
“Some of the movement Republicans who signed off on Trump are getting what they hoped for and what they expected - a run of conservative judicial appointments amid the president’s regular barrage of tweets,” Ramsey writes. “Tweets don’t last long. The judges probably will.”
Social conservatives had few options as the 2016 primaries wound down. Most made their peace with Trump’s inevitability. But the appointment of solid judges shows it wasn’t a one-sided bargain.