Donald Trump continued his outreach campaign with the following message to his eight million Twitter followers:
Dr. Russell Moore is the theologian and ethicist who heads the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Presumably Trump was responding to Moore’s critiques of Trump. On Sunday, Moore complained about conservative silence in the face of Trump’s “reality television moral sewage.”
“What we have in the Donald Trump phenomenon is an embrace of the very kind of moral and cultural decadence that conservatives have been saying for a long time is the problem,” he said on CBS’ “Face The Nation.” In a weekend op-ed in The New York Times on the importance of racial reconciliation, he had some digs at racist supporters of Trump. He’s been expressing concern, as an evangelical, about the rise of Trump since early in the race.
So that’s the context for Trump’s tweet. Here’s why it failed.
(1) A Rare But Huge Miss for Trump’s Insult Game
Whether you like Trump’s insult game, you have to admit it works really well. He’ll say something outlandish and uncharitable — with varying degrees of truthfulness — and it’s so outrageous that the media repeat it and repeat it and repeat it ad nauseam. Failed Mitt Romney. Little Marco Rubio. Crooked Hillary Clinton. Sexist Bill Clinton. Dopey Lawrence O’Donnell. Failing Politico. I mean, Romney did lose the 2012 presidential election. Rubio is a bit on the wee side! And Hillary Clinton and “crooked” go together like Bill Clinton and “sexual harassment suits.”
The insults might not be charitable. Sometimes they might be deeply unfair. But they do have an air of truth. But point in fact Russell Moore is a wonderful representative of evangelicals and all the good they stand for. His outreach to journalists and other non-Christians (I kid, I kid) has been legendary, and his ability to explain orthodox Christianity to hostile crowds is a godsend. And, far from being nasty or having no heart, he is unfailingly kind and generous. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have their political and theological differences with Moore. But the idea that he’s not a good representative for evangelicals or is nasty is just so completely unfounded as to be laughable.
(2) It Alienates Evangelicals Instead of Extending an Olive Branch to Them
Trump brilliantly exploited every weakness in politics and media culture to secure the Republican nomination. He and his supporters inside and outside the media deserve a ton of credit for what they accomplished. And what they accomplished was winning the Republican nomination with a not-that-impressive plurality of the vote. In so doing, and thanks to running against a candidate who actually posed a threat to the establishment, entrenched lobbyist types and other D.C. top dogs signed on with Trump.
According to exit polls in various states, those not on the Trump Train include evangelicals who attend church most regularly. Other evangelicals seem to be fine with him. But for people who attend church the most regularly — and those would likely be the same evangelicals who know who Russell Moore is and who respect him — Trump’s antagonism was boneheaded.
“Among evangelicals, Trump has a net favorability rating of -38 percent, according to a recent survey by Barna Group,” Christianity Today reports. The Washington Post had a story this weekend headlined, “‘There’s nobody left’: Evangelicals feel abandoned by GOP after Trump’s ascent.”
Contrary to a popular myth, more evangelicals showed up to vote for Mitt Romney than John McCain, the two most recent Republican candidates for president. But the GOP candidate can hardly win by turning them — and their enthusiasm — away. What a missed opportunity to build bridges with the evangelical community still terrified by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Having said all that, Trump’s campaign strategy seems to be to reach out not to conservatives so much as liberals. He made news for reacting defensively to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s request for assurance he’d run as a principled conservative. The Washington Post has a story headlined “How Donald Trump is running to the left of Hillary Clinton” that details all of the overtures Trump has made to liberals recently. Whether it’s on foreign policy, the economy, or opening restrooms to people of the opposite sex, Trump is running far outside the Republican Party and in some cases to the left of the Democratic frontrunner.
At the same time, Clinton is courting Republican voters who don’t find Trump acceptable. She’s defending Carly Fiorina from Trump’s sexist attacks on her. She’s reaching out to Republican donors. It’s a simple rule of politics to avoid pushing voters away while someone else is asking for their support. Does he even want to win?
(3) Trump’s the Wrong Anti-Moore Messenger
Trump is a baptized and confirmed Christian. He says he attends a Presbyterian church at least twice a year. At the same time, he struggles when discussing his religious faith. He says he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, preferring instead to not do anything necessitating forgiveness. He referred to communion as “my little cracker.” He recently said “an eye for an eye” was his favorite passage in Scripture. He has spent decades bragging about committing adultery. He uses vulgar language and insults.
Moore, on the other hand, holds advanced degrees in theology. He has taught theology and led church organizations. He has explained evangelicalism — including its views most at odds with secular culture — in every mainstream newspaper and on every news show. He regularly engages with critics and foes on Twitter and elsewhere. “A terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!” is, unfortunately, a much better description of Trump’s current persona than Moore. But as Moore said yesterday in response to what Trump said, there is hope for us all, including Trump and me: