In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Donald Trump leaned heavily on his own version of the “silent majority,” hoping that a mythical demographic, which handed Richard Nixon two presidential victories, would carry him across the finish line. That prediction did not pan out in 2020—or in this year’s midterms. And after suffering three disappointing election cycles, Trump now appears to be faced with a silent majority of conservatives who are turning increasingly against him: evangelical voters.
“There’s a lot of people who share a lot of our similar thoughts but don’t want to go on record,” Bob Vander Plaats, one of America’s top evangelical thought leaders, who hesitantly backed Trump in 2016, tells me. “You can see that it’s almost a silent majority right now,” he says. Everett Piper, a Washington Times columnist and the former president of an evangelical university, published a post-midterm polemic last month arguing that Trump is “hurting…not helping” American evangelicals. “The take-home of this past week is simple: Donald Trump has to go,” Piper added. “If he’s our nominee in 2024, we will get destroyed.” Earlier this month, televangelist James Robison, who served as a spiritual adviser to Trump, likened the former president to a “little elementary schoolchild” while addressing the National Association of Christian Lawmakers. Another major evangelical leader, who requested anonymity, tells me there’s “no doubt” that if Trump wins the primary, Republicans will “get crushed in the general.”
But even as some evangelical leaders seek a divorce, Trump’s influence on the Republican Party has held strong. He’s centered many of the culture wars that evangelical voters have been harping on for decades. And, increasingly, the party’s agenda has become nearly interchangeable with the attitudes of evangelical voters.
Take, for example, the dramatic rise of Florida governor Ron DeSantis: Despite not having officially entered the 2024 race, he has emerged as the GOP front-runner, in part, by courting the religious right with combative rhetoric, hawkish moral policies, and a knack for making cultural enemies. This summer, the Florida governor was invited to attend the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference, where thousands of evangelical voters gathered to listen to several 2024 contenders, and was recently endorsed by Tom Ascol, a prominent evangelical pastor. Perhaps his biggest play with evangelicals came just before the November midterms, when the Florida governor released an ad portraying himself as an Old Testament warrior. “On the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector,’” the narrator of the spot, who mentioned “God” 10 times in 96 seconds, told viewers. “So God made a fighter.”
It’s a big shift from the days of yore, when “establishment” GOP candidates—like the late John McCain and Mitt Romney—roundly defeated their white evangelical counterparts. Evangelical candidates have now completely overtaken establishment options in the pending Republican field. “It used to be there was just one conservative candidate, a.k.a. Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and then a bunch of establishment candidates like Mitt Romney,” Vander Plaats explained, noting the rightward shift the GOP has undergone since Trump’s 2016 victory. “But today, it looks like they’re all lined up with who we are. And that’s a good sign for us.”
Asked which shadow candidates he’d happily support, Vander Plaats floated Mike Pence, senators Tim Scott and Ted Cruz, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, former governor Nikki Haley, and, most notably, DeSantis, who is leading Trump by double digits in two recent 2024 polls of Republican voters. When it comes to white evangelicals specifically, The New York Times reports that a slim majority would prefer that the party ditch Trump.
Ironically, the attitude shift that Trump oversaw atop the party’s throne could be what contributes to his demise, explained Scott Waller, a political science professor at Biola, an evangelical university just south of Los Angeles. Evangelical voters, like the rest of the GOP base, Waller explained, may be inclined to DeSantis because he has Trump’s pugnacious instincts––something they long wanted in a president prior to Trump––but none of his baggage. “I think many conservative voters believe that he not only exhibits Trump’s policies but has the pugilistic fighting spirit that conservatives have been looking for.”
The drift away from Trump has not been exclusive to the religious right. Across the entire Republican spectrum––from party officials and columnists to activists and voters––the former president’s political purchase has been in sharp decline. But the evangelical shift is particularly notable, especially when it was evangelical churches that mobilized congregants into his strongest voting bloc. As many as 81% of self-identifying white evangelical voters, a record high for any presidential candidate, voted for Trump in the 2016 general election, according to the University of Chicago Divinity School’s publication.