WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has aggressively stoked America’s culture wars since taking office but three major Supreme Court rulings Monday suggested — in a season already marked by sweeping calls for police reforms and racial justice — that he’s on the losing side.
The defeats for Trump, especially those involving gays and immigration, showed the conservative-majority court backing a mainstream movement toward expanding equality in America, leaving the president in a shrinking minority of people digging in their heels for the status quo.
The court also declined to consider cases that might expand the rights of gun owners, another hot-button issue for voters in an election year.
The rulings hit an already reeling White House with a thud, further isolating the solipsistic president from a public that is embracing efforts to broaden America’s promise — especially for the LGBTQ community and for blacks.
“Donald Trump is becoming an island in his own country,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University in Houston. “His views on social justice, race, gender and equality are more and more antiquated.”
In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee, the court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination, dismissing the administration’s argument that the law could not be expanded because it wasn’t explicitly written to include gays.
The court also refused to hear the Trump administration’s challenge to a California “sanctuary” law, upholding the current prohibition on local law enforcement officials from helping federal agents take custody of migrants who are in the country illegally as they are released from jail.
Regardless of how the country has evolved in the last four years, Trump has been unwilling to risk alienating his base on gays, guns and immigration.
In recent weeks, he met only with supportive members of law enforcement, not with victims of police abuses. He has spread a false conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old man shoved by police in Buffalo, N.Y., had faked his head injuries, and publicly rejected plans by Pentagon officials to rename 10 Army bases still named in honor of Confederate generals.
For his supporters, Trump’s defiance remains an elemental part of his politics, embedded in the nostalgic slogan sewn into so many red hats: “Make America Great Again.”
The slogan, according to Democratic pollster Peter Hart, was “quite simply saying to people who were threatened by change and the world ahead: ‘I’m going to come in and we’re going to reestablish the world you felt more comfortable in.’”
But recent surveys show that Trump is further from an American mainstream on these issues in a fast-changing country.
“Whether it’s the Supreme Court or the court of public opinion, we’re moving forwards not backwards,” Hart said.
Over the last three tumultuous months, a deadly pandemic, a grinding economic recession and mass protests have cast the president’s self-focused, ad hoc, camera-seeking behavior in a different light. Polls show he is slipping further behind Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, nationally and in major swing states.
Biden called the Supreme Court decision solidifying legal protections for LGBTQ Americans “a momentous step forward for our country” and part of an ongoing pursuit of the ideals enshrined in the Constitution.
“The Supreme Court has confirmed the simple but profoundly American idea that every human being should be treated with respect and dignity,” he said in a statement.
Trump, caught between showing solidarity with his evangelical supporters and backing the wrong side of a lopsided public — and judicial — opinion, reacted to the court’s LGBTQ ruling with what appeared to be glum resignation.
“They’ve ruled. I’ve read the decision. And some people were surprised. But they’ve ruled and we live with their decision,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. We live with the decision of the Supreme Court. Very powerful. A very powerful decision, actually.”
Despite broad public support for gay relationships and single-sex marriage, the Trump administration challenged efforts by two plaintiffs to affirm that existing legal protections also applied to people discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
Although more than 4 in 5 Americans back universal background checks on gun purchases, Trump has shied away from pursuing such gun reforms even after numerous mass shootings, wary of testing the National Rifle Association and its claim that gun owners would abandon him.
And Trump has continued to dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sustained protests in hundreds of cities and towns since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis.
Polls show that 74% of Americans support the push for racial equality, and 69% believe Floyd’s death is evidence of a deeper problem within U.S. law enforcement.
The protests have caused the National Football League commission and one of its most prominent athletes to apologize for failing to acknowledge that player protests during the national anthem were valid efforts to draw attention to systemic racism and police brutality.
But Trump has continued to assert his opposition to players kneeling before games and refused to accept their explanation that the action is not, as he contends, about disrespecting the flag.
Even NASCAR, with its fan base rooted in the South, last week banned Confederate flags from its events, and its race on Sunday included a black driver whose car was emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter.”
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, called the racing circuit’s sudden shift on race “the most profound evidence of an immediate sea change on this issue.”
For Republicans, the president’s “law and order” playbook — heightening white fears about black criminality and protest movements — may prove ineffective this fall.
“It has always worked for them,” Belcher said. “I get why it’s hard for them to pull away from that because it’s worked so often, but this time seems different. You actually have white support for some pretty basic police reforms.”
Trump has been quiet and largely uninvolved as Republicans in Congress have engaged in discussions about police reform legislation in response to the protests, which were inflamed again over the weekend when another black man, Rayshard Brooks, was shot in the back and killed by a police officer in Atlanta.
“Really great leaders know how to read the public,” Brinkley said, pointing to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and President Richard Nixon’s acceptance of the environmental movement a few years later. “Against all odds in the middle of COVID-19, it’s a time of civil rights and civil liberties, a freedom summer.
“Trump is losing the narrative every day, but he is betting things will get so bad this summer people will abandon the movement because too many buildings are burning.”
So far, the backlash Trump is eager to ride hasn’t materialized. If anything, Monday’s Supreme Court setbacks may hurt the president’s case to his own supporters.
“This ruling will be very dispiriting to his base and especially those who have been Trump-skeptical,” said Andrew T. Walker, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written that he and other social conservatives have largely supported Trump in spite of qualms about the president’s behavior because he has consistently been on their side of religious liberty issues.
“For religious conservatives who are already pained about voting for him, to have this thrown in their face, it’s a real defanging of enthusiasm and belief in his capacity to choose solid judges.”
Carrie Severino, who runs the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative judicial advocacy group, blasted the court’s ruling on LGBTQ rights as “a brute force attack on our constitutional system” and singled out Gorsuch for scorn.
“Justice Scalia would be disappointed that his successor has bungled textualism so badly today, for the sake of appealing to college campuses and editorial boards,” she wrote in a string of tweets.
More worrisome for Trump, some blamed the president directly.
“All those evangelicals who sided with Trump in 2016 to protect them from the cultural currents, just found their excuse to stay home in 2020 thank to Trump’s Supreme Court picks,” said conservative blogger Erick Erickson in a tweet.
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