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Social Conservatives Aren't Retreating — They're Regrouping

Ted Cruz's loss won't change the minds of these supporters anytime soon

Obituaries for the Ted Cruz campaign have been predictably gleeful. Mostly because people hate him, but also because some have interpreted it as a bank-shot win for LGBT rights, a repudiation of Cruz's hate-filled trans-baiting, and proof that Republicans can, however tepidly, endorse basic human dignity and still win.

At a macro level, there is a glimmer of hope in Cruz's inability to convert the anti-trans hysteria behind North Carolina's bathroom bill, HB2, into a voter mandate, and the GOP's apparent acceptance of Trump's nonchalance on the issue. Indiana Republicans, specifically, were still feeling the sting of national censure over last year's "religious liberty" bill when Cruz went hard on "men dressed up as women." In selecting Trump, a local analyst wrote, those Republicans "retreated from the culture wars."

And in the culture at large, perhaps the war is won: A CNN poll shows that Americans in general oppose laws regulating bathroom choice, by 57 percent to 38. The Obama administration has weighed in. Even so, Trump's Indiana landslide over Cruz was less an explicit victory for LGBT acceptance than a sign of social conservatives' negotiated surrender.

For one thing, while Cruz winning Indiana would have been a vindication of bigotry as a campaign promise, Trump's securing the nomination doesn’t necessarily represent any actual gains for trans people. Trump's own sort-of endorsement of trans inclusion prior to Indiana was itself in response to a question about Caitlyn Jenner, and Trump probably thinks of "celebrity" as an identity at least as important as gender. (It's hard to say whether Jenner would disagree on this, given that she initially endorsed Cruz.) Besides, even if Trump were a true believer in the cause, his toxicity within his own party negates his ability to be an actual advocate for LGBT rights. Trump, after all, is in favor of a host of other policies that run counter to GOP orthodoxy; his success hasn't seemed to move the party to change itself. If anything, Trump's heresies have offered cover to traditional Republicans when they say they can't support him.

More important is that while Trump may have won an astonishing percentage of the self-identified evangelical vote, he lost the more deeply religious evangelicals for whom the culture wars still matter. Numerous polls show that all Trump really did was peel off those who are more "cultural” evangelicals than "practicing" or "observant" ones. Cruz, on the other hand, picked up churchgoing, fundamentalist evangelicals deeply embedded in their faith -- those more likely to tell pollsters that "Satan exists" and "the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches." Trump's evangelicals may respond to the promise to bring back "Merry Christmas," but Cruz's evangelicals are actively anticipating the return of Christ.

Cruz's departure from the race doesn't mean that these sorts of socially conservative evangelicals are any less powerful, just that they've lost a potential vessel for that power at the federal level. Social conservatives such as Cruz supporter Glenn Beck have declared a focus on down-ballot races in the short term, and the "Never Trump" Our Principles PAC says its new goal is to use pressure from tea-party congress members to "keep the Republican Party conservative." Cruz's delegates are reportedly organizing to make sure that the party's official platform doesn't moderate during the convention, no matter what Trump promises or says. In the longer term, conservative anti-Trump folks hope for the emergence of a "conservative counterculture" untouched by his perceived capitulation to modern morals.

Cruz's loss will not change the minds of these supporters about same-sex marriage or public facilities access anytime soon. For them, Trump's victory is not a rebuke but a sad reminder of the distance between their tribe and the fallen secular world. At Cruz’s concession speech in Indiana, one man in the crowd sanguinely told me that he did not think Trump getting the nomination necessarily signaled darker times for America since, after all, "we're already so far gone."

Indeed, when Cruz told Indiana voters they stood between America and "the abyss," the strangest thing about it was his apparent belief that the abyss has not yet claimed us. Many fundamentalist evangelicals gave America up as lost years ago. They don't see their role as lifeguards who might pull a foundering country to safety, but rather as observers who want to make sure they don't get caught in the undertow themselves. Though progressives rightly perceive legislation like North Carolina's HB2 as unwarranted government intrusions into the personal domain, evangelicals believe they're the ones on the defensive. They want to monitor their bathrooms, they want to be able to refuse business in their establishments, they don't want their names on those people’s marriage certificates. This self-interest extends to concerns of the soul: In the Christian media, pastors and pundits have been bemoaning American evangelists' disinterest in evangelizing (carrying the message to others) for a decade. You may be grateful that proselytizing airplane seat neighbors have become an anachronism, but that lack of outreach also suggests that they've given up on the rest of us. After all, we're already so far gone.

Like Cruz, these voters will not be rethinking their positions. They will hew even more tightly to them. They are likely to withdraw further into their own ranks and, if anything, become more extreme, more convinced of their own righteousness. Their pining for a "conservative counterculture" suggests their true goal: Social conservatives believe that all that is wrong with America can be traced to the seeds planted by the progressive counterculture. In Trump's nomination, they don't necessarily see the end of fundamentalist evangelicals' influence, but the event that will eventually produce their own Bill Clinton, their own Barack Obama.

Unlike Cruz, I doubt they will even halfheartedly support Trump in the fall. Trump is merely running for president of the United States, after all -- these people are more concerned with the Kingdom of God.

The last rally of Ted Cruz's presidential campaign took place in the waiting area of what used to be Indianapolis's main train station, now a refurbished conference center. The bar was functional and well attended, even if one optimistically purchased case of champagne sat unopened at the night's end. The ticket windows, on the other hand, were purely decorative: boarded up and unblinking, mute reminders to those present that they had nowhere else to go.