Why Trump’s Attacks on John Roberts Aren’t Working With Some Conservatives

LA PORTE, Ind. — Mitch Feikes is one of many conservatives who disagreed with some of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s recent decisions, including striking down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law and ruling against the White House in its effort to undo an Obama-era immigration program.

Which is what makes it somewhat surprising when Mr. Feikes, the chairman of the LaPorte County Republican Party in Indiana, says he isn’t moved by President Trump’s recent attacks on Chief Justice Roberts or his new attempt to campaign on the need for more conservative justices on the Supreme Court.

Focusing on the court helped Mr. Trump win the presidency in 2016, when the promise of a new right-of-center justice motivated Republicans of all stripes, including Mr. Feikes, to stick with their party despite concerns with the nominee. But now, if anyone is threatening the future of conservatism, Mr. Feikes said, it is not Chief Justice Roberts.

“I disagree with how Trump attacks people and acts really unpresidential,” acknowledged Mr. Feikes, speaking in his living room on a recent Monday morning. “And I understand there’s going to be a lot of Supreme Court vacancies coming up. But I don’t know if I can. …”

He paused for several moments, staring at his hands. “You know, I don’t think — I don’t know if he’ll get elected, re-elected, to make those nominations.” He declined to say whether he would vote for Mr. Trump in November.

The Trump campaign is now searching for a winning issue against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., as polls show the president struggling. At first glance, the tilt of the court offers a promising fight for Mr. Trump to wage on behalf of a Republican base that cares deeply about conservative judges. But there are signs that, even among conservatives, the issue’s potency is different.

“It’s harder to make the case this year than it was in 2016 that there is an existential threat to the courts,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist. “Part of the problem is that the president and Senate Republicans have been so vocal about what a good job they’ve done on judicial confirmations, that some voters may think the job is done.”

“Even if Roberts is frequently in the cross hairs these days,” Mr. Cooper added, “most observers probably believe right now that the court tilts right.”

The importance of the court and the role of Chief Justice Roberts have particular resonance in LaPorte County, a better place than most to assess the potential of the Trump campaign’s new justice-centered messaging. It is the county where the chief justice grew up, meaning for voters here, the Supreme Court is not so much a national abstraction as a local point of interest. (Indeed, it is not unusual for the County Council to adopt resolutions either hailing or denouncing Chief Justice Roberts’s rulings, according to the county attorney, Shaw Friedman.)

Moreover, LaPorte is among the Midwest counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then swung to Mr. Trump in 2016, the kind of blue-collar, white working-class community that is critical to the president’s path to re-election. On the whole, Mr. Trump is unlikely to have any trouble winning Indiana, the home state of his vice president, come November. Yet as a swing area in a conservative state, LaPorte offers a meaningful glimpse into the troubles Mr. Trump’s campaign is facing with not only those longtime Democrats who gambled on his candidacy in 2016, but also members of his own party.

Some Republicans in LaPorte say there is a growing sense within the local party that the Supreme Court trade-off — another seat on the bench for four more years of Mr. Trump — might no longer be worth it.

“I’m a lifelong Republican, but I’m really concerned with where the party seems to be heading,” said Leigh Morris, a former mayor of the City of La Porte and a former G.O.P. chairman in the county. “There is no national sense of direction. I really don’t think that concerns about the Supreme Court will motivate attitudes much this year.”

Mr. Morris, 85, said an “anti-Trump vote” in the county was growing. He criticized the president specifically for failing to lead amid the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 53,000 confirmed cases in Indiana.

“I was optimistic when he first took office,” Mr. Morris said. “He put together what I thought was a pretty strong team. But that’s gone away.”

Other voters disagreed that an explicitly anti-Trump vote was growing in LaPorte, but all said that enthusiasm for the president had significantly dwindled. And the possibility that even the chairman of the county G.O.P. might not vote for Mr. Trump has caused tension among the group’s members.

Coral Laun, the party’s vice chair in the county, said trying to rally support for Mr. Trump since the pandemic began had already been challenging enough. “If I were where he was,” Ms. Laun said of the president, “I would say: ‘Sir, would you please listen to me? I would like you to get a good night’s sleep and shut your phone off and stop with all of the tweeting, because you rile up so many people.’”

But the lack of motivation from her own leadership has made Ms. Laun’s efforts to draw new voters into the party all the more difficult. When Mr. Feikes told her that he didn’t support the president, Ms. Laun said, “that was like a stab in the heart.”

“For God’s sakes!” she recalled thinking. “You are the county chair!”

Put another way: Chief Justice Roberts — who Ms. Laun said seemed to take “liberal pills” at times but over all had “set a good example” as a jurist — was not currently among her top concerns. She said she was confident that Mr. Trump would win LaPorte County in November, but joked that she wouldn’t mind if he gave her a bit more to work with. “It’s kind of like when you have too much weight on your treadmill,” she explained. “And you’re having to go, ‘Oh, God,’ when you could just dial it back and have an easier walk. That’s how I feel — things could be a lot easier.”

For much of his tenure, Mr. Trump has been criticized by members of his party for veering off message — for not promoting what they believe to be the victories of his administration, like tax cuts and deregulation, but instead stewing over issues that inflame tensions rather than soothe them. With Chief Justice Roberts’s recent decisions, however, the president and his supporters see an opportunity to elevate the Supreme Court once more in a way that, at the very least, united much of the Republican Party in 2016.

In past elections, voters in LaPorte County have been especially receptive to court-centered campaigns. Chief Justice Roberts, 65, grew up in the small LaPorte town of Long Beach, his father a steel-mill executive in nearby Burns Harbor, and Republicans and Democrats alike regard him as a hometown hero of sorts.

That local connection can make for a double-edged sword: It also means that conservatives here are especially attuned to the chief justice’s opinions — and thus more likely than many to consider them, along with the Supreme Court more broadly, when voting. Yet interviews with nearly a dozen LaPorte Republicans suggest that at this point in the campaign, even as Mr. Trump’s antipathy toward the court appears to deepen, his push to revive it as a crucial election issue simply isn’t resonating as it once did.

“I think most people just don’t think about it anymore, to be honest,” Mr. Feikes said.

Of course, there are a couple of obvious reasons. For one, the virus continues to dominate daily life; in LaPorte County, steel workers have suffered multiple rounds of layoffs. And without an actual seat on the Supreme Court up for grabs, as in 2016, it appears harder for any campaign to establish a sense of urgency about the court’s future.

If not the Supreme Court, then, Mr. Trump’s saving grace in LaPorte and other counties like it could very well be Mr. Biden. Many Republicans who said they were unhappy with Mr. Trump were quick to note that they had not yet committed themselves to the former vice president. Mr. Morris, for one, said he feared Mr. Biden was “too old” and a “retread of the past.”

“But I’m listening carefully, watching carefully — I’m going to be most anxious to see who Mr. Biden selects as his vice president,” he went on. “I’m hoping he can put together a team that gives people the sense that we are moving in a positive direction.”

Even a prominent Democrat, Michael Bergerson, a judge on the LaPorte County Superior Court, acknowledged he was waiting on Mr. Biden’s announcement of a running mate before deciding how to vote. Judge Bergerson, who grew up next door to Chief Justice Roberts, said his dislike of Hillary Clinton had caused him to take a chance on Mr. Trump with a “hold-your-nose vote” in 2016. And while the past four years had revealed the extent of the president’s “lack of self-discipline and control,” Judge Bergerson said, he was still not sold on Mr. Biden.

“This country may well be run by two people that are in their late-to-mid-70s,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Which is to say that for many in LaPorte, the presidential election has begun to resemble something of a race to the bottom, with voters not so much weighing the particulars of one agenda against the other but instead trying to determine which candidate they dislike the least — or, in some cases, whether casting a ballot this year is even worth it.

“Everyone has been over-inundated with politics,” said John Carr, the president of the local carpenters union, many members of which are longtime Democrats who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. Mr. Carr said that in past presidential elections, most of his members were deeply engaged; it was not a question of whether they would show up to the polls, but whom they would vote for once they got there.

“But now,” Mr. Carr said, “we just want our members to vote, period.”

For many who do vote, the state of the Supreme Court seems less urgent than other issues in the pandemic era, even as public attention focuses at this moment on the health of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a member of the court’s liberal wing. If many Republicans and Democrats in LaPorte County were unsparing in their criticisms of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, their appraisals of Chief Justice Roberts were almost uniformly positive.

Even Spencer England, an Army veteran who identifies as the “Trump guy” in town — he has proudly not worn a mask once since the pandemic began, and recently organized a small pro-Trump demonstration to counter the area’s Black Lives Matter protest — said, “I mean, I don’t have an issue with most of his rulings.”

Like many conservatives in LaPorte, Mr. England was deeply versed in the letter of the chief justice’s recent decisions, and did feel that some had been unhelpful to Mr. Trump’s cause. But, he noted, it was important for people to respect the independence of the court. “A lot of people don’t understand the power that the president has,” he said. “It’s limited, for a good reason.”


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