Donald Trump Doesn't Need The Pro-Life Movement Any More
A gamble that is likely to work
Abortion was the single biggest issue that led to Donald Trump winning the 2016 election. It may be the single biggest issue that leads him to lose in 2024.
The death of Antonin Scalia in Texas in February of 2016 set the presidential election in stark relief. Effectively, voters were asked not just to name the next president, but to decide simultaneously the immediate future of the Supreme Court. Elect Hillary Clinton and you get a Court that will enshrine abortion for eternity; elect Trump and the possibility that Roe v. Wade could be reversed in the decade to come stays alive.
This is one of the reasons that Trump, a lifelong limousine liberal on issues like abortion, went so hard into the paint on the topic. He went hard at Hillary in the debates on the topic, repeatedly stressed his pro-life endorsements, spoke to the March for Life, brought his pro-life supporters into the Oval Office and ultimately delivered the Supreme Court majority that he promised in Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Be careful what you wish for. Ever since the Dobbs ruling that sent the abortion issue back to the states, no Republican has worked harder to distance themselves from that decision than Donald Trump. Those close to him say that he believed the ruling was a huge political liability, that he personally favors a week standard along the twenty-week mark — effectively, a Roe-adjacent policy — and that Republicans need to distance themselves from the same pro-life movement he once embraced.
Now, in an interview with the new host of Meet the Press, Trump is openly speculating about a grand compromise that will bring the pro-abortion and anti-abortion sides together in some utterly fictional repurposing of the Art of the Deal.
“I think they’re all going to like me,” he said in an interview with NBC’s Kristen Welker. “I think both sides are going to like me.”
Except this isn’t the way the politics of abortion works. Trump knows this, which is why the framework of his supposed deal is as ethereal as his plan to end the Ukraine conflict in twenty-four hours. He claims not to care whether the policy is federal or state. He won’t stick to a number of weeks or months, instead just decrying the heartbeat bill signed by Ron DeSantis. Which is, by the way, the same policy adopted in Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Dakota, Texas and Iowa — a list that encompasses the states of nearly all of Trump’s rivals for the nomination.
The truth is that Trump has now placed himself as the furthest left Republican candidate on the abortion issue, favoring a nationwide standard that is well to the left of the mainstream opinion in his party. In doing so, he undermines everything that pro-lifers have been working towards for years, even in the wake of re-electing the governors who signed these heartbeat measures into law.
He’s also gambling that he can hold on to a faction of Republicans who are now his base. As Byron York notes:
There were some clear differences between South Carolina Republicans who support Trump and South Carolina Republicans who support another GOP candidate. Trump Republicans are more strongly anti-abortion: 73 percent said they believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, versus 44 percent of non-Trump Republicans who feel the same way.
The dangerous game Trump is playing is that by assuming an abject and spineless posture, he’ll entice more suburban women voters back to his side without losing the pro-life voters who supported him last time around. Surrounded by people who don’t care about the abortion issue except to the extent it is politically useful, he is displaying the instinct of a fearful animal, unwilling to fight the left on rough ground. What judicial nominations can be expected of a Trump presidency if he views the Federalist Society as a suspect ally? Would he be on the side of Tommy Tuberville’s stand versus abortion funding in the military, or calling him out for risking America’s defenses? What will he do to please his fellow limousine liberals if the poll numbers look bad for a choice for SCOTUS? He has his legacy to think about this time, after all.
The pro-life movement maximized the outcome of the Trump presidency in its first go-round. But this time around, he’s signaling that he’s given up on them — he assumes their loyalty for his past decisions, regardless of what he does next. For the many American voters for whom abortion is the single most important issue for their involvement in politics, his honesty is appreciated. The left won’t accept him, and now the pro-life cause has every reason to doubt him. He intends to run from the fight before it is even joined like a coward, who as Shakespeare reminds us, dies a thousand times before his death.
Why We’re All Populists Now
All of us grew up in the world that social democracy created, so it’s hard to grasp that it has not always been with us. But that’s not so. As late as the 1890s, social democratic parties were either weak or non-existent in most of the (admittedly small) democratic world.
That changed quickly as industrialization gained steam. Germany’s Social Democratic Party, the first such party in the world, took sixteen years to reach 10 percent of the vote in the 1887 election. By 1903 it had skyrocketed to first place with 31.7 percent. Similarly rapid rises were found in every other nation with a Labour or Social Democratic party during the early twentieth century.
By 1929, labor-backed parties were powerful everywhere they existed. Five Western nations had labor-led governments by then, and many more would join them by 1940. The nineteenth-century debates between liberals seeking constitutional democracies and conservatives resisting their rise had been utterly transformed into the battle between capital and labor that typified twentieth-century politics.
It’s easy in hindsight to see why this hap- pened. Industrialization upset centuries of tradition as millions of people left farms and towns to work in city-based factories. These people came to see themselves as united by class interest, one that sought to limit the private power held by factory owners and traditional moral authorities such as priests and aristocrats. Armed with the vote, they forced their views to the political forefront and set the terms of debate.
Their rise was fueled by the failure of their foes. Non-socialist parties promised peace and prosperity. Instead, the world experienced war and woe. After the World Wars and the Great Depression, voters everywhere wanted calm. They largely granted social democrats the policies that had driven their ancestors to mad opposition in exchange for continued liberal political freedoms and some semblance of private property and markets. The post-1945 social democratic victory was so thorough that even leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could only claw back some of the ground their ancestors had conceded.
This account would be of mere antiquarian interest were it not for the fact that history seems to be repeating itself. Like the early social democrats, modern populist parties either did not exist in 1999 or obtained well under 10 percent of the vote virtually everywhere. Today, right-leaning populist parties regularly receive 20 percent or more of the vote in many countries.
Anxiety Rips Through the Democratic Party
A growing number of polls are showing voters concerned about President Biden’s age and energy. Democratic lawmakers have hesitated to offer full-throated endorsements of his running mate. Prominent commentators have ruminated on whether he should drop out of the presidential race.
This series of political vulnerabilities — along with House Republicans announcing an impeachment inquiry and the Justice Department indicting Biden’s son on gun charges — is now sending waves of anxiety through parts of the Democratic Party, as some fret about whether the man who helped oust Donald Trump from the White House may not have the vitality, at 80, to successfully prevent a return.
“He is in a period of his life where passing and death is imminent,” said Sharon Sweda, the leader of the Democratic Party in Lorain County in Ohio, who said she often hears from voters worried about the president’s potential frailty. “We are all on a ticking clock. But when you’re at his age or at Trump’s age, that clock is ticking a little faster, and that’s a concern for voters.”
Many in the party continue to voice confidence in Biden, and they note that Trump himself is not much younger at 77. But Biden’s allies are frustrated by the hand-wringing from an anxious faction of the party, and even as campaign officials point to the president’s record of defying skeptics, they are strategizing internally about how to best combat the unmistakable nervousness.
Such “Washington whispers” have become far too common among “bed-wetting” Democrats, said Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and recently put together a 24-slide deck aiming to calm the jitters, which he sent to prominent Democratic officeholders.
“I’m not saying that this is going to be easy and he’s fine,” Messina said in an interview. “Look, America is split right down the middle. Both parties are going to get 46 percent, and we’re fighting over the rest.”
But he said Biden is in a much stronger position than Trump and encouraged Democrats to stop their public and private agonizing. He said one senator texted him immediately after receiving his presentation, which included details on Biden’s string of early endorsements by key groups, the impact of cooling inflation and the popularity of many of the president’s achievements.
“I’m going to stop bed-wetting now,” the senator wrote.
But interviews with more than 30 lawmakers, strategists, activists and other Democrats show that the uncertainty persists.
World Events Are Not Going America’s Way
Most importantly, a now-superpower China that sees itself locked in a profound confrontation with America continues its enormous military buildup, appearing set on a confrontational posture toward America and to be doing almost everything consistent with preparing for war with the United States. It is true that the US has stepped up its engagement with Asian countries, but the limited scale of these efforts is manifestly inadequate to address the scale of the peril posed by China. As a result, the nonpartisan RAND Corporation recently judged that the military balance in Asia “leaves open the possibility of a rapid victory by China” against a US defense of Taiwan, assessing that “neither today’s [US] force nor forces currently programmed appear to have the capabilities needed to confidently execute” a successful defense.
Whether this is really a grave problem comes down to whether China is seriously contemplating a war with America. If Beijing’s military buildup were all for show, Washington’s progress with allies, its economic measures to “de-risk” from China and its efforts to tone things down with Beijing would have time and space to play out. In such a world, half-measures might do.
But an increasingly wide range of indicators suggests that China’s preparations are not just for show. Beijing is actively exercising its forces to redress remaining deficiencies in the PLA’s abilities; building up its nuclear arsenal; attempting to sanction-proof its economy; deepening ties with countries like Russia, North Korea and Iran that could help it in a conflict and strengthening political control at home. Indeed, Xi Jinping regularly admonishes his forces to be ready for an “actual war.” No one knows if or when Beijing might strike, but it certainly seems like it’s genuinely preparing to do so. If it looks, walks and sounds like a duck, maybe it’s a duck?
Items of Interest
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