life after roe

Trump Picks a Fight With the Anti-Abortion Movement

Trump as the anti-abortion president who delivered the goods. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

There is no close relationship in U.S. politics that is as purely transactional as that between the anti-abortion movement and Donald Trump. Nobody in the former camp ever really thought of Trump (who was unambiguously pro-choice back in the day) as a true believer in either its cause or that cause’s conservative religious underpinnings. And Trump always made (and kept) his promises to the anti-abortion movement as a sort of cash-on-the-barrel proposition, notably in 2016 when he broke all precedent by bluntly promising a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade at the very moment he needed to consolidate conservative support for his presidential campaign.

Both sides of this cynical bargain have kept it, culminating, of course, in the June 2022 Supreme Court decision in which three of the justices he appointed backed the reversal of Roe and the abolition of federal constitutional abortion rights. But now that Trump is a former president seeking a comeback, all bets are off, it seems. His temporary if fateful alliance with the anti-abortion movement has given way to his overriding need to deflect blame for Republican underperformance in the 2022 midterms, as his Truth Social post over the New Year’s weekend made clear:

It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations in the MidTerms. I was 233-20! It was the “abortion issue,” poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters. Also, the people that pushed so hard, for decades, against abortion, got their wish from the U.S. Supreme Court, & just plain disappeared, not to be seen again. Plus, Mitch stupid $’s!

As veteran conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru (himself a long-standing anti-abortion stalwart) noted in National Review, this is “a pile of nonsense atop a kernel of truth”:

Some Republican candidates took the positions on abortion Trump is describing … [Tudor] Dixon, [Tim] Michels, [Doug] Mastriano, [Herschel] Walker, and [Blake] Masters all lost.

All of these candidates had Trump’s backing, however, which undercuts his ability to run away from the defeats of 2022 …

The overall pattern of results suggests that voters punished Republicans more for their close ties to Trump, and especially to his claim to have won the 2020 election, than for their opposition to abortion. Republican governors who signed bans or partial bans on abortion cruised to reelection in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas.

Additionally, while refusal to make rape or incest exceptions to proposed (and in many states, very real) abortion bans is a sign of abortion extremism, the underlying position on the legality of a majority of abortions is pretty clearly more important to voters. That’s made clear by the earlier comments of anti-abortion leaders (which may have triggered Trump’s blame game) suggesting that support for a national abortion ban (with or without rape or incest exceptions) will become their litmus test for 2024 Republican presidential candidates. This signal almost certainly struck Trump as an act of disloyalty, for which he is now retaliating.

Unfortunately for Trump, so long as his 2024 candidacy is in peril, he may need the anti-abortion movement more than the movement needs him. There will in all likelihood be other candidates (definitely former Trump veep Mike Pence, perhaps arch-rival Ron DeSantis) willing to toe the line. The reaction to Trump’s little temper tantrum, per NBC News, from the most aggressive anti-abortion organization was telling:

His assertion sparked pushback from the anti-abortion rights group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which said in a statement that the winning approach is to “state clearly the ambitious consensus pro-life position and contrast that with the extreme view of Democrat opponents … There was ALSO a profound midterm lesson for future federal candidates: those who adopted the Ostrich Strategy on abortion lose….”

Mike Pence, quoted the SBA statement and tweeted, “Well Said @sbaprolife!” 

To be clear, if Trump overcomes all the doubters and assumes a commanding position in the presidential contest, he can and probably will negotiate a fresh deal with this and other crucial conservative interest and advocacy groups, who will just as cynically be willing to reconsider their options when we get closer to the 2024 general election. For the moment, though, the Trump relationship with the forced-birth crowd is on the rocks, despite all they owe each other.

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Trump Picks a Fight With the Anti-Abortion Movement