life after roe

Trump Isn’t Moderating on Abortion, He’s Just Shifting Tactics

A March for Life rally in the 1980s, when anti-abortion activists embraced incremental steps to chip away at reproductive rights. Photo: Mark Reinstein/Getty Images

It’s not so surprising that Donald Trump has broken with the anti-abortion zealots who are trying to impose profoundly unpopular abortion litmus tests on his party and its 2024 ticket. As my colleague Jonathan Chait reminded us recently, Trump has never had a problem jettisoning positions associated with conservative orthodoxy — notably on “entitlement reform” and free trade — when they become politically inconvenient. But it has been startling to see how far Trump has gone in rebuking anti-abortion ultras on the brink of a GOP primary battle.

His attack on the six-week abortion ban Ron DeSantis signed in Florida as a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake” has surely looked like Manna from heaven to DeSantis, Tim Scott, and Mike Pence, who have all been pandering to hard-core Christian conservatives in Iowa and can now credibly argue that Trump has strayed far off the paths of save-the-babies righteousness (there’s now little doubt that Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, who signed a ban just like Florida’s, and Christian right kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats will endorse someone opposing Trump, probably DeSantis). Looking at the risk Trump is taking, Chait suggests he may have decided the primary contest is over and it’s time to begin positioning himself for the general election to come, in which the GOP’s abortion extremism is expected to be a major Democratic messaging point.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat adds a nuance to this explanation that may get closer to the whole truth:

You can see these forays as proof that Trump thinks he’s got the nomination in the bag, that the pro-life movement especially has no choice but to support him and that he can start presenting himself as a general-election candidate early.

But I suspect it’s a little more complicated than that, and that Trump’s willingness to show ideological flexibility — or, to be a bit harsher, to pander emptily to any audience he faces — has its uses in the primary campaign as well. Because what it showcases, even to primary voters who disagree with him, is an eagerness to win even at the expense of ideological consistency, an eagerness that much of American conservatism lacks.

In other words, Team Trump thinks anti-abortion voters even in Republican primaries, and in heavily Evangelical Iowa, know the litmus tests their leaders are demanding are unrealistic and counterproductive. Sooner rather than later, many of them may become resigned to Trump’s approach, which focuses not on highly unpopular total abortion bans but on the alleged extremism of Democrats on abortion and the need for a “compromise” that can accomplish more for the Cause than futile national ban proposals.

Essentially, Trump’s “new” position is not much different from that of Nikki Haley, who earlier this year managed to hijack a podium at the headquarters of the intensely hard-core Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America organization to call for the kind of “consensus-building” talks on abortion policy that Trump is now embracing. Anti-abortion activists grumbled about Haley’s argument for rebuilding Republican strength before going for the gold, but they didn’t attack her. And similarly, they haven’t gone medieval on Trump after his latest remarks. Perhaps they are afraid of Trump, or afraid of his strong bonds with their own rank-and-file supporters. But quite possibly, they know which way the wind is blowing.

Anti-abortion “incrementalism” was more or less dominant among enemies of reproductive rights prior to the reversal of Roe v. Wade. The prevailing tactic for years was to focus on rare late-term abortions instead of broader abortion measures (in part because post-viability abortions represented the soft underbelly of Roe from a legal point of view, and in part in order to depict pro-choice Americans as extremists and even monsters willing to support virtual infanticide), and on indirect measures to make abortion less available (particularly through bogus medical requirements for clinics). The reversal of Roe allowed the never-abandoned desire to force virtually every pregnancy to birth to flourish in red-state laws and bold new litmus tests. But what we can learn from Haley and Trump’s repositioning is that public opinion — which is running strongly in favor of the preservation and restoration of basic abortion rights — may be serving the same inhibiting effect on loud-and-proud anti-abortion extremism as the federal courts used to provide. A new degree of pragmatism may also be reflected by the caution being exhibited by some of the large but less noisy anti-abortion groups like the National Right to Life Committee, which has declined to promote a national ban.

If Ron DeSantis or Tim Scott succeeds in turning Trump’s “abandonment” of abortion extremism into an Iowa caucuses upset that changes the trajectory of the 2024 presidential contest, it will be a clear sign anti-abortion voters aren’t ready to consolidate their gains and resume the more cautious strategy they typically followed for decades despite their underlying absolutist ideology. But it’s more likely that in the passionate pursuit of a 2024 Republican victory that is the condition precedent for more draconian laws at both the federal and state levels, incrementalism will again become respectable in anti-abortion circles, where Trump remains their past and perhaps future savior.

More on life after roe

See All
Trump Isn’t Moderating on Abortion, He’s Shifting Tactics