For as long as I can remember, being pro-life has been a hygiene issue for Republican office seekers, and in particular for those seeking the presidency. In one way or another, they had to affirm that they were some brand of “pro-life,” usually with some kind of compassionate exemptions in cases of rape and incest.
Dutifully, candidates for high office checked the box and affirmed their dedication to the cause. Readily, the professional pro-life activists rallied behind them, and the professional pro-life pundits made their case to the Christian Right. Theologians and pastors explained to their flocks that we had a moral duty not to vote for a candidate who supported abortion, and even a moral duty not to abstain from voting.
Never mind that George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney all belonged to a class of professional politicians dedicated to the same basic goals and principles of the Democratic Party–but with tax cuts! They had checked the pro-life box, and as good Christians, we had a sacred obligation to do our civic duty and vote for the candidate most likely to appoint constitutionalist justices to the Supreme Court. If we balked, we were sternly reminded of the babies who were depending on us.
I can’t be the only one who remembers this, right?
But like so many other things in the Current Year, Donald Trump has ripped the mask off this wing of Conservatism, Inc. as well. It turns out that when the pro-life candidate in the race disagrees with the nominee of the other major party on more than abortion and tax cuts, the old rules don’t apply.
One of the major services that Trump did for the public in this election cycle was to expose the charade of the ruling party and the phony opposition. By playing a game that only a privileged few are allowed to win, Trump upset the apple cart: he exposed our elections for the pro-wrestling matches that they are by throwing real punches. He began by raising issues that he wasn’t supposed to touch, and went on to call out the approved, establishment politicians for being the weak charlatans that they were.
None of this is supposed to happen, because everyone who is allowed to play this game knows the rules. The punches aren’t supposed to land when you’re all on the same side. But Trump wasn’t on their side. He strolled into the political arena and didn’t like the way the table was set, so he flipped over the table. Our professional political class has been scrambling ever since.
What does this have to do with abortion? By now you’ve probably seen Trump’s exchange on abortion with Hillary Clinton in the third debate. It couldn’t have made the difference between the two candidates more crystal clear: one forthrightly defended partial birth abortion, the other categorically affirmed his intention of appointing justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and denounced the practice of partial birth abortion in classically Trumpian terms as “terrible,” “not acceptable,” and something “nobody has business doing.” But the way that he said it was even more striking. It was like he didn’t know that polite Republicans are supposed to be apologetic when they talk about abortion. But he neither hemmed nor hawed: he just said it.
Yet today, the scolds who practiced emotional blackmail against Christian conservatives for every election in my political memory are still dead set against us voting for the only person with a shot at the White House who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. Why? As far as I can tell, from the most idiotic piece of the day, there are two reasons: one, because we don’t believe he’s really pro-life, and two, because even if Trump does appoint pro-life justices to the Court, “any anti-abortion measures will have to overcome the gravitational force of his sleaziness to get anywhere.”
A thousand think-pieces have been written explaining the “conservative” case against Trump, and I’m sure there will be a thousand more before Election Day. And yet I have yet to meet anyone whose antipathy to Trump doesn’t boil down to one of two things: either an abiding sense that their livelihood in the established political system is threatened by the Trumpian movement, or a disdain that verges on hatred for what they perceive to be Trump’s past flashy vulgarity (now turned political showmanship). The latter is the reason people will actually admit to.
Neither of these things is an argument against Trump: one is fear derived from the perception of threat, and the other is an emotional reaction based either in feigned virtue or sincere prissiness.
And yet, I can’t greet the assertion that “we could trust flip-flopping Mitt Romney on abortion but we can’t trust Donald Trump” with anything but gales of laughter. It all boils down to feelings rather than a clear-eyed assessment of the situation. That assessment seems as clear to me as it did in previous elections, which is why I voted for the Republican nominees of the past. But like millions of other conservatives, I just so happen to finally agree with this nominee on all the other issues I care about.
The sad truth is that the pro-life “movement” has become an industry, just like the rest of Conservatism, Inc. That industry would thrive far more under a Clinton presidency than a Trump administration. That’s why they call a liar the man who has released a list of judges from which he promises to draw his appointments. That’s why, strange as it seems, it is principally members of the pro-life cause who are doing all they can to ensure his defeat. As long as there are a minority of pro-life justices on the Supreme Court, the Republican Party has a cattle prod to turn out good-hearted Christian conservative volunteers and voters.
In some ways, keeping the Court from overturning Roe v. Wade is essential for keeping the GOP coalition together. In darker days, before the rise of Trump, I reflected upon all of the worthy, sincere conservative pro-life activists I had known, and realized that the sum total result of all the hours they spent in their lives campaigning for Republican politicians would be nothing more than George Soros receiving tax cuts. It’s in the interests of the GOP and Conservatism, Inc. to keep it that way.
But because Trump is the ultimate outsider (currently fighting an election against both parties, the media, Wall Street, etc.), he doesn’t care about GOP coalitions or milking church-going donors for all they’re worth. Here it is just as it is on the issues of immigration and trade—because he owes nothing to the elites—that we might expect him to do what he says he’s going to do for the people.
That’s why they think he’s dangerous. And he is: To them.