Back in 2022, when the Republican bloc of the Supreme Court retired the constitutional right to abortion that had been American law since Jan. 22, 1973, more than a few observers compared the Republican Party to the dog that had finally caught the station wagon. What would Republicans do now that they had been unleashed to pursue their unpopular antiabortion agenda across the land?
In the end, the car metaphor turned out to be a vehicular mistake. The GOP is more like a dog that caught a Greyhound bus. And it’s not going to digest that rolling hunk of metal anytime soon.
A nongoverning political party that agrees on little other than its own will to power and an undying lust to own the libs will not soon reach a compromise on a difficult issue such as abortion. Indeed, after a half century of GOP abortion politics, it’s humiliating that the party was completely unprepared for a victory that — let’s face it — many Republican strategists were hoping never to see.
Surveying the field at the recent GOP presidential debate, CNN reported: “The five candidates on stage for NBC’s debate in Miami came up with at least five different positions about the extent to which abortion should be allowed and over whether the federal government or the states should adjudicate the issue. The mess of approaches underscored how Republicans — who for years used the stark clarity of the antiabortion drive to galvanize their voters — now lack a single compelling position to combat political messaging from Democrats and pro-abortion-rights groups.”
Ban it after six weeks. No, after 15. No, leave it to the states. No, enact a nationwide ban once and for all. Trouble is, as Josh Marshall pointed out at Talking Points Memo, the variously timed bans on a previously legal right “just amount to the bank robber offering to hand back half of the cash stolen in the heist.” It turns out that Americans don’t like their rights summarily revoked, even if they get to keep them for a few weeks before they’re snatched away.
Democratic victories in elections earlier this month, which were significantly driven by demand for abortion rights, heightened the GOP contradictions. There is just no logical way to satisfy a party whose base is passionately opposed to abortion but equally determined to do anything — including, for many, jettisoning its position on abortion — to gain power. But there might be a political way to square that lumpy circle.
Its name is Donald Trump.
In the topsy-turvy world of conservative America, only this amoral figure can deliver the moral victory that the antiabortion movement craves. Only a fanatical liar has the credibility to see it through.
In the absence of Trump, intramural abortion politics would likely go the way of most politics in the GOP. Anyone seeking compromise will be sandbagged by what my colleague Jonathan Bernstein calls the “true conservative” cycle. Republicans from far-right districts will demand fealty to the most far-right “true conservative” position no matter how destructive, stupid or untenable — because it’s more important to be a “true conservative” howling in rage than a RINO compromised by the need to govern. Of course, after many seasons of happy hunting, there are few actual RINOs left, so the “true conservative” rhetoric is aimed now at any fellow conservative who fails the latest ultra-purity test.
Trump is the only one who can lie his way through the GOP’s abortion test without lighting a fuse under the “true conservative” powder keg. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, by contrast, who is visibly seeking a way out of the abortion dilemma, is liable to be true-conservative’d to a pulp.
The GOP’s most pious crusaders stuck with Trump through multiple exposures of his fraud, sexual assaults, sleazy coverups of sleazy sexual encounters and more depravity than anyone could possibly remember. When the New York Post published what it called “girl-on-girl” pornography featuring Melania Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign — the pictures in black and white in Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing tabloid — conservatives shrugged. Then they set out to ban books with lesbian characters from the library. Trump’s claim that he could get away with murder on 5th Avenue was not a joke; it was a prescription.
Trump made the reversal of Roe happen, appointing three antiabortion justices to the Supreme Court. He has often taken credit for Roe’s demise, a claim that Democrats intend to amplify. But after many recent Republican defeats, Trump has mostly stopped crowing. He has let it be known that he is chafing beneath the party’s abortion straitjacket. He called a six-week abortion ban a “terrible thing.”
This will not impress American voters who are committed to abortion rights. But Trump’s emergent obfuscation might well mollify the kind of infrequent, often low-information voters who are likely to play a big role in the 2024 election. His trademark lack of credible detail is only a red flag to people who pay attention to detail, or credibility, in the first place.
Would Trump’s Christian conservative base abandon him for suddenly going wobbly on abortion? Absolutely not. Above all, white Christian nationalists want power over others. In the event Trump is elected, his MAGA officer corps has signaled that the democracy game will be over in any case, and new rules will be in place. Provided Trump can commandeer enough extralegal force, the new regime will be positioned to reward his far-right Christian supporters with any draconian policies they like.
A few true believers might still experience some cognitive dissonance. A student group showed up outside Trump’s rally in Florida recently holding signs stating, “Make Trump Pro-Life Again.”
You have to respect their commitment to the cause. But MAGA politics now dictate a different approach. For the 2024 campaign, Trump is eager to throw his antiabortion allies under the bus, just temporarily, while still counting on them to vote his way. They will almost certainly go along. If Trump actually makes it to the Oval Office, they rest assured that he will run over their enemies once and for all.
Francis Wilkinson is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. @fdwilkinson