Why is Trump Now Pro-Life?

by Michael C. Dorf

Some abortion opponents argue that feminists ought not to favor abortion rights because women's access to abortion ultimately serves the interest of men who want access to women's bodies for sex without consequences. The argument is flawed. The feminist arguments for a right to abortion can be (and IMHO are) persuasive, regardless of whether some people support abortion rights for other reasons.

That said, the pro-lifers are not wrong that some men who support abortion rights do so in order to maximize their own freedom to objectify women. As Susan Brownmiller wrote last fall after the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, a man living the Playboy lifestyle "refused to be cornered into marriage just because a young lady he had bedded had the misfortune to get pregnant." Brownmiller drew the obvious comparison between Hef and Donald Trump, who, she noted, formerly supported abortion rights.

In a 1999 interview with Tim Russert in contemplation of a run for the presidency, Trump said that while he hates abortion (presumably because he thinks it immoral), he is nonetheless "very pro-choice" and thus would not ban abortion or so-called partial-birth abortion. 1999 Trump doesn't say why he is very pro-choice, other than to note that he was raised in and lives in New York, but the viewer has little difficulty inferring that 1999 Trump was pro-choice for the sorts of reasons that other people who think abortion immoral (as I think it is with respect to most abortions of sentient fetuses) might nonetheless be pro-choice: because of the impositions that forced pregnancy imposes on women; because laws forbidding abortion reduce its safety but not its incidence; etc.

Maybe those factors partly explain why 1999 Trump was pro-choice, but Trump also presumably had a Hefnerian reason. After all, Trump is essentially a cruder version of Hefner, and the Playboy founder seems to have been almost as much a mentor to Trump as was Roy Cohn. We also have circumstantial evidence. Both Karen McDougall and Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels) have said that when they were having affairs with Trump in 2006, he didn't want to use a condom. Perhaps Trump assumed that McDougall and Clifford were both using birth control, although one still wonders why he was not concerned about contracting an STD that he might then transmit to the mother of his then-infant son. But I digress. The main point is that Trump's whole playboy lifestyle and image revolved around treating women as sexual objects, for which ready access to abortion was useful.

How, then, does Trump explain his "fearlessly pro-life" stance as president? To be clear, I don't mean how do we explain it. That's easy. Trump is hardly the first person to shift his stance from pro-choice to pro-life in order to run for president as a Republican. Mitt Romney followed a similar path, and politicians frequently adjust their positions when their constituency changes. One can rightly criticize such politicians as unprincipled, but at least some such changes seem inevitable and even healthy in a functioning democracy. The country as a whole is less pro-choice than New York or Massachusetts, and so moving from serving or living in a liberal state to running in or governing the country as a whole, it is understandable that someone's approach would change. Seen in this perspective, the problem with Trump's current position on abortion is not so much that it differs from his prior position, but that he has over-compensated. He has not adopted a position that reflects the national median rather than the NYC median; on this as on so many other issues, he has adopted a position that reflects the median extremely conservative GOP primary voter.

Admittedly, that makes a certain kind of political sense. Trump's overarching political strategy is to energize the coalition of cultural conservatives, economic libertarians, and racists who elected him. That coalition does not quite comprise a majority of the country, as the popular vote in 2016 illustrates, but Trump doesn't need a national majority. He is the antithesis of the GOP candidate that the post-2012 GOP "autopsy report" sought to create to appeal to swing voters and minorities. Trump and the current GOP more broadly attempt to forestall the inevitable political consequences of demographic change through a combination of gerrymandering, suppression of minority voters, and immigration restrictions.

But I digress again. As I said, I'm not trying to explain why it makes political sense for Trump to have become pro-life. I'm asking how he explains the shift in other than crassly political terms. And near as I can tell, the answer is that he doesn't. Well, that's not quite right. During a 2015 Republican presidential debate, Trump explained his evolution this way:
what happened is friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn't aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child. And I saw that. And I saw other instances.
That's inane, even for Donald Trump. We are supposed to believe that before 2011 (when Trump supposedly became pro-life), he didn't realize that if someone thinking about having an abortion decided instead to take the pregnancy to term, that could result in the birth of a child who would grow up to be a "great, great child." Really? REALLY? What if Trump had friends who were going to use birth control but then didn't and a pregnancy resulted in the birth of a great, great child, "a total superstar"? Would Trump then be opposed to birth control? What if Trump's friends were contemplating an abortion but decided to carry the pregnancy to term and the baby grew up to be a serial killer? Would he still be pro-choice? Not even Trump can believe such a stupid line of argument.

And neither can Trump's current socially conservative supporters be so stupid as to think that Trump had an epiphany that led him to change his views about abortion as a matter of conscience. Not everyone who is pro-life is willing to hold their nose and support Trump despite his abominable policies on other issues. But most social conservatives are. They don't care that Trump's support for their most important cause--prohibiting abortion--is completely opportunistic, because Trump has repeatedly signaled that he will do whatever they want on this issue.

That brings us to tonight's finale of Season 2 of SCOTUS Survivor, in which Trump will hand a rose to one of the final four or perhaps a surprise winner no one is expecting! How will pressure from Mitch McConnell affect Trump's choice? And what happened in those Oval Office speed dates? Trump said last week that he was told that he's not supposed to specifically ask nominees about their views about abortion. He said it the way that a toddler might say he's not supposed to shove crayons up his nose; he realizes that there's a rule against it, even though he doesn't understand the reason for the rule.

Whether Trump in fact asked any of the contestants for the SCOTUS nomination about their views about abortion is unknown, but the mere fact that Trump was told not to ask is hardly a reason to conclude that he didn't ask. He was also told not to congratulate Putin on his re-election, but he did anyway. And we learned last week that Trump was told not to propose a US-led military invasion of Venezuela to the leaders of other Latin American countries, but he did that anyway too. So it is quite possible that Trump asked today's lucky winner for his or her views about abortion.

Not that it matters. Even if Trump did ask, and even if he got answers (which I very much doubt), he cannot publicly say so, because that would undercut his game of signaling strongly to social conservatives that he will name justices who support their agenda while maintaining the thinnest veneer of deniability for the likes of (either the very naive or very cynical) Maine Senator Susan Collins. The whole game is fundamentally dishonest.

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There is a line in the song "Turn It Off" in the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, in which Elder McKinley sings that "being gay is bad but lying is worse." I certainly don't endorse that viewpoint. That said, there is at least something a bit admirable about the recognition by some social conservatives that lying is a serious sin. Apparently, however, only for fictional socially conservative characters. Trump's real-life socially conservative supporters take his lying in stride.

Trump is quite possibly the most dishonest politician, indeed, the most dishonest person, we have ever seen. He lies purposefully but also without apparent purpose. Having made their bargain with Trump in exchange for his transformation of the federal judiciary, it is thus hardly surprising that social conservatives would be unfazed by the more common sort of half-truths and nonsense to which he has resorted in courting them--such as his risibly stupid explanation for his pro-life conversion and the pretense that his SCOTUS nominee selection process is about anything other than placating his base while denying that that is what he is doing. Unsurprising, but distressing nonetheless.