Donald Trump can't escape Dobbs
The Fox News town hall showed how he's backed himself into a corner.
This free edition of PN is made possible by paid subscribers. To become one and support our work, please click the button below.
Donald Trump gave the Democratic Party a gift during his Fox News town hall last week. In response to a question from a conservative pro-life voter, he boasted about gutting abortion rights.
“For 54 years they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated,” he said earnestly. “And I did it. And I’m proud to have done it.”
Trump spent recent days in his usual rage spiral, boosting birther lies about Nikki Haley and insisting that presidents have immunity from prosecution even if they order hits on their political foes. But his response to the abortion question at the town hall was oddly normal. A voter asked for policy clarification, and Trump provided it. That’s how campaigns, and democracy, are supposed to work.
Trump is a force for chaos — but he’s also, still, in many ways, accountable to the GOP in fairly standard ways. Abortion politics make that clear. But they also show how Trump’s authoritarianism is continuous with, rather than a break from, a Republican Party that has embraced antidemocratic means to enact minoritarian policy ends.
Trump tries to escape Dobbs
Trump’s clear statement on abortion at the town hall was notable because he’s been trying to obfuscate the issue.
During a Meet the Press interview in September, Trump refused to commit to a 15-week national abortion ban. He also attacked six-week abortion bans such as those passed in Florida by Ron DeSantis.
“I think what [DeSantis] did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump said.
Trump’s been unusually forthright about his reasons for hedging on abortion. He blames the backlash to Dobbs for Republicans’ underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms.
At an Iowa campaign rally in September, Trump said that if you support hard line abortion policies, “it is very difficult to win elections.” He added, “This issue cost us dearly in the midterms, and unnecessarily.”
Trump’s not wrong. Most analysts agree that Dobbs has hurt Republicans badly, especially with young people and suburban women. A Pew poll taken shortly after the decision found that 57 percent of voters disapproved of Dobbs while only 41 percent approved. Since Roe was repealed, the GOP has repeatedly lost abortion referendums even in deep red states like Kansas, Montana, and Ohio.
Trump’s never been an abortion true-believer — in a 1999 interview he claimed to be “very pro-choice.” And since he has a commanding lead in the GOP primary, it makes sense he’d try to move to the center on a divisive issue in preparation for the general election.
The anti-abortion movement comes for Trump
It also makes sense that anti-abortion activists and advocates would try to pin Trump down as he tries to wriggle free. Patrick Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, explains at The Hill why the anti-abortion movement can’t let Trump’s vacillations go unchallenged.
“I think the worry for pro-lifers has to be, if they let these comments slide without saying anything, then they’re kind of giving permission for other Republican politicians to try to take that same tack,” he said.
A note from Aaron: Working with great contributors like Noah requires resources. To support our work, mash that subscribe button.
The primary campaign is designed so that important interest and issue groups can get candidates to pledge fealty. This is exactly the dynamic you can see playing out at Trump’s town hall. A woman gets the mic and says that abortion is “my number one issue” and that she’s been “vocal and celebrating with” Trump all his past “pro-life victories.” She then notes that Trump has been trying to distance himself from anti-abortion rhetoric, and she concludes by saying, “I just want some clarity on this because it’s such an important question to me. I’d like you to reassure me, that you can protect all life … without compromise.” [italics mine]
The voter, in asking Trump to reassure her, is essentially demanding he make a public statement committing himself to anti-abortion policies in a way that will make it difficult for him to reverse that position and sell out the anti-abortion movement later. And Trump does exactly what she wants. He made a straightforward, anti-abortion statement that is going to get replayed over and over — in fact Biden has already amplified it.
Again, what’s striking about the town hall interaction is how normal it is. This is, broadly, how town halls, primaries, and democratic politics are supposed to work. Candidates are supposed to be accountable to voters and to the party. They’re supposed to try to balance their commitment to the base with the interests of a general electorate.
Trump often talks and acts as if he wants to get rid of democracy altogether — he’s already baselessly accusing DeSantis of trying to cheat in Iowa. But at the town hall, he did what politicians do; he listened to a voter speaking for a sizable portion of the party, answered her question respectfully, and gave her the reassurances on policy she asked for. Trump ignores a lot of political norms, but when it comes to anti-abortion orthodoxy, he has to knuckle under like any Republican.
Anti-abortion politics require authoritarianism
To some degree, it looks like, on abortion at least, the GOP is a functional democratic party. But that’s deceptive. In fact, Republican abortion politics ultimately require minoritarian rule imposed through undemocratic means.
Again, Dobbs, and anti-abortion policies in general, are very unpopular. That means that to impose these policies, Republicans have had to trample democratic norms in big ways and small. The christofascist supermajority on the court was created in the first place by McConnell’s unprecedented refusal to give Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing in 2016 after the death of Antonin Scalia. Then Trump won the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by a significant margin, and so was able to replace Scalia with conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch. The Dobbs majority was only possible because of the flouting of democratic norms and exploiting of aspects of the US system that deliver wins to popular vote minorities.
More, the enforcement of abortion bans requires sweeping attacks on rights and liberty. Counties in Texas have started to issue travel bans, legally penalizing people who help women travel out of state for an abortion. This effectively prevents freedom of movement, turning states into prisons for pregnant people.
Abortion bans also end up criminalizing efforts to talk about and find information about abortion. Experts worry that prosecutors in anti-abortion states may be able to subpoena search histories as evidence of intent.
Finally, states like Texas with strict abortion bans have forced women to carry failed pregnancies to term, resulting in horrific emotional and physical pain. That’s essentially state sanctioned and enforced torture, and it doesn’t get much more authoritarian than that.
Putting in place unpopular tyrannical policies in a democracy isn’t easy. That’s part of why Republicans embrace voter suppression. It’s also why, in Ohio, for instance, GOP legislators are currently trying to figure out ways to nullify or circumvent the abortion rights constitutional amendment voters adopted overwhelmingly last year.
Restricting abortion is impossible without restricting democracy. The party that hates abortion rights also has to mistrust voting rights. And it’s no surprise that a party which mistrusts voting rights would birth Trump, a man who compulsively denies the legitimacy of election results even when he wins.
Trump’s Dobbs answer was a reminder that he is, to some degree, a typical Republican politician. That’s not especially comforting, though, since the answer also underlined that typical Republican politicians are committed to undermining democracy in order to impose tyrannical and unpopular policies.
Trump is the GOP and the GOP is Trump. They may try to distance themselves on occasion. But Dobbs, and the authoritarianism needed to enforce Dobbs, will bring them back together.
That’s it for today
We’ll be back with more Wednesday. If you enjoy this post and aren’t already a subscriber, we’d really appreciate it if you signed up.