The Thing About Trump and Abortion
Do you want rhetorical purity, or do you want to win?
In July of 1969, an assembly of civil rights activists met at the White House to register their discontent with the Nixon administration’s posture on race relations. Richard Nixon had been president for less than six months, and race had been a central issue of the 1968 campaign.
George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, had made a third-party bid in hopes that neither Nixon nor Vice President Hubert Humphrey would win a majority in the Electoral College. Nixon attempted a balancing act, pinning the sins of segregation (not without reason) on the Democratic Party without condemning the popular Wallace too harshly. At the same time, Nixon spoke to the fears of middle-class white voters who saw riots overtaking almost every major city in America. He also ran on an out-of-time states’ rights platform nearly thirty years into the absolute dominance of Washington, promising a return of sovereignty to the people and their elected representatives.
Nixon’s critics objected that these bedrock principles—states’ rights and law-and-order—were merely racist dog-whistles meant to signal the candidate’s kinship with Wallace without tipping his hand. If this was the idea, it was not a good one: Nixon got walloped in the Deep South. Nonetheless, the slander stuck, and even today certain hostile actors—enemies more of the GOP itself than of its greatest president—will raise the specter of the “Southern Strategy.”
They were beaten to the punch by the race activists of Nixon’s own day, who were granted an audience on July 1 to voice their (largely unfounded) concerns. Whether an oversight or a stroke of genius, the activists were received by Attorney General John Mitchell, who had managed Nixon’s campaign. Mitchell—whom Nixon dubbed “the heavyweight” but most in the White House referred to as “the Big Enchilada”—was the physical embodiment of law-and-order. It was in no small part due to Mitchell’s messaging that the upset activists found themselves at the White House.
Yet his answer was simple, and one line from the meeting would be immortalized: “You would be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say.”
The deeds were impressive, too. When the administration assumed power in 1969, roughly 70 percent of African American children attended segregated schools. By the time the deep state revoked Nixon’s mandate in 1974, that number had been reduced to just 8 percent—a truly astonishing reduction, accomplished with almost none of the heavy-handedness required by the previous three presidents. The Nixon administration would also take unprecedented steps to encourage black entrepreneurship, though this progress would be undone by a reversion to easy welfarism once the president went into exile.
Even those who acknowledge these accomplishments will often accuse Nixon and Mitchell of cynicism, hypocrisy, and worse. They were willing to exploit voters’ fears, even their hatreds, to win a difficult election. That Nixon often spoke explicitly against Democratic racism was one thing. That he would do more in actual practice to heal this country’s racial wounds than any other president save Lincoln was another. That he would, at the same time, welcome the votes of those who did not share his progressive views on race (the argument goes) was some kind of moral outrage.
We cannot fault anyone for such naive idealism. It is admirable, in its way. But neither can we take seriously as political actors anyone with such a childish view of political reality. Had Nixon embraced unequivocally the enlightened view and tone his critics would have liked, his campaign would have tanked. The country would have been saddled either with Wallace’s extremism or with Humphrey’s incompetence. Forget desegregation: None of the myriad accomplishments of a man later reelected by forty-nine of fifty states would have seen the light of day.
Rhetoric and government are not one. Anyone who hopes to rule justly must exercise both kinds of power effectively, discretely, even when tension between the two becomes inevitable. This is a fact of life in democratic regimes. Those who object should work to undo the democratic revolution of the last century and more, and restore the United States Constitution. Barring that, it is what it is.
That being so, I will not be losing any sleep over my support of Donald Trump, who made some highly objectionable comments last week in an interview with Kristin Welker, one of the left-wing activists at NBC’s Meet the Press. While boasting that he “did something that nobody thought was possible” in appointing the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, the president described Ron DeSantis’s signing of a heartbeat bill in Florida as “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
The interview caused many pro-lifers to rebuke the Republican frontrunner, with many even insisting that he could not be the GOP nominee.
Further comments suggest that he meant DeSantis’s move was a political mistake, though no single error can explain the Florida governor’s unforced nosedive in his primary challenge against Trump.
“I watch some of them without the exceptions, et cetera, et cetera,” the president continued. “I said, ‘Other than certain parts of the country, you can’t—you’re not going to win on this issue. But you will win on this issue when you come up with the right number of weeks.”
He did seem to suggest that he believed personally that child-murder is permissible in cases of conception by rape or incest. For that he should be roundly condemned, and has been. Yet the general impression given by his comments is that Trump will seek a pragmatic win for life in his second term.
“We’re going to agree to a number of weeks or months or however you want to define it,” he said on Meet the Press. “And both sides are going to come together and both sides — both sides, and this is a big statement—both sides will come together. And for the first time in 52 years, you’ll have an issue that we can put behind us.”
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This is at once far too ambitious and not ambitious enough. He seems to overvalue the political points a compromise will provide him while underestimating the maximum achievable position. That can be worked out. Already, Trump has moved closer to a sound pro-life stance thanks to the pressure applied in the wake of his Meet the Press spot. Pro-life Republicans can surely exert similar influence throughout his second term.
Of course, victory is a long way off. The only morally acceptable end state is one in which every single elective abortion, at any stage of human development, is dealt with appropriately under criminal law. The only question that matters for voters of sound conscience is who is most likely to move us closer to that goal: the president who overturned Roe, or any of a dozen limp-wristed also-rans who would be thwarted at every turn in power even if they managed a miracle in the general election?
There are two choices here: get trampled on the high road, and watch the unborn of America brutally trampled with you. Or watch what Trump has managed to do, instead of what he says.