How Trump Ran Over the Anti-Abortion Movement

Trump voters have effectively sidelined one of the Republican Party's most loyal and potent constituencies

"Mr. Trump cannot be trusted" to oppose abortion, wrote anti-choice advocates in a January letter opposing his candidacy. Credit: Mark Makela/The NY Times/Redux

On his way to the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump ran over the anti-choice movement. Never in the post-Reagan era has a Republican presidential candidate exhibiting such flippant disregard for the movement's priorities even come close to becoming the party's standard-bearer.

Trump voters have effectively sidelined one of the Republican Party's most loyal and potent constituencies. In state after state, Trump voters do not appear to care about an issue that has driven religious conservatives to the polls and Republican presidents and legislators to cater to their demands.

The 2016 cycle was supposed to be the anti-choice movement's moment. The Supreme Court, in its first major abortion case in decades, will decide whether a controversial Texas law that could close the vast majority of the state's abortion clinics is constitutional. Even if Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia hadn't died suddenly at the peak of the primary, conservatives were poised to make judicial nominations a core loyalty test for the GOP hopefuls. But instead of elevating these issues to the forefront, Trump voters showed just how much they have pushed them to the bottom of their laundry list.

Despite widespread opposition to Trump in the anti-choice movement, Trump is besting his rivals who deploy all the "right" language on abortion. In January, just before the Iowa caucuses, long-time leaders in the anti-choice movement wrote an open letter to voters, urging them to vote for "anyone but Trump." The letter emphasized the goal of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and questioned Trump's commitment to that cause. "On the issue of defending unborn children and protecting women from the violence of abortion," the letter read, "Mr. Trump cannot be trusted."

Since that letter was written a little over a month ago, Trump has won more states and consolidated more delegates than Ted Cruz, who has said "unborn babies" should have equal protection rights under the Constitution, and wants to make the campaign a "referendum on the Supreme Court." He is crushing "little" Marco Rubio, who has said he opposes abortion without exceptions for rape or incest, and whose campaign assembled a "Dignity of Life Advisory Board" of noted abortion opponents. His director of faith outreach, Eric Teetsel, calls "the unjust termination of the unborn" the "social justice issue of our time."

Not only has Trump showed only the vaguest interest in these issues, he has committed further apostasy on Planned Parenthood, praising its women's health services. He reiterated that point in his Super Tuesday press conference, saying the bogeyman of the anti-choice movement "has done very good work for many, many — for millions of women." While conservatives have strived to paint Planned Parenthood as a crass purveyor of "butchered baby parts," Trump is rewarded for expressing what even he admits is "not a perfect conservative view."

Although in the past two election cycles, Republican voters have nominated the apparently least committed abortion foe of the field — John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012 — they have done so after the candidate yielded to intense pressure to articulate their anti-abortion stance, using the language favored by the anti-choice movement. A candidate's opposition to abortion hasn't been the sole litmus test, but for many Republican voters weakness on the issue has been a sufficient deal-breaker to press the candidates to kowtow to the movement's demands.

But Trump is different. A comparison with Mitt Romney shows how: Romney, like Trump, came under scrutiny for supporting abortion in the past, but switching sides as he prepared a presidential run. For this and other changes of heart, Romney earned the title of flip-flopper, a moniker that is not typically applied to Trump, likely because he repels it with his hyper-masculinity.

To assuage the anti-choice base, in 2011 Romney wrote an op-ed for the conservative magazine National Review. In laying out his pro-life conversion there, Romney ripped his language from movement talking points. He supported overturning Roe, calling it "a misguided ruling that was a result of a small group of activist federal judges legislating from the bench." He supported the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortion services, and ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Instead of giving Trump space to defend himself, this year The National Review launched what turned out to be an impotent effort to stymie his march to the nomination. The anti-Trump issue of the magazine included an essay by Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and an outspoken Trump critic, who argued the problem with Trump "is not whether he can check a box. Pro-life voters expect leaders to have a coherent vision of human dignity."

But Trump's reaction to this criticism is not to explicitly acknowledge it and address it. It's to do exactly what Moore criticizes him for: checking a box. "I'm very pro-life," he likes to say. But even after bringing on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his formal rival's daughter and a veteran of running a prototypically evangelical presidential campaign, Trump hasn't used the preferred rhetoric of "unborn babies" or "human dignity."

That appears not to matter to Trump voters, who are reconstituting the Republican Party base. If Trump can win without pandering to the anti-choice movement's demands, this once-powerful force in Republican politics could be one of the many casualties in his ascendance to power.