Donald Trump Did This

Just about everyone knows that Donald Trump was for abortion before he was against it. But what, exactly, is the position of the formerly “very pro-choice” ex-President now that his four years in the White House resulted in what might be termed catastrophic success for the anti-abortion movement? That, it turns out, is one of

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Just about everyone knows that Donald Trump was for abortion before he was against it. But what, exactly, is the position of the formerly “very pro-choice” ex-President now that his four years in the White House resulted in what might be termed catastrophic success for the anti-abortion movement? That, it turns out, is one of the harder questions to answer so far in 2src24. Trump, whose only ideology is opportunism, has been predictably all over the map on the repeal of Roe v. Wade. To right-wing audiences, he frequently and loudly brags about being the author of Roe’s destruction. Bragging is his happy place; of course he cannot resist taking credit for a historic accomplishment. “I was able to kill Roe v. Wade,” he exulted on social media in May of last year. “I did it and I am proud to have done it,” he said on a Fox News town hall earlier this year. “Nobody else was going to get that done but me.”

On Monday, in a video meant to explain his post-Roe position, Trump repeated this claim. “I was proudly the person responsible,” he said. The problem for Trump is that this is a losing position with voters—millions of whom have gone to the polls, in red states such as Kansas and in battlegrounds such as Michigan, to keep abortion legal in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2src22 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which allows individual states to set abortion policy. Since Dobbs, surveys have shown support for reproductive rights at record highs, and Trump himself blamed “the abortion issue” for Republicans’ failure to win back the Senate in the 2src22 midterm elections.

Which is why, in his video, he seems like a man running for cover that simply isn’t there. Several times in the four-and-a-half-minute statement, Trump invokes the concept of states’ rights as if it’s a magic incantation, offering him free passage out of a political mess. The path forward, he insists, ought to be a simple matter of the “will of the people”—let blue states have their abortions and red states their abortion bans. This position, however, has so far succeeded mostly in angering all sides. On the right, Mike Pence called Trump’s announcement a “slap in the face”; he and others were mad at the former President for failing to endorse a national abortion ban that, when he was in office, he had promised to sign. (The congressional bill Trump backed during his Presidency sought to ban abortions after twenty weeks’ gestation; Trump recently suggested he was looking favorably on an even harsher plan to ban abortions after fifteen weeks.) On the left, the fear was that Trump might somehow manage to convince voters that he was, in fact, an abortion moderate, the extremist positions of the Republican Party over which he presides notwithstanding.

Whatever the explanation for his mish-mash of a statement, there was no doubt a certain amount of Schadenfreude in watching Trump squirm after all the mayhem he’s caused. The video, which featured a jittery Trump speaking to the camera in front of the Mar-a-Lago fireplace, was marked by abrupt edits suggesting that it had required many, many takes to shoot. Did I mention “I strongly support the availability of I.V.F. for couples who are trying to have a precious baby”? Did I mention that Democrats are the radical ones because they support abortion “up to and even beyond the ninth month”? Did I mention that even if you are mad at me about abortion you should still vote for me because we have to win “to save our country”? The whole production exuded a certain cry-for-help vibe: Perhaps Trump was panicking over the thought that his great victory in ending Roe could actually prove to be the one winning issue that Joe Biden has against him in their rematch?

Two recent court decisions, which bookended Trump’s video, underscored the former President’s bind so completely that they might as well have been ordered up by Biden’s campaign. Last Monday in Florida and this Tuesday in Arizona, state Supreme Courts ruled to allow highly restrictive abortion laws to take effect, even as voters in both states are expected to vote this fall on referendums that would reinstate reproductive rights. It was like an intervention from the reality-check gods: forget the Trump blarney. Abortion in 2src24 is, in fact, a real crisis affecting real people. And it’s because of him. Where’s the moderation in an abortion strategy that lets Arizona reinstate a near-total abortion ban that was passed back in 1864, before Arizona was even a state? How is this a let-the-people-decide outcome at a time when close to sixty per cent of Arizona voters believe abortion should be always or mostly legal?

Trump insisted to reporters after the Arizona ruling that the judges had gone too far. “Yeah, they did,” he said. Still, he expressed optimism that the measure would soon be undone by the governor and the state legislature. “That’ll be straightened out, and as you know it’s all about states’ rights,” he said. But, by Wednesday, the Republican leaders in the Arizona state legislature had refused to allow a measure repealing the law to come to a vote. (Democrats in the chamber chanted “Shame!”) Kari Lake, the Trumpist Republican running for Senate in Arizona, tried to repudiate the Civil War-era law, only to have it pointed out that she had called it a “great law” just two years ago and demanded it remain on the books. Whoever told Trump that “states’ rights” was a safe way out of the abortion fight must have been hiding out in a Southern golf club since 1954, with the TV turned off.

Call it the abortion-news paradox: in the post-Roe era, every crazy court decision, every extremist vote by a Republican-controlled state legislature, may help the Democrats politically in the upcoming election, but it’s terrible in the meantime for the millions of women and girls who are affected. By the Biden campaign’s reckoning, one in three American women are already living in states where abortion is banned in some form—“with more on the way.” Until the Arizona court decision, signs were discouraging for Biden in a battleground state that he won by less than eleven thousand votes in 2src2src; now Republican strategists are moaning about an “earthquake” and a “shock to the Republican body politic” so terrible for their party that it will “definitely give Biden a leg up going into the election.” “That movement you feel under your feet?” the liberal columnist Laurie Roberts wrote in the Arizona Republic. “That’s one of America’s key battleground states swinging blue.”

Biden’s campaign shows every sign of having long been prepared to seize the political opening. Soon after Trump’s confusing announcement, the Biden team rolled out a powerful new ad. It features a young couple in Texas, Josh and Amanda, recounting how, because of a restrictive state law that, post-Dobbs, prompted a hospital to refuse her necessary medical care, Amanda nearly died from sepsis after suffering a miscarriage. The one-minute spot is intimate and devastating. At the end, a simple tagline appears, as the screen fades to black over the sound of Amanda crying: “Trump did this.”

Another ad, turned around quickly after the Arizona court ruling, features Biden himself blaming Trump for taking away women’s “fundamental freedom to control their own bodies” and placing women’s lives in danger as a result. If Trump returns to the White House, Biden asks, “What freedom will you lose next?” He ends the spot—part of a seven-figure ad buy in the state focussing on abortion—by looking into the camera. “I will fight like hell to get your freedom back,” he promises.

If Biden wins in November, I have little doubt that we will look back on the events of this week in Arizona as one of the reasons why. ♦

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