Donald Trump has been signaling for months that he considers the Republican Party’s anti-abortion stance to be his party’s greatest liability. On Sunday, he explicitly severed himself from his party’s position on the issue. In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump not only denounced Ron DeSantis’s six-week abortion ban (“I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake”) but endorsed an amorphous compromise while casting himself as a neutral party.
“What’s going to happen is you’re going to come up with a number of weeks or months,” Trump said. “You’re going to come up with a number that’s going to make people happy.” He promised to “sit down with both sides” and said, “I’m almost like a mediator in this case.”
Obviously, Trump is engaging in a significant level of bullshit here. If there was “a number” that both sides could agree on, then somebody would have identified it by now. However, that doesn’t mean his comments tell you nothing about his stance. There are several important ramifications of Trump’s position.
1. Trump does not want to spend any more political capital advancing the anti-abortion cause. After the 2022 midterm elections, Trump blamed the party’s disappointing performance on the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. That interpretation was both self-interested (it deflected blame from Trump’s own role in the election results, having promoted a series of extreme nominees) and deeply hypocritical (given that Dobbs was a direct result of Trump’s own justices overturning precedent).
He is now calculating that abortion is one of the Republican Party’s greatest political disadvantages and believes he needs to win back some of the secular voters who deserted Republicans in the midterms.
2. Trump is happy to let DeSantis outflank him. DeSantis has campaigned as an archreactionary, attacking Trump as insufficiently right wing on issues like vaccines and trans rights in addition to abortion. Those attacks have failed to land because, despite their literal correctness, they feel implausible. And the reason they feel implausible is that Trump’s personality has reconstructed the political spectrum. Trump’s authoritarianism, bigotry, and misconduct now define the main scale of partisan conflict. The most “right-wing position” is whatever is most loyal to Trump, and, however hard DeSantis may try, nobody can be more pro-Trump than Trump.
3. Trump is a more supple politician than his critics give him credit for. Trump is not a smart person. But he does have the advantage of not caring at all about policy. His entire motive for running for office is a combination of self-aggrandizement, love of power, and self-enrichment. This combination of motives has led him to the Republican Party, and the party’s pathological internal culture has made its base a perfect vehicle for a personality cult that has enabled him.
But these traits have paradoxically liberated him from hewing to certain unpopular rhetoric. An important source of Trump’s political success has come from distancing himself rhetorically from Republican positions on taxes (he promised to tax the rich at higher rates before reneging), health care (ditto), and foreign policy. In 2016, only 21 percent of voters called Trump “a lot more conservative” than themselves in contrast with the 34 percent who considered Hillary Clinton a lot more liberal than themselves.
Many liberals have trouble understanding how a figure as obviously unfit for office as Trump has managed to get anywhere close to the presidency. One answer is that he pays attention to what the people say they want and promises to give it to them, a method that often beats paying attention to what party-aligned interest groups want.
4. Trump could always flip back in office. The fact that Trump doesn’t care about right-wing policy goals does not mean he opposes them on principle. Trump reversed much of his moderate campaign rhetoric in office, pursuing regressive tax cuts and rollbacks in health-care coverage. Likewise, in 2016, he stated that women who seek abortions should be punished, before realizing conservatives prefer candidates not to say that publicly — but then appointed staunch abortion opponents to the Supreme Court seats who made the decisive ruling.
All this is to say Trump will do whatever benefits Trump. Once in office, he (probably?) won’t run again and could be free to reward conservative activists without fear of political repercussions.
5. Trump is a bad trade for conservative interest groups. Nominating Trump is a pretty unattractive deal for conservative activists, especially ones whose policies Trump is willing to throw overboard. They are spending political capital on Trump’s misconduct and corruption and ceding political capital on policy. They’d prefer to do the opposite by nominating somebody who will win voters with his persona and spotless family life while hewing strictly to the views of the right-wing catechism.
6. Conservatives will probably go along with it anyway. DeSantis is going to seize the abortion opening as his last, best chance to overtake Trump in Iowa and make the primary a race. But anti-abortion activists are showing every sign that they expect Trump to win and won’t punish him for his heresy.
Conservative pundit Mollie Hemingway, who is equally fervent in her hatred of abortion and slavish devotion to Trump, called Trump’s abortion comments “wrong” but only deep inside a column devoted principally to attacking Meet the Press for asking him hard questions, headlined “NBC’s Kristen Welker Lied Repeatedly About Democrats’ Extreme Abortion Position.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of SBA Pro-Life America, gave the New York Times a limp response to Trump’s heresy: “We’re at a moment where we need a human rights advocate, someone who is dedicated to saving lives of children and serving mothers in need … Every single candidate should be clear on how they plan to do that … It begins with focusing on extremes of the other side, and ambition and common sense on our own. Anything weaker than 15 weeks as a federal minimum standard makes no sense in this context.”
7. Trump thinks the primary is over. The Republican Party has a clear anti-abortion majority, and Trump is handing DeSantis an opportunity to wedge him away from the party’s base — especially in Iowa with its overconcentration of social conservatives. Trump would do this only if he believed the primary was effectively over and he could focus on the general election.