Updated at 9:00 a.m. ET on September 22, 2023
A few weeks ago, the Texas anti-abortion activist Mark Lee Dickson told me that he viewed Donald Trump as the Constantine of the anti-abortion movement: a man who, like the Roman emperor, had been converted to a righteous cause and become its champion.
“There are some who believe that Constantine was a sincere Christian and others who believe that he wasn’t,” Dickson said. Regardless of whether Trump is genuinely opposed to abortion rights, “he was good for Christianity and the pro-life movement.”
But after hearing Trump’s abortion comments on Sunday’s Meet the Press, Dickson, who is one of the architects of Texas’s so-called heartbeat ban, feels differently. He’d been helping plan a big Trump rally in Lubbock. Now he’s worried. “What I want to do is get up onstage and brag about Trump. But at this point, his statements do not represent what we have worked for for 50 years,” Dickson said. “The goal of the movement was not overturning Roe v. Wade—it was ending abortion in all 50 states.”
Trump confounded Dickson and the rest of the anti-abortion coalition when he told NBC’s Kristen Welker not only that a federal abortion ban would be low on his to-do list during a second term as president, but also that six-week abortion bans like the one in Florida are “terrible.” The outrage from the movement was predictably ferocious. “This isn’t just evil, it is absolutely delusional,” the conservative podcast host Allie Beth Stuckey wrote. Live Action’s founder, Lila Rose, tweeted that “Trump should not be the GOP nominee.” In an email to supporters, Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life, said, “Trump just broke my heart.”
Dickson felt equally bruised. If Trump really thinks Florida’s six-week ban is so bad, he mused, “then what does he believe about Texas outlawing abortion from the moment of conception?” If he thinks that’s terrible too, Trump “is going to lose a whole lot of Texas support.”
A few advocates say that, like Rose, they’re writing Trump off. Others have called on the former president to retract his comments. Neither reflex does justice to Trump, who has on occasion demonstrated savvier political instincts than his GOP opponents. What appears to be his current operating assumption—that talking about abortion bans is a turnoff for many voters—is a smart one: Most Americans support access to abortion. Trump is the only real contender among Republican presidential candidates acting in a way that acknowledges this fact. The question is: Will it hurt him?
The MAGA faithful have so far seen nothing to make them withdraw their support from Trump—after each of his multiple criminal indictments, their devotion has only deepened. Trump’s remarks about abortion seem similarly unlikely to damage his standing. In a general election, they might even help.
That’s because of Trump’s unusual capacity for shape-shifting. “He can say, ‘I gave you the Supreme Court,’ but also ‘I’d look for a compromise on a national level,’” Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump political strategist and the publisher of The Bulwark, told me. He can sound moderate, in other words, “in a way that Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence would not.”
The Meet the Press interview with Welker did not immediately ring alarm bells in the pro-life camp. Although Trump refused to commit to any federal anti-abortion legislation, he did appear to embrace some form of restriction. He said he’d work with Democrats to come up with a number of weeks that will bring “peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.” Standard fare for Trump: vague, noncommittal, self-aggrandizing. But then he brought up the six-week ban that his main primary rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, had signed into law as the Heartbeat Act.
“Would you support that?” Welker asked.
“I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump replied. And, well, that was that.
Right away, Team DeSantis had campaign staff posting assurances that, as president, DeSantis would “NEVER sell out conservatives to win praise from corporate media or the Left.” Other Republican primary candidates jumped into the fray too. “President Trump said he would negotiate with the Democrats and walk back away from what I believe we need, which is a 15-week limit on the federal level,” South Carolina Senator Tim Scott told a crowd in Mason City, Iowa. On CNN, former Vice President Mike Pence accused Trump of wanting to “marginalize the right to life.”
The right-to-life activists certainly saw it that way. “Heartbeat Laws,” Hawkins wrote in an open letter to Trump, “should be an absolute minimum for any Republican candidate committed to protecting many from death by direct abortion.” I spoke with Steven Aden, the general counsel at Americans United for Life. “Any time a leader of a national party throws pro-life conservatives to the curb, it’s extremely disappointing,” he told me. “I hope that his comments were a temporary aberration from an otherwise excellent record.”
One can’t help being a little surprised at their surprise. This is Donald Trump, after all—a man not noticeably wedded to any principle but self-interest, and who, in a previous life, was an abortion-rights-supporting New York Democrat. No one would mistake Trump for a true believer in the vein of, say, Pence. Even Trump’s attempt to throw some red meat to the movement in 2016 when he expressed support for punishing women who sought abortions was clumsy and counterproductive, flouting all of the anti-abortion movement’s best practices. Not that this blunder seemed to faze voters, either.
Trump has continued to exercise stubborn independence on the issue. Last year, he blamed the GOP’s disappointing midterm losses on “the abortion issue” and the extreme positions held by some Republican lawmakers. At the time, this mainly looked like an attempt to shift blame, given the poor performance of several high-profile candidates he’d endorsed; with hindsight, it also begins to look like a foretaste of how he’ll campaign in 2024.
Rose, from Live Action, was disgusted with Trump in November; this week’s comments were the last straw. “He takes us for granted, and treats us like a punching bag,” she told me. “I think that’s a huge error on his part. The pro-life movement is one of the most important voting blocs, especially in Iowa and South Carolina.”
She’s right that because Republican-primary voters are more socially conservative than general-election voters, they are more likely to oppose abortion access. And it’s possible that Trump’s position on this single issue might spur some of those voters to change their allegiance to a DeSantis or a Pence. But Rose’s assumption about the anti-abortion movement’s clout seems wishful. Trump is up by about 40 points in the latest national polls—and by about 30 in Iowa. So far, no signs point to any imminent Republican realignment, let alone one led by the anti-abortion set.
Many of Trump’s opponents have imagined that they can beat him by exposing him as a fake conservative, like Velma ripping the mask off a Scooby Doo villain. The problem with this strategy is that it has never worked. Trump doesn’t talk or campaign like a conservative, even when he governs like one. And traditional conservatives, including many anti-abortion activists, have supported him because he promised to appoint judges they favored to the U.S. Supreme Court—and did.
None of this is great news for Democrats. As I wrote recently, Joe Biden’s party would very much like the 2024 campaign to center on abortion. They believe that the path to victory lies in framing Republicans as fanatics who want to ban abortion completely; they’re probably right, given how unsuccessful attempts to restrict abortion have been since the fall of Roe. v Wade—and how salient the issue is for voters who support abortion rights. But Democrats will have a harder time tarring Trump as an extremist if he’s talking mostly about compromise and accusing his own party of extremism. Trump may end up “muting some of the intensity of the issue,” Longwell said, “because he will sound like a moderate in a way that Ron DeSantis, Pence would not.”
That could explain why, since Trump’s Great Betrayal on Sunday, not all anti-abortion groups have adopted the bitter tone of the most zealous activists. Some have done no more than call half-heartedly for clarification—or, in the case of the Susan B. Anthony List, issue a tepid plea for the candidates to please stop attacking one another. In other words, alongside the anger of the movement’s radicals is the realism of its mainstream.
Everyone is keenly aware at this point that Trump is the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination. And when he does, he knows he’ll have their votes.