Michael Gerson: The Trumpification of the pro-life movement exacts a price
Through a blooming diversity of investigations, we will soon discover if the world that has always surrounded Donald Trump — the sleazy fixers, the disposable women, the questionable deals, the gold-plated vanity, the viciousness to subordinates, the casual prejudice, the obsession with enemies, the shady international contacts, the nepotism, the ethical emptiness, the bottomless narcissism — is also a criminal enterprise.
On the increasingly likely assumption that it is, how would institutions on the right be affected by Trump’s corrupting embrace?
It won’t be pretty for the Republican Party. It has become thoroughly braided into Trump’s bigotry. In a nation where the chant of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” has become a racist jeer, the GOP has accepted a rebranding as his subsidiary. To many suburban voters, the party has become a symbol of intolerance. To many younger voters, an instrument of white privilege. At the national level at least, the GOP’s fate is inseparable from the fate of the president.
Most members of the conservative movement will be tainted for flipping their inspiration from Ronald Reagan to George Wallace with hardly a moment’s thought. This gives credence to charges of racial prejudice I once thought exaggerated.
But let me focus a moment on the pro-life movement, which has traditionally been in a different category. If you believe that a fetus is a member of the human family from its first moment — and millions of Americans do — then opposition to abortion is inherently a social justice issue. It is the defense of the weak and voiceless against violence.
I realize, of course, that millions of Americans don’t believe this. And millions of other Americans would locate personhood in the later stages of a pregnancy. But since empathy requires imagination, imagine if you believed what pro-life people do. By your own lights, you would be defending human rights and dignity.
To be consistent, of course, you would need to care equally for the lives of women in crisis. And for the health and welfare of children after birth. But that is my point. Defending human dignity at every stage of human development is not a commitment currently embodied in either political party, or in either conservatism or liberalism. People who hold this view should be against Roe v. Wade and against the separation of children from their parents at the border. They should be opposed to the dehumanization of unborn children and the dehumanization of refugees and migrants. The legitimacy of pro-life sentiment is demonstrated by its consistency.
But it is not a coincidence that there were so many Make America Great Again hats at the March for Life, or that Trump made a prominent video appearance. The March for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List — two major pro-life organizations — have featured Trump at their major gatherings. The president of the SBA has pronounced Trump “the most pro-life president in our nation’s history” and called it “a privilege to stand with him.”
The issue here is complicated. Trump has governed as a pro-life president, especially in the appointment of two justices to the Supreme Court who more than pass Federalist Society muster. Gratitude here is natural and understandable.
But if the overturn or revision of Roe v. Wade comes, it will almost certainly return greater flexibility to states in the regulation of abortion. This will kindle dozens of debates across the country and become a contest of persuasion and organization.
It is then that the Trumpification of the pro-life movement will exact a price. There is a serious cost when a movement that regards itself as pro-woman associates with misogyny. There is a serious cost when a movement that claims to be expanding the circle of social inclusion associates itself with nativism and racism. There is a serious cost when a movement that needs to be seen as charitable and reasonable associates itself with the politics of abuse and cruelty.
This turns out to be a particularly pure test of transactional, single-issue politics. Would you trade a major political gain for a large chunk of your moral reputation?
I don’t want to argue that such a choice is easy. Maybe gaining two justices is worth it. But I’m skeptical. The pro-life movement needs to be, and be seen as, advocating the defense of the weak against the strong. Trumpism is the elevation of the strong against refugees, and against migrant children, and against minorities. The gains of moral and political compromise are material; the costs are spiritual. We will see which matters more.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.