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Bored Reporters

Stop Pretending Trump Is a Savvy Politician

His alleged support for a 16-week national abortion ban is hardly a clever “pivot” to the center.

Donald Trump smiling at the Family Values Summit in September of 2023.
Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Donald Trump speaking at the anti-abortion Family Values Summit in September

Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson offered a chilling thought: Donald Trump, she said, “is acting like a normal politician.”

Liasson had been asked by host Kristen Welker about a New York Times report—later confirmed by NBC—that suggested that the former president was considering endorsing a 16-week national abortion ban. The appeal of this move (to Liasson, at least) was obvious: The Democrats have hammered Republicans, politically and electorally, since the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, so Trump is “trying … to move [to] the center on abortion for the general election to get more where the majority of voters are.”

The “pivot to the center” is a standard maneuver for nonincumbent politicians ahead of a general election. During the primary, candidates adopt positions to appeal to their party’s base; once they’ve won the nomination, they moderate their positions to appeal to independents and less committed voters. Trump would, theoretically, be well suited for such a pivot: He’s not a dogmatic Republican; he doesn’t have a lengthy political career to account for; and his policy positions are malleable, being influenced in large part by the applause level they generate at his rallies or what he happened to see on TV that day.

There’s just one problem with this theory: Trump was president for four whole years, which is not so simple to pivot away from. His presidency was hardly a font of moderation on abortion or any other issue; it was marked by the marriage of one form of extremism (the GOP’s long-standing efforts to slash entitlements, ban abortion, and provide handouts to the rich) with another (Trump’s own demagoguery). Everything we know now indicates that a hypothetical Trump second term would be far more extreme than his first. Any suggestion otherwise is a fantasy—and an in-kind gift to Trump’s campaign.

Trump’s lack of deep ties to the Republican Party—and the fact that his ascension effectively destroyed the party’s establishment—theoretically suggests the freedom to do exactly what Liasson suggests. In practice, however, we have seen the opposite. During his first term, Trump effectively delegated the operation of much of the government to party stalwarts. His three Supreme Court picks, who all voted to repeal Roe, came from the Federalist Society. Trump does break with the party consensus on some issues—notably NATO and tariffs—but largely hewed to the party line as president.

Trump’s chaotic public statements—flip-flops, in the parlance of politics—can also yield the false impression of moderation. Eight years ago, as he fought to secure the Republican nomination, he appeared to moderate his positions on abortion and terrorism, endorsing “highly skilled” immigrants and walking back calls to murder the families of terrorists. At the time, I fell for it, writing that Trump was “already pivoting” to the general election. But Trump’s own statements only appeared moderate when placed next to other, more extreme statements made by Trump himself. And on the campaign trail in the months ahead, Trump continued to rail against all immigrants and call for the United States to torture its declared enemies.

The other problem with the idea that Trump is pivoting on abortion is that … he isn’t, actually. There is no national abortion ban, so a 16-week ban is by definition more extreme than what currently exists. It would not require states that have already banned abortion to suddenly allow it up until the four-month deadline, but it would create bans in blue states that have codified the protections that existed under Roe v. Wade. The idea that rescinding the right to abortion from tens of millions of women is the moderate position is absurd on its face.

At the same time, Trump is hardly hiding the fact that he plans on making his administration the most extreme in American history. There are plans to fire thousands of government employees and replace them with sycophants and far-right activists, and to round up millions of immigrants and deport them. On Tuesday, Politico reported that a second Trump administration would be infused with “Christian nationalism” and that Russell Vought, a leading Christian nationalist who served in the Trump White House, is being touted as a potential chief of staff. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, effectively a blueprint for President Trump redux, has similarly backed widespread restrictions on abortion. Per Politico, it “proposes increasing surveillance of abortion and maternal mortality reporting in the states, compelling the Food and Drug Administration to revoke approval of ‘chemical abortion drugs’ and protecting ‘religious and moral’ objections for employers who decline contraception coverage for employees.” Not exactly a turn toward moderation!

Look, I get it: It’s tempting, even irresistible, for the political press to hype these supposed pivots. Even during a robust election cycle, there’s only so much hard news in a given day; amid our anemic 2024 race, everyone is fighting over scraps. But it’s important that the press not be willfully myopic. Trump has shown us precisely who he is and who he plans to be if he wins back the White House (it starts with the letter f). He is anything but a “normal politician,” and if it seems he’s “acting” like one, that’s just it: He’s acting.