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The Long Con

The Right Is About to Try to Turn Trump Into an Abortion Moderate

Republicans and their media allies are about to reach into an old bag of tricks to try to tone down the former president’s extremism.

The Democratic National Committee's billboard in Times Square highlighting Donald Trump and other GOP hopefuls' support for a national abortion ban.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
The Democratic National Committee’s billboard in Times Square highlighting Donald Trump and other GOP hopefuls’ support for a national abortion ban

NOTE: This column was written Sunday. Trump announced early Monday morning that he would leave the issue to the states as president, rather than support a national abortion ban after 15 weeks.

It should be plenty clear by now that the contemporary right in this country has only two principles: one, maintain power; two, troll the libs. Every other consideration is subordinated to those two usually complementary goals, as we’re about to see in stark relief this week.

Last week, Trump said that this would be the week when he’d unveil his great abortion rights compromise. There is, alas, no drama surrounding the announcement, since he and his people have been quasi-announcing for weeks that he’s going to propose a national ban after 15 weeks. “We’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years,” Trump has said.

That isn’t remotely true. Pro-choice America won’t be happy with 15 (or possibly 16) weeks. Roe v. Wade held that abortion was permissible until a fetus could live outside the womb, which today is 23 or 24 weeks. That’s vastly different from 15 weeks. People who believe that women should control their reproductive freedom will never accept a “compromise” that rushes women into making such a momentous decision just a few weeks after they’ve learned they’re pregnant, nor should they. And we’re already seeing in various states, where citizens have been allowed to express themselves at the ballot box—in the precise manner that Justice Samuel Alito proposed (however insincerely) that they should—that enshrining, protecting, and even expanding reproductive freedoms is where the people want to go.

But let’s also look to Trump’s right. There you will find a rumbustious army of zealots who will not be making peace anytime soon, either. They want six weeks, no weeks, no in-vitro fertilization, the jailing of doctors performing abortions and women who get them, bounties placed on those who aid and abet reproductive freedom, vigilantes patrolling the highways, and more. And it will hardly stop there—as New Republic contributor Susan Rinkunas pointed out, the new far-right fascination with the Comstock Act signals a broad war against the sexual revolution itself, putting contraception, marriage equality, and no-fault divorce on the table. Do you think these people are prepared to accept Trump’s phony “peace” when they believe that giving women up to 15 weeks to decide this question is tantamount to murder? No, at best, this makes Trump, at the very least, complicit in murder in their minds.

Ahh, but will they say that? Maybe a few will criticize his position, but mostly, they’ll fall right into line and applaud Trump as the great compromiser. They know this is the issue that can kill them, so they have to invert reality on it.

It’s a mirror image of how the right works. Usually, they love Trump because he takes hard-right positions and sticks it to the libs. The Muslim ban, the border talk, the “vermin” rhetoric, and so on. Fox News and other right-wing outlets promote and echo this extremism constantly.

But on Fox News this week, they’re going to be saluting Trump for doing the opposite. By the end of the week, I bet Fox hosts will have called Trump a brave “compromiser” and “moderate” and “conciliator” a couple hundred times. Can’t you just hear it? “This is real leadership. Donald Trump understands that there are competing strongly held views on this topic across the country, and he has selflessly put aside his own strongly held personal views to try to find a compromise position all Americans can live with. That is presidential leadership, my friends.”

Yes, that’s exactly the opposite of what we’d expect them to say. And it’s exactly the opposite of what they ought to be saying if they had actual principles and really believed that abortion is murder. But they don’t. They have only the two principles I stated above.

And of those two, the second, trolling the libs, is the more important. Power matters a lot to them, don’t get me wrong. But trolling the libs matters more. Think of it: They do things all the time that show that feeding their base—trolling the libs—is more important to them than winning.

Take impeaching Joe Biden. Every poll in the world showed them that that was a bananas idea. That independents and swing voters thought it was a waste of time and money. Yet they did it. They still want to do it.

Now: Trump’s abortion position may seem on the surface like it’s the opposite of the wild-eyed desires that fuel the impeachment drive. After all, the former is a “moderate” position, the latter an extreme one. But actually, no! What they have in common is that both positions troll the libs very hard. Because what could drive liberals crazier than the idea that Donald Trump is a moderate conciliator? The right knows this, and they’ll push it hard.

There is precedent for this. Some of you may remember the first Barack Obama–Mitt Romney debate in 2012. Romney had spent a year-plus on the trail taking pretty hard-right positions (at least, for 2012; some seem mild now). Then, in that first debate, he turned on a dime. He took a range of centrist positions and waltzed casually away from his old primary-season positions as if he’d never even heard of them. And the right-wing commentariat went along with the whole act. If the Obama campaign hadn’t done a good job over the next month of reminding voters of those old positions, President Romney might well have been sworn in the following January.

That is exactly what I predict will happen this week. Sure, a few voices will be allowed to dissent. Certain ministers will express their concern, and a House member or three will be permitted to say that a national ban remains an abstract, long-term goal. But that will be about it. The new line will be that Trump is the centrist here, and Joe Biden the extremist.

The big question is whether swing voters will buy this lie, and in what numbers. Whether or not they shift in Trump’s favor will depend a lot on what Democrats do in response—and how quickly. One obvious thing they need to do is keep on showing those clips of Trump bragging about getting rid of Roe, over and over. Another is to show clips of the numerous Republicans saying they want a blanket federal ban, just to remind voters of what nearly everyone in the GOP actually believes and wants. Democrats also need to make daily hay of Project 2025: The 180-day playbook that the right intends to run if Trump is reelected, which is stuffed to the gills with all manner of extreme, unpopular, and extremely unpopular things the right have fantasized about doing to this country. The sentence from Project 2025 that you will want to remember is on page six of its foreword: “But the Dobbs decision is just the beginning.” This is the out-in-the-open plan that puts the lie to any and all of Trump’s feints at “moderation.”

This could get complicated. Some polls show that a hefty percentage of Americans would support a 16-week ban. That said, it looks like more people support simply codifying Roe v. Wade into law, which is the Biden position. So maybe the Democrats should also emphasize that.

However they play it, the bottom line is this. Abortion is probably the Democrats’ single winningest issue in this campaign. They simply can’t let the man who created the Supreme Court that took away this 50-year-old right come off as looking like the reasonable candidate on the issue. The right is desperate for that to be the broad perception among middle-of-the-road voters: that Biden and the Democrats are the extremists.

To forestall that, Democrats need to point to the words, deeds, and plans of Trump and his fellow Republicans—early and often. Radio silence in the face of Trump’s next big con could be fatal.