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Trump’s Toxic Touch
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Trump’s Toxic Touch

Even his relatively moderate positions are ultimately grotesque.

Donald Trump speaks to the media during a visit to a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 10, 2024. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Donald Trump loves gold, but he has the opposite of the Midas effect: Everything he touches turns to dross—even when he stumbles onto the right policy, more or less, as he has in the matter of abortion as a federal question. 

The conservative legal view of Roe v. Wade—which is not necessarily an anti-abortion view—is that the Supreme Court exnihilated a federal right to abortion straight out of the penumbras of Justice Harry Blackmun’s posterior based on very little more than pure political will, and that Dobbs rightly reversed this act of judicial superlegislation, returning the matter to the democratic process and, mainly, to state legislatures. A person who generally supports abortion rights could easily hold that position—and, indeed, many do. By no means is it the case, however, that, as Trump stated, vacating Roe was something “that all legal scholars [on] both sides wanted.” (Even on the most serious of moral issues, Trump cannot help but lie, stupidly, blatantly, and to no purpose. He lies out of habit and because he enjoys it.) The argument about Roe was an argument about law, not an argument about abortion.

Now comes the argument about abortion. 

Overturning Roe provided only the opportunity to have that argument, and, for the moment, the anti-abortion side is not having a lot of luck advancing its case. Possibly this is because the anti-abortion movement has chosen a leader who so transparently does not give a fig about abortion or any other moral or political question except to the extent that it serves his interests. But, Trump aside, there are other reasons for the pro-life stall. First is that the anti-abortion movement was so entirely focused on Roe for half a century that many advocates forgot how to talk about abortion in the context of democratic controversy. Second is that, while most Americans report views on abortion that are in fact at odds with the anything-goes Roe regime, overturning Roe was a 60-40 proposition against (very popular among Republicans, but not a majority position overall), and meaningfully restricting abortion access is unpopular in the polls and, so far, a proven election loser, a fact that the anti-abortion movement must face head-on if it is to engage in the necessary project of persuasion and consensus-building. Third is that many of the so-called “trigger laws” that came into effect following Dobbs—as well as some post-Dobbs legislative proposals—were stupidly and incompetently written, or, as in the case of Arizona, were originally enacted in 1864 and bear the hallmarks of the mid-19th century, putting anti-abortion advocates in the position of fighting a rear-guard action in defense of bad laws that should be reformed or replaced. Fourth is that convincing the federal judiciary to accept the federalist legal reasoning leading to Dobbs was a great deal easier than convincing the American public to accept the federalist outcome that followed the decision, while at the institutional level both anti-abortion groups and abortion-rights groups have strong financial and political incentives to keep abortion at the urgent center of national politics rather than fighting it out serially in the legislatures of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, etc. 

The Dobbs decision returned abortion to the states, and if Donald Trump sounds indifferent about how that plays out in the states, it is not because he is indifferent, exactly, much less possessed of “disinterest” as Jamelle Bouie put it with perfect wrongness (subsequently edited away) in the New York Times—it is because he subordinates the abortion issue, like every other issue, to his own narrow self-interest. Trump was, recall, a self-described “pro-choice” Manhattan playboy and reality-television grotesque who made occasional cameos in pornographic films before he decided that he wanted to chase the Republican presidential nomination. As with the Second Amendment, traditional marriage (ho, ho!), and much else, Trump lurches from position to position, precisely as one would expect a man with no moral anchor to do.

Trump has long been to the left of the longstanding Republican consensus on many issues: abortion, gun control, taxes, entitlements, marriage and family—almost every issue other than immigration, in fact, though even on immigration he has at times been an amnesty supporter and a “path to citizenship” advocate, when he thought it would benefit him. For a different kind of politician, that discongruity might have a moderating effect and provide some basis for seeking broader and deeper political compromises than American politics has produced in recent years. But Donald Trump suffers from a particularly toxic combination of character defects—laziness, stupidity, arrogance, insecurity, and profound personal cowardice—that make such an outcome impossible. 

Too much? No: Laziness, because Trump’s stand is the one that requires the least work; stupidity, because he doesn’t understand that “Let the states decide” is a dodge that works under Roe but not under Dobbs, when the states are, in fact, deciding; arrogance, because he has good reason to believe this will be enough for the rubes who are going to support him no matter what; insecurity, because a better kind of man (with a lead in the polls) might do some good by making the case forthrightly, but Trump is an inferior kind of man and knows it; profound personal cowardice, because Trump fears losing something he wants more than he fears being on the wrong side of a question when wrong equates to millions of dead children.

And so we get the worst of both worlds: for the anti-abortion movement, a weak, fickle, and cowardly champion; for those who support abortion rights, sneering triumphalism from Trump’s sycophants; for those who would seek to build consensus, a Republican nominee—and a Republican Party—determined to make that impossible. 

The question of consensus is, in this context, consistently misunderstood. My own views on abortion have at times been a matter of strangely intense public interest—on the ultimate question, my understanding of abortion is approximate that of Mother Teresa, and I don’t think it would be wrong to describe me as an “extremist,” as Ross Douthat did in the New York Times. Consensus-building in this matter is not something undertaken in order to accommodate abortion enthusiasm in the interest of advancing a broader political agenda but rather the opposite: Consensus-building is the only way to build a stable, long-term policy that actually protects the lives of the unborn and reduces—in fact, not in theory—the practice of abortion. Consensus-building is the way toward anti-abortion goals, not a detour from them. As I have written before: The pro-life movement doesn’t win when nobody can get an abortion—it wins when nobody wants one.

A federal prohibition on abortion—one that does not have an obvious constitutional basis—probably would not stand very long but would instead be judicially vacated or revoked by the future Democratic congressional majority it probably would provoke into being. It would be a terrific fundraising tool for both anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups—the two have at least some financial interests in common—but it would not advance the anti-abortion cause either politically (in the long run) or practically (in the short run, or, most likely, ever). We need stability, not convulsion.

None of which, please note, is of any interest at all to Donald Trump, whose current political agenda begins and ends with the goal of winning the power to pardon himself in order to avoid incarceration and ultimate financial ruination. Trump is a relative moderate in the sense of having policy instincts that are often well to the left of where we would have found Paul Ryan or Jeane Kirkpatrick on the issues. But Trump is a radical in rhetoric and, more importantly, in his lawless and reckless pursuit of his own interests, including his illegitimate attempt to hold onto power through a coup d’état the last time he weaseled his way into the White House. Trump being Trump—a man without natural decency, religious formation, or patriotism—his relatively moderate policy tendencies are entirely hostage to his radical selfishness.

That’s a funny kind of Midas touch. 

Kevin D. Williamson's Headshot

Kevin D. Williamson

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.