Souljah Boy

1992 Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton. (Photo by: Arthur Gurmankin/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If we can’t have principled federalists leading the Republican Party, I suppose unprincipled ones will have to do.

On Monday morning, Donald Trump declared his belief that abortion policy should be set by the states, disappointing pro-lifers who’d hoped for new federal restrictions upon his return to office. “The states will determine by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land,” he said. “Many states will be different. Many will have a different number of weeks, or some will [be] more conservative than others, and that’s what they will be. At the end of the day, this is all about the will of the people.”

That’s no different from the position he took a year ago, so today’s news shouldn’t feel shocking. But it does.

It’s shocking because a strongman’s instinct is to consolidate power, not disperse it. “National savior” messianism doesn’t typically produce endorsements of decentralized authority.

It’s shocking because, insofar as right-wing demagogues holler about “states’ rights,” they’ve historically done so to protect an illiberal local status quo from federal intervention. Segregationists growling about their inviolable right to impose “separate but equal” policies is a textbook case. Donald Trump insisting that blue states should be free to turn themselves into abortion mills is … not.

And it’s shocking because, well, Trump is right. How often do you see those words in this newsletter?

The states are the proper venue for abortion policy. That was the constitutional backdrop for 50 years of conservative arguments against Roe v. Wade; now that Roe is gone, many pro-lifers have decided belatedly that federalism is overrated. But Congress is no more valid a policymaker on abortion than the Supreme Court was, as a cursory reading of Article I will reveal. Barring a tortured reading of abortion as “commerce” or a very expansive reading of the word “life” in the 14th Amendment, nothing in the Constitution grants the legislative branch power over this subject.

Donald Trump, situational federalist, has arrived at the right outcome for the wrong reason. He plainly doesn’t give a fig about constitutional niceties; his allergy to setting abortion policy at the federal level derives entirely from the electoral headache this issue has created for him. In a country where pro-choicers continue to flex their muscles impressively at the polls, Trump needed a way to reassure swing voters that he won’t impose new federal limits in a second term as president without declaring that he’s pro-choice himself. Voila: federalism.

Pro-lifers are unhappy with him today, as Trump knew—and possibly hoped—they would be, the better to show the pro-choice majority that he’s not one of those people. In fact, one of my editors mischievously suggested this episode is nothing less than his version of “a Sister Souljah moment.” Which would be ironic, as it’s Joe Biden who’s been urged for months by commentators to have one of those at the expense of the anti-anti-Hamas left.

Is that what this is? If so, why has Trump managed it when Biden couldn’t?

The original “Sister Souljah moment” came in 1992 after Bill Clinton had clinched his party’s nomination for president. He was invited to address Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, where, the day before, rapper Sister Souljah had spoken. At the end of his speech, Clinton made a point of scolding Jackson for that choice, reminding him that only a month earlier his honored guest had said, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

If the races in that formulation were reversed, the future president observed, it would sound like something David Duke might say.

The incident instantly became a byword for whenever a politician publicly repudiates some ideological fringe within his or her coalition in order to impress centrist voters outside of it. The fringe in question is usually radical in outlook but it needn’t be: As my editor put it, any “important but electorally damaging faction” from whom the candidate might benefit by distancing himself would qualify.

Pro-lifers who support national abortion restrictions fit that bill.

Polling post-Roe has suggested that Americans might tolerate a 15-week federal ban as an acceptable middle-ground, keeping the practice legal for most abortions while preventing the sort of late-term terminations that most find barbaric. But after red states greeted the end of Roe with strict bans—prohibiting the practice after six weeks gestation or even earlier—national opinion may have begun to move thermostatically in the opposite direction. A Fox News poll published two weeks ago spotted an arresting trend: “Voters oppose a 15-week ban by 11 points (54% oppose vs. 43% favor), which is in direct contrast with results in 2023 when it was favored by 12 points (42% oppose vs. 54% favor) and in 2022 when it was favored by 13 points (41% vs. 54%).”

Democrats have spent nearly two years warning voters of a parade of incrementalist horribles to come after Roe was overturned. Women with troubled pregnancies forced to seek out-of-state abortions, the IVF fiasco in Alabama, and lately a challenge to abortifacients before the Supreme Court: If you’re a swing voter who was formerly open to a 15-week compromise, your priorities might now have shifted toward stopping Republicans from gaining another inch lest they take a mile. That would explain the shift in the Fox News polling—and, of course, Trump’s own shift away from the sort of middle-ground federal ban he had been considering until recently.

In that sense, this really is a “Sister Souljah moment” for Trump. He’s making a play for the center by breaking sharply and ostentatiously with some core constituency in his base. It’s classic.

And it’s similar to Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” in another way. Trump has every reason to believe that no matter how disappointed pro-lifers are in him, hardly any of them will hold it against him at the polls.

Clinton knew he was at no risk of losing black voters to the patrician, country-club Republican George H.W. Bush, no matter how offended Jesse Jackson might be. (A few years later, no less a figure than Toni Morrison would dub him “the first black president.”) Trump is on even firmer ground politically within his own party than Clinton was. With Biden and his party vowing to reinstate the Roe framework nationally as a federal statute, pro-lifers can console themselves with the fact that a second Trump presidency will at least leave strict bans in red states intact, even if no new federal restrictions follow.

Trump also understands, I’m sure, that the pro-life movement as we’ve known it no longer exists as a meaningful political force. There’s a lot of hot rhetoric on social media today about his “states’ rights” abortion position—including from certain people who’ve appeared on a ballot with him—but the fact that Trump paid no penalty in the Republican primaries this year despite having declared abortion a state issue a year ago means pro-lifers have effectively forfeited their leverage over the direction of the GOP. And on some level, they know it.

Consider that Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading anti-abortion lobby, put out a statement last April warning Trump that his federalist approach to the issue was unacceptable. “We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions,” they vowed. A few weeks later, the group’s leader was holding backslapping meetings with Trump again. This morning, after he all but extinguished abortion as a core issue for the Republican Party, SBAPLA issued a new statement pronouncing itself “deeply disappointed” but vowing to “work tirelessly to defeat President Biden and extreme Congressional Democrats.”

These pro-life groups are a paper tiger. Everyone realizes it now, including them. “Sister Souljah moments” are typically thought of as a candidate risking votes among his or her base in hopes of earning a windfall of support in the middle, but because so many pro-lifers are partisans, MAGA diehards, or simply appalled by Democratic abortion policies, Trump isn’t risking much of anything. He’s going to hold onto most of the people who disagree with his “states’ rights” policy and pick up votes in the middle.

That also explains why Biden can’t pull off a “Sister Souljah moment” of his own. Progressives had no affection for the president even before he backed Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza; accordingly, there’s no reservoir of goodwill for him to draw off of, as there is for Trump or was for Bill Clinton, if he had attacked them for being Hamas apologists. They really might abandon Biden if he offends them, which is why he’s begun tacking to the left on Israel lately. Pro-life conservatives are cheap dates by comparison, and cheap dates tend to be taken advantage of.

All of this makes Trump’s federalist approach to abortion relatively good politics, the least bad option available to him. Biden and the Democrats will continue to remind voters that Trump is responsible for the Supreme Court majority that made strict bans in red states possible, no matter how “moderate” he may sound now. But punting the issue on federalist grounds was the most elegant way, short of declaring his own pro-choice sympathies, that Trump could reassure undecided voters that he won’t tinker with abortion laws as president.

And hey, it might pay off for pro-lifers in the long run. If Trump’s “states’ rights” approach to abortion becomes American political orthodoxy—and perhaps it already is—Democrats might think twice about trying to enact the Roe framework as federal policy once they have the chance. Given how strong national support is for abortion rights in the first trimester, conservatives should worry more about preserving restrictions that have passed in red states than imposing federal restrictions on blue ones. A federalist détente led by Trump might ensure that there are more limits on abortion in 10 years, albeit at the local level, than a push to nationalize those limits would.

Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” was good politics too, of course. But there’s a way in which Trump’s version is so different from Clinton’s as to be almost the polar opposite.

Clinton took a moral stand against radicalism for the sake of advancing a centrist policy agenda. Trump is taking a centrist policy stand for the sake of advancing a radical moral agenda—or what passes for “moral” to a character like him.

The point of the original “Sister Souljah moment” was to show moderates that the Democratic nominee for president shared their sensibility about right and wrong. Clinton ultimately didn’t care about Sister Souljah or her dopey comments about killing whites, I’m sure; what he cared about was enacting Democratic policies and the first step to doing that was maximizing his chances of getting elected.

He marginalized a kook in the name of aligning himself with normies.

With Trump, the thing he doesn’t care about is abortion policy and how individual people feel about it. (“Do what’s right for your family and do what’s right for yourself,” he told his audience in his video statement, all but washing his hands of the subject.) His reasons for wanting to be elected are personal: He’s keen to stop the prosecutions against him, exact “retribution” against his political enemies, and staff the executive branch with loyalists who’ll do what he tells them without resistance.

He aligns himself with kooks and marginalizes normies by asking them to sacrifice mainstream policy beliefs about which they care deeply.

In a normal political party, the candidate serves the agenda. In a cult of personality, the agenda serves the candidate. That’s the “Trump effect,” about which I’ve written before

Apart from stronger immigration enforcement, there may not be a single Republican policy Trump is unwilling to sell out in exchange for a few extra votes in the center. On Sunday, he framed his forthcoming abortion announcement this way: “Great love and compassion must be shown when even thinking about the subject of LIFE, but at the same time we must use common sense in realizing that we have an obligation to the salvation of our Nation, which is currently in serious DECLINE, TO WIN ELECTIONS, without which we will have nothing other than failure, death, and destruction.” If nothing short of national survival depends on his reelection, surely all traditional party priorities must be negotiable in the name of victory!

His position on that has been clear for years, of course, but rarely has it been so explicit. The Tea Party commitment to fiscal responsibility went down the toilet during his first term; the pro-life commitment to restricting abortion is now circling the drain; the Reaganite commitment to international alliances and restraining illiberal power will follow the others down in a second term. Eventually, Trump will ask the right to ditch its commitment to the constitutional order—insofar as he hasn’t already—entirely in the name of preventing “failure, death, and destruction.” The post-liberal toadies cheering on his abortion announcement will oblige:

It’s an inversion of the “Flight 93” logic that got Trump elected in 2016. At the time, conservatives were told that Hillary Clinton’s policies would destroy America; now conservatives are told that failing to move toward some of Hillary Clinton’s policies will destroy America. As one clever observer noted, it’s strange to hear MAGA suddenly care so deeply about winning elections when they could have assured Republican victory in November simply by nominating someone other than Donald Trump.

And the call for sacrifice and moderation on policy goes only one way, needless to say. Pro-lifers are asked to compromise on federal abortion restrictions in the name of national victory but nationalist border hawks will not be asked to compromise on a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been here for many years, never mind that 74 percent of Americans support such a policy.

Ultimately, and very ironically, Trump is making an argument that Never Trumpers are uniquely well-suited to appreciate. He and I both agree that policy differences should be set aside in this election in favor of more urgent civic priorities. It’s just that my civic priority is preserving the rule of law and Trump’s priority is whatever this is:

At base, this abortion episode is just an iteration of the “Republican hostage crisis,” I think.

Trump is saying as clearly as he can that he’s OK with legalized abortion in many states and that limiting the practice will no longer be a national priority for the Republican Party. Going forward, the GOP will concern itself exclusively with his personal vendettas and ethnonationalist hobby horses like making sure that the only immigrants who enter America are from, ahem, “nice countries.” He’s taken the party hostage and he expects pro-lifers not to make any false moves by, say, boycotting the election in protest of his new agenda. The hostage will get plugged if they do.

But an electoral boycott is the only way a constituency can force a party to take its agenda seriously. If pro-lifers show up for Trump after he’s embraced the transformation of blue states into abortion factories, their votes will be taken for granted by Republicans for eternity. It makes sense for a cult of personality not to risk its own electoral viability by taking a hard line on an issue it’s not passionate about, but why on earth would principled pro-lifers want to partner in that agenda?

That’s another thing that makes Trump’s “Sister Souljah moment” unique. Unlike Bill Clinton’s, this one has long-term implications for the future of his party.

To the extent he possesses political genius, it’s a genius for recognizing how weak and tribal the right-wing character is. Most pro-lifers will conclude that they’re better off with Trump as president than with pro-choice Joe Biden even though ratifying Trump’s decision to sell them out means neither major party will ever take them seriously again. As time passes and the “anti-anti-choice” position cements into Republican orthodoxy (a process that may have already begun), their position will change to accommodate it.

Who needs an agenda, after all, when you can have cheap tribalist lip service paid to your beliefs instead?

I look forward to the exciting sequel to this episode, when Trump is cornered by some reporter about the upcoming referendum in Florida to overturn that state’s new six-week abortion ban. He’ll have an opportunity to cast a ballot on that question; he’s on record as saying he thinks the six-week law was a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” And because it was a state initiative, he should have no objection in principle to attempting to restrict the practice. If he declares that he’s voting to overturn it, what’s left of the pro-life movement as a national concern?

Comments (165)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More