Plenty of explanations have been offered for Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the Electoral College last week. The FBI’s egregious intervention eleven days before the election; media coverage that equated Hillary Clinton’s non-scandals with Trump’s brazen mendacity; speculation about Clinton’s various imperfections as a candidate; the economic and cultural anxieties of white working-class voters; and straight-up racism, misogyny, and fear. But it’s difficult to understand Trump success—or indeed any of these secondary explanations—unless you understand the politics of abortion.
Trump—who described himself as “very pro-choice” in the late 1990s—was never a likely prospect to win the hearts of evangelical voters. For this very reason, perhaps, he did not simply check the box opposing abortion, as Republican politicians have traditionally done. He backed up his newfound anti-abortion conviction with a promise to flip the Supreme Court. At Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference back in June 2016, he held up a list of potential Justices as if he were selling shiny new bonds for a casino development. “These judges are all pro-life!” he assured the crowd, touting hard-right anti-abortion foes like Steven Colloton of Iowa and Raymond Gruender of Missouri. Then he went on to choose as his running mate Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who must rank as one of the most socially conservative politicians in the country.
Exit polls suggest that this strategy paid off big-league. Trump racked up a higher percentage of white evangelical voters than either Romney or Bush—an astounding 81 percent to Clinton’s 16 percent. He also did much better than anticipated among white Catholics—60 percent to 37 percent. And he managed to capture nearly one in five Latino votes.
According to an ABC News exit poll, 21 percent of voters said the issue of Supreme Court appointments was the most important factor in determining how they voted, and 57 percent of those people went for Trump. That means that one out of every four Trump voters voted with the Supreme Court in mind, and it’s a safe bet that a very substantial number of those see the Supreme Court through the lens of abortion politics.
The role of abortion politics in holding on to Latino voters deserves special scrutiny. While the Pew Research Center found that “Hispanic Catholics and Jews were firmly in Hillary Clinton’s corner,” evangelicals have been aggressively courting Latinos, and post-election investigations confirm the impact. Helen Aguirre Ferré, a former Trump critic turned supporter, told NBC News that “[t]he campaign found heavy support among Hispanics who are concerned about abortion, particularly among Hispanic Christian evangelicals, including Puerto Ricans in Florida’s I-4 corridor; a growing number of [whom] are becoming evangelicals.”
If you can rally voters around abortion, few other issues matter. (A strongman message that appeals to bigotry and division also doesn’t hurt.)
The day after the election, religious conservatives were quick to point to the success of this strategy.
“First, he chose a pro-life conservative running mate, he did not try to weaken the party’s platform, and he laid out a list of potential justices that he said are pro-life,” said Tony Perkins, who appeared on Fox News the day after the election. “We’ve never had a Republican nominee do this. And I think he basically closed the deal in the last debate when he went into late-term abortion in first 15 minutes.”
The elevation of abortion to a defining issue in the partisan split seems so much a part of contemporary American politics that we forget that it is a relatively recent development. In order to fully appreciate and address the role of abortion in the present political moment, we need to understand how it came to be so.
Until very recently—just the past three decades—abortion was not obviously or necessarily the key issue that mattered. Unless you were Catholic, neither was it a vital religious one. When Roe was announced in 1973, the Southern Baptist Convention actually hailed it, running a favorable op-ed in the Baptist Press. To complement a large number of pro-choice Republicans, there were large numbers of anti-abortion Democrats—including Joe Biden, who voted in 1982 for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The politics of abortion changed in response to two political developments in the postwar era. The first was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”—that is, the Republican Party’s commitment to gathering the votes of southern, white, working people distressed at the social changes of the time. The second was the emergence of a cadre of religious conservative leaders who, alarmed by the rapid social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, shared a strong desire to form a political coalition.
Notably, the issue that first brought together the leadership of these two forces together wasn’t abortion, but rather the desire to protect racially segregated religious schools from losing their tax-exempt status. Enemy number one was not Planned Parenthood but the IRS. As conservative activist Paul Weyrich, who coined the term “Moral Majority,” has attested, at the first gatherings of the Religious Right, abortion took a back seat to school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, and above all, the tax status of racially segregated religious academies. “No, Weyrich insisted, what got us going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies,” historian and author Randall Balmer wrote in Thy Kingdom Come (Basic Books, 2006).
It took some time for the Republicans and the religious leaders to settle on abortion as the vehicle for consolidating political power. The breakthrough came when savvy religious activists, such as Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, noticed that the language used to express concerns about abortion was in essence the same language used to articulate anxieties about evolving family, gender, and racial norms. Republicans realized that by turning abortion into a matter of “family values,” they could make the cause of switching party affiliation attractive, especially to their white working-class base. Strategists for the Republican Party approached Falwell and encouraged him and his peers to organize evangelicals into a “Moral Majority” that would promote a pro-family social and political agenda. Declaring that abortion is “murder according to the word of God,” Falwell disseminated this message to the millions of evangelical voters through sermons, radio segments, and mailers.
Once the strategy of using abortion as the unifying issue for the right was settled, theology changed dramatically in order to service this new purpose. Falwell committed himself to a new version of the Gospel in which protecting fetal life was the defining element of membership in the community of God. To be a member of the anxious, dislocated, white working class was also to be opposed to the immoral “others” in society who endorsed abortion.
By 2000, the color-coding of abortion positions had intensified. It had become difficult to compete in Republican Party politics without having adopted a vigorously anti-abortion position. The rise of the Tea Party in 2009 raised the stakes even higher. In order to ward off threats from primary challengers on the right, Republican politicians took to adopting increasingly aggressive anti-abortion positions.
All of this social and political history can be read back fairly easily from the statistics drawn from polling of today’s electorate. There is a significant correlation between being anti-abortion and living in a red state, being a member of the white working class, and having lower levels of educational achievement. And although the polling data isn’t nuanced enough to capture this, the correlations are undoubtedly higher if we make a distinction between people who happen to be anti-abortion, and those whose voting preferences are driven by their anti-abortion positions.
There’s a view that the country is deeply divided, and that the Republican Party has tapped into the anger of one half. But it is important to remember that the Republican Party played a central role in creating this division. They worked hard, not just to exploit racial and social divisions, but to deepen them. With its specious clarity—you’re for life or against it—the abortion issue did not merely reflect a social division but served to differentiate vividly the people with “values” from what the Right’s religious and political leaders cast as a fundamentally alien and corrupt opposition.
Which brings us to the present moment, and the question: What will Trump actually deliver to the anti-abortion forces that powered him into high office?
There is little reason to think that Trump will renege on his promise to stack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion Justices. In a November 13 interview with 60 Minutes, Trump reiterated his commitment, and blithely asserted that “if [Roe v. Wade] ever were overturned, it would go back to the states…perhaps [U.S. women will] have to go, they’ll have to go to another state.”
While it could take years to overturn Roe v. Wade, the impact of Trump Supreme Court picks will be felt much sooner through the court’s decisions on state legislation. Over the past five years, we have seen Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws—laws targeting methods of practice, mandatory waiting periods, forced ultrasound—all of which have been crafted for the purpose of making abortion access much more difficult and expensive. Many of these bills are unconstitutional according to the Supreme Court’s reigning standards of interpretation of the Constitution, but all that could change following Trump SCOTUS appointments. In Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt, Texas’s attempt to deny abortion rights by reducing drastically the number of clinics in the state, for example, the push to place onerous restrictions on abortion providers failed to get the backing of the court. But the decision was 5 to 3.
The most likely effect of Trump presidency is therefore to accelerate a process that has already been underway these past four years. Under right-wing Republican legislatures, abortion rights have been curtailed more than at any time in the previous four decades. In 2015, nearly 400 abortion bills were introduced. Many are clearly unconstitutional under the current jurisprudence—but all that could change under a new Supreme Court.
Trump also vowed repeatedly, on the campaign trail, to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides a broad range of reproductive health services for 2.5 million Americans annually. In September 2016, he sent a letter to “Pro-Life Leaders” stating his commitment to “Defunding Planned Parenthood as long as they continue to perform abortions” and to make the Hyde Amendment “permanent law to protect taxpayers from having to pay for abortions.”
What will be the effect of a patchwork regime of anti-abortion policy across the United States? If you believe Tony Perkins, the consequences will be worth celebrating, as the family will once again get the respect it deserves and the unmarried will abstain from sexual activity. If you believe in the findings of social science, the result will be an increase in the poverty rate, crime, and lost educational opportunities.
We are at the present point because abortion is framed by the Right as a religious issue, and by the Left as a matter of individual rights. This allows the Right to advance its political purposes under the sacred cover of religion, and that’s why liberals and the Left need to overcome their hang-ups about engaging critically with politicized religion. Religion, insofar as it is a purely private matter, deserves our respect and protection. But politicized religion deserves as much scrutiny as anything else that enters the public square. Now that we are about to get a taste of theocratic policy, will we finally speak up?