On Sunday, Donald Trump sent shock waves through the Republican primary when an interview with NBC’s Kristen Welker on “Meet the Press” aired in which he said that Ron DeSantis did a “terrible thing” and made a “terrible mistake” when he signed Florida’s six-week abortion ban. It’s the kind of statement that could end virtually any other Republican presidential campaign. Opposition to abortion rights, after all, is every bit as fundamental to Republican identity as support for abortion rights is to Democratic identity. Breaking with the party on that issue is the kind of heresy that no national politician can survive.
Or is it? When it comes to Republican identity, is support for Trump, the person, now more central than any other issue, including abortion?
My colleague Michelle Goldberg speaks often of the distinction between movements that seek converts and movements that hunt heretics. It’s an extremely helpful one. Cultural and political projects centered around winning converts tend to be healthier. They’re outward-facing and bridge-building. Heretic hunters, by contrast, tend to be angrier. They turn movements inward. They believe in addition by subtraction.
The G.O.P. under Trump hunts heretics. Oddly enough, it has grown more intolerant even as it has become less ideological. The reason is simple: Trump is ideologically erratic but personally relentless. He demands absolute loyalty and support. He relishes driving dissenters out of the party or, ideally, into political retirement.
Trump presents the pro-life movement with multiple heresy-hunting problems. First, and most obviously, if support for Trump is the central plank of the new G.O.P. orthodoxy, then the pro-life movement will find its cause subordinated to Trump’s ambitions as long as he reigns. If he believes the pro-life movement helps him, the movement will enjoy the substantial benefits of his largess — for example, the nomination of pro-life judges, including the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade. But if he perceives the movement to be hurting his political ambitions — as his comments to Welker suggest he feels now — then its members will be cast as the heretics and will stand outside, in the cold, complaining about their lost influence to a Republican public that will not care.
Second, as long as the Trumpian right shapes the pro-life movement more than the other way around, the movement will adopt many of the same tactics. It won’t merely serve Trump, it will also imitate Trump. Every movement adopts the character of its leaders, and if Trump is the leader of the G.O.P. and by extension the pro-life movement, then his manners and methods will dominate the discourse.
Finally, and more important, if the backlash to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision teaches us anything, it’s that the pro-life movement cannot be hunting heretics. As a strategy, heretic hunting is far less costly to the side with the more popular position, which can afford its purity, at least for a time. The same impulse can be utterly destructive to those in the minority, as the pro-life movement clearly is now.
As I discussed in a Times Opinion Audio short last week, the Guttmacher Institute published new research suggesting that the number of legal abortions has actually increased after Dobbs. Even though abortion is illegal or sharply restricted in 14 states, there were roughly 10 percent more abortions in the remaining 36 states and Washington, D.C., in the first six months of 2023 than there were when abortion was legal across the country in 2020.
At the same time that abortion numbers rise, the electoral results for the pro-life movement have been exceedingly grim. When abortion referendums have been placed on statewide ballots, the pro-choice movement has won. Every time. Even in states as red as Kentucky, Kansas and Montana.
The general polling numbers, moreover, are disastrous. There has been a marked increase in support for abortion rights positions, and there’s evidence that the pro-life movement began its sharp decline during the Trump administration. After years of stability in abortion polling, support for the pro-life cause is at an extraordinarily low ebb.
In this context, heretic hunting is disastrous. The pro-life movement has to seek converts. Its first three priorities should be to persuade, persuade and, yes, persuade. Donald Trump is not the man for that job, not only because he’s a bully and a heretic hunter but also because it is quite clear that he is not convictionally pro-life. He is conveniently pro-life, and the moment it stops being convenient, he stops having a meaningful opinion either way.
How would someone who is convictionally pro-life and also eager to persuade have responded to Kristen Welker’s questions? Such a person wouldn’t condemn pro-life laws unless those laws were poorly written or had glaring flaws. Instead, he or she would use a challenging question from Welker as an opportunity to persuade, in terms that even skeptics could understand.
For example, when speaking of so-called heartbeat bills that ban abortion after around six weeks of pregnancy, one could connect the concept to one of the happiest moments in parents’ lives — the first moment they heard their child’s heartbeat. Parents feel that joy because it is tangible evidence of life and health. Even for a parent who is anxious, or financially stressed, or caught in a terrible relationship, that heartbeat still signals a life that is precious.
If a politician is challenged to describe the kind of pro-life legislation he’d seek in a nation or state that increasingly favors abortion rights, he could emphasize how a holistic pro-life movement can work with pro-choice allies on legislation that would improve the lives of mothers and children. It turns out that our nation can reduce abortions without banning abortions, and it did so for decades before the abortion rate rose under Trump.
To take one example, in 2021, Mitt Romney advanced a child allowance proposal that would provide families with $4,200 per year per child for each child up to age 6, and $3,000 per year per child between the ages of 6 and 17. Crucially, benefits would begin before birth, helping financially distressed families to prepare to care for their new children.
Not only would the plan cut childhood poverty (while paying for itself through cuts elsewhere), it would almost certainly also reduce the number of abortions. Writing in Public Discourse, the Institute for Family Studies fellow Lyman Stone analyzed the impact of financial support for mothers on abortion rates and found that not only does financial support decrease abortion, that decrease is also most pronounced in jurisdictions with the fewest restrictions on abortion.
That’s what persuasion can look like — defending the source of your convictions by explaining and demonstrating love for kids and moms while also looking for areas of agreement and common purpose. But does any of that sound like Donald Trump to you?
Despite generating interest from conservatives and progressives, Romney’s proposal went nowhere. An astute analysis by Peter Nicholas in The Atlantic noted that the Biden administration had a competing child tax credit plan and Romney himself was an “isolated figure” in his party. While some Republicans reject direct cash transfers, it’s also true that working with Romney meant crossing Trump, and that, of course, would be heresy.
In the days after the Dobbs decision, I wrote a piece arguing that when Roe was reversed, the right wasn’t ready. A Trump movement animated by rage and fear wasn’t prepared to embrace life and love. And now the pro-life movement is forced to ponder: Is Donald Trump more important to the G.O.P. than even the cause of life itself? Is he under any circumstances the best ambassador for a cause that’s already losing ground?
For a generation, the pro-life movement was powerful enough to hunt heretics right out of the Republican Party. Now, if it clashes with Trump, it might find itself the heretic. And if the movement is that weak — if it is that beholden to such a corrupt and cruel man — then we might look back at the Dobbs decision not as a great victory for the pro-life cause, but rather as the beginning of a long defeat, one of a movement that forgot how to persuade.