By now, I think we all know that Donald Trump would hock his kids’ kidneys to win this election.
I’m probably being over fastidious, then, to note that I find his most recent attempt to exploit the painfully wrenching issue of abortion particularly offensive. I use the adjective wrenching, I suppose, because I’m a Catholic who personally opposes most therapeutic pregnancy terminations, but still supports the woman’s right to choose.
I do so, in part, because the question of abortion’s morality hinges on a question to which we currently have no convincing scientific answer: At what point does life begin? Given our inability to know that, I think a pluralistic democracy simply is obliged to admit that this is a question over which serious-minded people of good will can differ and, therefore, we ought to defer to the rights of individuals to decide. That said, I find the extremes on this issue—including those among some of my own coreligionists—distasteful. The notion that life “begins at conception” frankly is biological and philosophical nonsense. So, too, is the other extreme that insists there is no point during pregnancy at which a human being comes into existence in the womb. Are we really supposed to believe that something magical occurs during passage through the birth canal, so that something less than human enters and someone fully human emerges? More nonsense.
(For the sake of historical reference: Aristotle believed in a process of “ensoulment” or epigenesis in which the developing embryo went through a series of accretive stages at the conclusion of which an individual human being emerged. The Stoics believed the soul entered a child with its first breath outside the womb, while the Pythagoreans and Epicureans thought life began at conception. Aristotle’s view, which also was Augustine’s and Aquinas’, is closest to our modern science of embryology.)
Take an issue of this consequence and a controversy of this antiquity, and you know that when Trump wades into it, the result can only be stomach turningly vulgar.
If anyone really believes that Trump has any genuine or remotely thoughtful or sincere views on this issue, I’d like to sell them a semester at Trump University—or, perhaps, one of his casino bonds.
Ten years ago, the failed Casino operator described himself as “strongly pro-choice.” As he insinuated himself into national Republican politics, he began to migrate right and today declares himself “strongly pro-life” and says he thinks elective abortion should be outlawed except in cases of incest, rape and to save a mother’s life. At one point, he mused that women who terminated their pregnancies should be jailed, though he quickly backed away from that one. If anyone really believes that Trump has any genuine or remotely thoughtful or sincere views on this issue, I’d like to sell them a semester at Trump University—or, perhaps, one of his casino bonds.
Even so, as Trump scavenges for every vote in his theoretical base, he has decided to launch a special campaign outreach to anti-abortion Americans. Friday, the GOP candidate announced the formation of his “Pro-Life Coalition,” and appointed an anti-reproductive rights hardliner, Marjorie Dannenfelser—president of the right-wing Susan B. Anthony List—to lead it.
She opposes not only abortion, but also contraception and has called allowing pregnancy termination in cases of rape and incest “abominable.” Trump’s vice presidential choice Mike Pence also is one of the party’s most fanatical anti-choice lawmakers, and as governor, signed a bill that required formal funerals for fetuses. It naturally was declared unconstitutional by the first court to examine it, but Trump has plans about that, too. He now has pledged that, if elected, he will not nominate anyone to the Supreme Court unless they declare themselves willing to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Trump’s new found religion already has won him some interesting new adherents, among them the president of Operation Rescue, Troy Newman, who has called the murder of doctors who perform abortions morally justifiable. (Somehow, I expect to read that he and David Duke have been appointed to head the new Homicidal Fanatics for Trump Coalition.)
Here’s what I suspect really is going on here, and it has nothing to do with abortion and everything to do with Trump’s advisers’ realization that he has a serious Catholic problem.
One in every four American voters is a Roman Catholic, which means they constitute about as large a bloc as minorities (28%) and independents (29%).
Naturally, Trump is deeply unpopular with Latino Catholics, but the majority of Catholic voters still are white, many of them the blue collar white ethnics on whom the developer’s campaign relies. According to the most recent reliable polls Hillary Clinton currently leads Trump among all Catholic whites, 44%-41%. The GOP nominee’s new anti-abortion gambit clearly is designed to appeal to those Catholics who attend weekly Mass and who, in recent years, have tended to veer toward the Republicans.
With them, Trump’s problems are even worse. According to a recent non-partisan Pew survey, Catholics who go to Mass weekly favor Clinton by a 57% to 38% margin. This is a group Mitt Romney carried by a 15-point margin over Barack Obama. There are a variety of reasons bandied about for Trump’s unpopularity with the most religious white Catholics. Some believe that while the group’s politics have drifted in a more conservative direction in recent years, Trump’s vicious nativism revives their own familial memories—Irish, Italians and Slavs—of their painful struggle to find a place in American society. Others think his insults to Pope Francis went down particularly badly with Mass-goers. There’s also the fact that many of these people embrace much of the church’s social gospel, most of which Trump opposes. Many of them simply dislike the political company Trump keeps—white supremacists, immigrant bashers. Many belong to the same parishes as the Latino immigrants Trump caricatures and reject his vile characterization of people they know as friends, as well as coreligionists.
Maybe they just object to Trump’s transparent social and political amorality. Maybe they just recognize a con man when they see one, which is why the GOP nominee’s Pro-Life Coalition is likely to sway very few of them.