Being clear-eyed about what the Trump presidency meant for life
TOPSHOT – Pro-life demonstrators listen to US President Donald Trump as he speaks at the 47th annual “March for Life” in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2020. – Trump is the first US president to address in person the country’s biggest annual gathering of anti-abortion campaigners. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
On December 16, Vice President Mike Pence hosted a White House event dubbed “Life is Winning: Celebrating Four Years of Pro-Life Accomplishments” to reflect on an extraordinarily successful presidential term for the pro-life movement. Representatives of more than twenty pro-life groups attended, along with many Trump officials. Pence laid out the pro-life policies that the administration had successfully enacted and promised those present that his own advocacy was just beginning. “You’ve stood for life for the past four years, and I promise you, we will never stop fighting for the right to life,” Pence stated emotionally. “In the months and years ahead, we will see the sanctity of life restored to the center of American law in our time.”
Those accomplishments, spearheaded by the very pro-life leaders and Trump Administration officials gathered to take stock, are impressive. Three Supreme Court justices; more than 220 conservative appointments to the federal judiciary; unprecedented cuts in funding to the abortion industry; unprecedented access to the Administration for pro-life leaders. A succession of high-profile officials, including the president himself, showed up at the March for Life to offer affirmation of the movement’s life-saving work. Many pro-life leaders gambled that a transactional relationship with a president willing to cut deals with them would bear fruit. They accomplished more than they could have imagined.
But while Trump is consistently referred to by Pence as “the most pro-life president in American history,” the vice president is being far too modest. Pence himself was the driving force behind the Trump Administration’s pro-life policies, and he and other pro-life stalwarts on the Trump team utilized a largely chaotic presidency to accomplish an enormous amount for the anti-abortion cause. Trump, happily, was willing to be an enabler. But why is it that this president was willing to acknowledge and prioritize the agenda of the pro-life movement more than previous GOP presidents—more even than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush?
There is important context that is frequently missed. Trump was the first GOP candidate who had no defined agenda of his own beyond muscular sloganeering. Unlike other presidents, he didn’t head to D.C. with a laundry list of policies he intended to pass. Far from being obsessed with legacy, Trump was apparently stunned that he won the office in the first place. When he did, he fell back on those around him—men like Pence, who had secured for him the trust of the pro-life movement. Trump headed to the White House not with a Trump Plan, but with a cavalcade of people determined to use his presidency to accomplish their own ends. Many of them were pro-life. They delivered in spades.
Did Trump’s convictions bring the pro-life movement success, or was it the beliefs and priorities of those around him? If a mere fraction of the reporting and insider accounts emerging from his administration prove accurate, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that Trump himself had any preconceived intention of using his tenure to achieve victories for the pro-life cause. According to Bob Woodward, it was Steve Bannon who told Trump he’d have to be pro-life to win the GOP presidential primaries in the first place. It is much more likely that good people used Trump’s presidency to get pro-life policies passed—not primarily because Trump was “the most pro-life president,” but because men like Pence utilized the opportunity with unprecedented leeway from the top.
There’s potentially another, more fundamental misunderstanding at play, as well. Prior to Trump, being pro-life was usually part and parcel of an overall pro-family outlook, hinged to at least the pretence of decency. True, there have been plenty of hypocrites along the way—politicians claiming to be pro-life while utilizing abortion when their mistresses or their daughters got pregnant. There have also been plenty of converts—people who were once as hedonistic as Trump, but eventually came around or found faith. Thus, the debate surrounding the sincerity of Trump’s convictions generally centered around whether he was actually anti-abortion. If he was genuinely pro-life, the presumption went, this was evidence that we’d “gotten him all wrong” and that he was a changed man.
As the evidence mounted that Trump had, at the very least, a personal distaste for abortion—four people who spoke with him personally assured me that his anti-abortion views were genuine—many reached the conclusion that Trump was a convert. Converts, in the pro-life movement, are common, and many pro-life leaders who had once been pro-choice or lived prior hedonistic lives saw no reason to believe that Trump had not taken the same path. As the Trump Administration unveiled pro-life policy after pro-life policy, many turned into true believers and began to overlook or defend his obvious character flaws and narcissism. Behavior that would have been acceptable in no other president was ignored.
The truth is that Trump appears to be opposed to abortion while remaining unchanged on nearly everything else. The last half-decade has seen the abortion industry rocked by a series of stunning scandals: The revelation that baby bodies were being pillaged for saleable parts; abortion survivors being born alive and left to die; Democrat politicians like Ralph Northam defending infanticide. (Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List told me that Trump was genuinely horrified by Northam’s comments.) Because of the tireless work of the pro-life movement and the growing abortion extremism of the Democrats, it has never been easier for a politician to be pro-life.
In short: Politicians can be genuinely pro-life and remain terrible people. So, it seems, is the case with Trump. Opposing the practice of “ripping the babies straight from the mother’s womb,” as Trump put it, is simply base-level human decency. The fact that the ghoulish Democrats cannot figure this out does not make Trump a good man–or a good president.
As the Trump presidency ends in a snarl of conspiracy theories, paranoia, and unprecedented refusals to accept reality, it is essential that pro-lifers and conservatives remain clear-eyed about what the Trump Administration represented. It was an opportunity to pass policy, and it turned out to be a far more fruitful one than most suspected. But Trump himself is precisely the man most thought him to be in 2016. Over the past four years, some watched the socially conservative policies pouring out of his administration and thought: Perhaps character isn’t destiny, after all. The last four weeks, surely, have proven once again that it is. The Trump Train has lurched off the rails, with pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood suggesting that Pence (along with many other top GOP figures) should be arrested, charged with treason, and shot by firing squad. The unprecedented insanities are mounting almost hourly.
The best time to get off the Trump Train was quite some time ago. The second-best time to do so is now.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.