Stop Soft-Pedaling the GOP’s Extreme Positions

The idea that Donald Trump is forcing the Republican Party to moderate its extreme positions on abortion and LGBTQ rights would make for an interesting story. So interesting, in fact, that the story was all over the mainstream press. The only problem with this very interesting story is that it didn’t happen.

On Monday, a draft of the GOP platform began circulating ahead of the Republican convention. The coverage of the platform’s position on abortion was remarkable in its uniformity. The New York Times’ headline blared, “Following Trump’s Lead, Republicans Adopt Platform That Softens Stance on Abortion.” NBC News announced, “Trump Pushes New GOP Platform Softening Party’s Positions on Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage.” The Washington Post concurred: “GOP Adopts Platform That Softens Language on Abortion, Same-Sex Marriage.” These headlines could not be more misleading. (One outlet, The 19th, commendably got it right.)

First, although the new platform omits language from the 2016 version opposing marriage equality, it is silent on equal rights for same-sex couples, and certainly does not endorse them. That omission is meaningful, and should not be interpreted as moderation. The Trumpified right-wing majority on the Supreme Court has already taken quiet aim at the decision that granted same-sex couples the right to marry, and some of the sitting justices, such as Samuel Alito, have denounced that decision outright. Once the right-wing bloc on the Court has the numbers and the right case, that decision will likely be overturned.

In other words, the removal of the previous opposition does not amount to a recognition of equal rights for same-sex couples. It is a strategic silence asserted in the belief that the Roberts Court will narrow those rights in its own time without the GOP having to pay a political price for making that happen. Other language in the new platform refers to being able to “act in accordance with those [religious] Beliefs, not just in places of Worship, but in everyday life.” This is about justifying religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, which will target LGBTQ Americans and women, among others. This is an agenda that contemplates second-class citizenship for anyone who is not a right-wing Christian, and elevated status for those who are.

Second, if the party’s stance on marriage equality is a matter of strategic silence, the media coverage of the abortion language amounts to strategic illiteracy. Here is the plank, under a heading that reads “Republicans Will Protect and Defend a Vote of the People, From Within the States, on the Issue of Life”:

We proudly stand for families and Life. We believe that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees that no person can be denied Life or Liberty without Due Process, and that the States are, therefore, free to pass Laws protecting those Rights. After 51 years, because of us, that power has been given to the States and to a vote of the People. We will oppose Late Term Abortion, while supporting mothers and policies that advance Prenatal Care, access to Birth Control, and IVF (fertility treatments).

The key language here is “We believe that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees that no person can be denied Life or Liberty without Due Process, and that the States are, therefore, free to pass Laws protecting those Rights.” The actual language of the Fourteenth Amendment, plain to anyone who has read it, says, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The doctrine that a fetus is morally equivalent to a fully born child is called “fetal personhood”; it asserts that a fetus obtains constitutional rights at the moment of conception, and therefore, ending a pregnancy is identical to murder. In its 2016 platform, the Republican Party made this claim by saying that the Fourteenth Amendment’s due-process protections guarantee that “the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed,” and calling for a constitutional amendment to enshrine this understanding. Eight years later, the Trump-appointed justices on the Supreme Court who helped strike down Roe v. Wade have conservatives hoping that an amendment won’t actually be necessary to change the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment—that the right-wing justices will simply rewrite the Constitution to ban abortion nationally on those grounds. Instead of calling for an amendment, this year’s platform asserts the same belief in fetal personhood, and says that protecting it is up to state law.

But this is incoherent. If the Fourteenth Amendment bars abortion—the implication of the doctrine of fetal personhood—then no state laws are necessary to enforce that constitutional guarantee. The wording of the platform restates the same radical position that Republicans took in the 2016 platform, but makes it more confusing. There is no softening of the GOP’s position on abortion here, just a garbled reiteration of the party’s position that abortion for any reason should be illegal everywhere in the United States, hidden behind an irrelevant aside about states’ rights.

Furthermore, there is no “states’ rights” version of the Fourteenth Amendment. The entire point of the Fourteenth Amendment is that the states cannot do whatever they want, that they cannot violate the fundamental rights of their residents. In the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment adopted by the Republican Party in its platform, abortion rights are unconstitutional because a fetus is a person and therefore entitled to those constitutional protections.

The point, presumably, of the muddled and contradictory language adopted by the platform was to get the media to run with a bunch of headlines announcing that the party was moderating on abortion, while allowing the language to serve as a promise to anti-abortion activists, who fully understand that Donald Trump intends to follow through on their agenda while in office. That includes, as my colleague Elaine Godfrey reported in February, banning abortion through novel enforcement of the 19th-century Comstock Act without any need for Congress. As Godfrey wrote at the time, “Any Trump endorsement of a national abortion limit is nothing more than strategic messaging—a ploy to win over moderate voters in the general election.” The same is true of this new state-by-state approach.

Trump and the Republican Party have records on abortion that show what they would do with federal power. Trump appointed three of the six justices who issued the decision overturning a national right to an abortion after he promised to do just that. Republican-controlled states acted swiftly to ban abortion as soon as they could, not just enacting draconian bans and restrictions on speech and movement related to abortion, but seeking to criminalize leaving the state to get an abortion or providing information on how to get one. Republicans in the Senate blocked a bill to protect in vitro fertilization. As with anything else, what politicians have actually done is a much more reliable guide to what they will do than what they say they will do.

If Trump returns to the White House, the power of the federal government will likely be focused on restricting Americans’ rights to free expression, travel, and bodily autonomy in the name of preventing abortion. Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation blueprint for a second Trump administration, which Trump has unconvincingly attempted to disavow despite the plan having been written by veterans of his first administration, details possible avenues for such restrictions. The Project 2025 agenda contemplates allowing employers to deny health-care coverage for contraception to their workers, allowing hospitals to refuse to provide abortion care when someone’s life is at risk, and otherwise limiting access to abortion medication and contraception. Project 2025 also wants to use the Department of Health and Human Services to force states to track abortions in order to crack down on what it calls “abortion tourism,” that is, women being forced to leave their home state to obtain medical care that they are prevented from getting where they live. Last year, a Texas mother named Kate Cox had to flee the state to get an abortion because her fetus had a fatal abnormality, and carrying the pregnancy to term could have endangered both her life and her ability to get pregnant again. This is what the people who would run the next Trump administration regard as “abortion tourism.”

The idea that Republicans would not do such things because they are unpopular ignores the fact that abortion bans are also deeply unpopular—even conservative voters in some red states have rejected them since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision—and many Republican-run states instituted draconian bans on abortion anyway. Red states’ response to voters rejecting Republican extremism on abortion at the polls was not moderating on the issue, but attempting to take the decision out of voters’ hands entirely by preventing abortion from being the subject of statewide referendums in which abortion bans keep losing.

The GOP platform is an obvious bait and switch, and it doesn’t even try very hard to hide the switch. As the writer Jessica Valenti notes, “The platform doesn’t change a single thing about what Trump would do if elected, nor does it mean that there’s an actual rift between his campaign and the anti-abortion movement. This is political theater, and the mainstream press is handing out programs.” The GOP platform on abortion does not show Trump or the GOP “softening” or shifting on abortion rights; it shows them trying to avoid the political consequences of their position on the matter by hiding them in plain sight.

It has been clear from the beginning that Trump regards abortion rights as a political vulnerability for Republicans and would seek to seem moderate on the issue, just as it’s clear that the anti-abortion camp understands that Trump will do its bidding when in office, as he did last time. One reason he may get the chance is mainstream press organizations’ embracing the narrative of Trump as an abortion moderate—despite all available evidence to the contrary.

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