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The Pro-life Case Against Trump

Deals with the Devil don't ever turn out well.
October 29, 2020
The Pro-life Case Against Trump
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

This is a story about selling one’s soul.

Specifically, it is a story about those who would trade away their political, moral, and ethical souls and support Donald Trump—against their own better judgment—for the believed benefit of halting the abortion holocaust. Or, at least, who feel they should back Trump out of the perceived need to remain loyal to the pro-life cause. I write to urge you to reconsider.

Because I strongly believe that committed pro-lifers can and should vote against Donald Trump’s reelection.

No one is more committed than I to the pro-life legal and moral position. And if ever there were an issue worth selling one’s soul for, it’s abortion. I am serious about that: If you could trade your own life—your soul, even—to save the lives of millions of human beings, well, a case can be made for doing just that.

But like most deals with the Devil, this one—supporting Trump against your conscience, solely for the sake of abortion—doesn’t really get you anywhere. Whatever benefits it might produce are short-term and, for the most part, illusory and ephemeral. Worse, such a bargain is ultimately counter-productive, undermining the integrity of pro-life people and diminishing the persuasiveness of the pro-life position. This bargain forfeits the very values of compassion, justice, and respect for the lives and well-being of others on which the success of the pro-life movement ultimately depends.

Worst of all, selling your soul for short-term gain—even for a noble and worthy cause—is still selling your soul. Deals with the Devil always backfire in the end. From the unfortunate afternoon in the Garden to Doctor Faustus to Dorian Gray, these things always end badly.

They not only fail to achieve their goals, but destroy those who enter into them.

“Yes, But”—The (Reluctant) Pro-life Case For Trump

One of the arguments I hear from pro-lifers to justify supporting Trump goes something like this:

Yes, there is abundant evidence that Trump is a racist, given what he has said and what he has refused to say: “the Mexican judge” (from Indiana), the “Muslim ban,” restricting immigration from “shithole countries” like “Africa” (!), there being good people on both sides of white supremacist rallies, refusing to condemn identified white supremacist groups.

Yes, Trump is also a misogynist and likely serial sexual abuser/harasser.

Yes, Trump is heedless, arrogant, dangerously incompetent, and concerned only with himself.

Yes, in large part because of these traits, Trump responded incompetently and dismissively to the coronavirus, almost certainly resulting in the avoidable deaths of scores of thousands of people.

Yes, Trump is corrupt, almost pathologically dishonest, abusive, and utterly lacking in public (or private) integrity. He almost certainly attempted to obstruct justice in connection with the Mueller investigation. He solicited (or at least encouragingly winked at) Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election. He corruptly bartered vital military and security assistance to Ukraine for its pledge to investigate a U.S. domestic political rival for the presidency.

And yes, Trump has disturbingly authoritarian instincts: mindlessly claiming “total authority” over laws, hinting at canceling or postponing elections (if he thinks it necessary) and refusing to agree that he will abide by election results or to call on his supporters not to engage in election violence. (Proud Boys: “Stand back and stand by.”)

In short, Trump is a terrible person and a terrible president . . .

But he’s good for the pro-life movement and that overrides everything else. 

Because although he is not a true believer, he knows which side his political bread is buttered on and has adopted a pro-life stance out of transactional convenience. Even though done for purposes of political gain, Trump has agreed to the appointment of solid, conservative justices and judges. And his administration has rescinded and replaced pro-abortion and anti-conscience regulations and policies with much better ones.

Trump, whatever his many sins, is good for the pro-life cause.

Or at least he’s better than the alternative.

He may be a disaster. But he’s our disaster.

Or so the argument goes.

The Drawbacks, Delusions, and Dangers of Deals with the Devil

I concede the force of that argument, at least in its premise. But there are at least four things wrong with it.

First, it is wrong in principle—a betrayal of the moral integrity that must underly the pro-life movement.

Second, it is for that reason discrediting and, ultimately, counterproductive. Trump undermines the values on which the success of the pro-life position ultimately depends and support of Trump likewise undermines those values and tars the position. If one is playing the pro-life long game—which is the only game in town when it comes to changing both the culture and the law on abortion—support of Trump kills our own cause.

Third, the believed gains to the pro-life movement from Trump—mainly judges—are short-term, ephemeral, illusory. They are nowhere near worth the price.

Fourth, support of Trump grossly underestimates the dangers he poses to democracy, stability, and the security of a free republic, which are the foundations upon which everything else depends. Including the effective protection of the right to life.

A word about each of these points, taken in somewhat reverse order, starting with the last.

First: A stable, secure, properly functioning constitutional republic is an essential precondition of effective protection of the right to life of the unborn.

If there are any who would trade away democracy and republican institutions—who would risk authoritarianism or countenance proto-despotism to any degree—for the sake of real or imagined short-term marginal gains to the pro-life political and legal position, I do not agree with them.

The destruction of our political institutions would leave any pro-life gains without a foundation on which to stand. The state exists to protect life and liberty. Undermine the republic and you undermine the ability of a just community to maintain these basic human rights—and ever to include the right to life among them. Risk democracy and you risk everything; all minor and major political achievements are drowned by the loss of the institutions that enable and undergird them.

Everybody agrees with this precept at some level. I take it for granted that no one would knowingly vote into office an Orbán or a Putin, just because he purported to be pro-life or would appoint pro-life judges. (Though, to be candid, there have been some on American right who seem enamored with such figures.) Most pro-lifers understand that the danger is too great, the harm threatened too irreparable, the perceived gains too illusory and contingent on the very values that such a man would repudiate.

Trump is not, as of now, in the same class as Putin or Orbán. But he does have marked authoritarian instincts and tendencies, is heedless of constitutional and moral restraints on his own power, and has a disturbing cult of followers.

So while you can say that Donald Trump is not (yet) Vladimir Putin, you cannot dismiss out of hand the possibility that a man who talks openly about changing election dates, will not commit to the peaceful transition of power, uses the military and police powers to put down dissent, and flirts with running for a third term might push for the country to experiment with very real soft-authoritarianism.

If one rightly judges that Trump is a danger on this score, then that peril for democracy overwhelms everything else. Because if Donald Trump were to attempt to walk Putin’s or Orbán’s path then it would, among other things, destroy all progress on abortion.

It is eminently reasonable, I submit, to judge a Trump reelection a serious threat in this regard. The pattern is there, the danger is real. These are not liberal delusions. Serious pro-life conservatives (like me) ought to take it seriously. After all, to be conservative is to cherish the republican values of our constitutional order and to seek to preserve, protect, and defend them against all threats, and against all enemies, foreign and domestic. For that constitutional order is what makes all else possible.

Note how far Trump is from embracing these conservative first premises.

Trump is a threat to a stable, secure, republican political order—and thus is a threat to the very preconditions that make the right-to-life of the unborn possible in the first place.

That alone is reason enough for pro-lifers to vote against him.

Undermining Pro-Life Values, Discrediting the Pro-Life Message

Second: Trump affirmatively undermines and discredits the pro-life cause and the pro-life ethical position.

He does this in two related ways.

He undercuts the values on which the success of the pro-life position ultimately depends: compassion, respect for others, valuing all human life, and the Golden Rule of do-unto-others. If we lose these values, then the pro-life movement loses. It’s as simple as that. Abandon these principles and you abandon the long-run objective.

To embrace Trump is to embrace the opposite of the values the pro-life cause needs to succeed. And because of that, embracing Trump discredits the pro-life message. Nothing persuades negatively quite like the demonstration of hypocrisy.

One of the secondary problems with selling your soul is that it’s public. Everybody can see what you’ve done. And even if you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s worth it, the vast majority of people disapprove of such bargains. This is literally a fact of the human experience, in all times and places.

Pro-lifers will lose our witness if we embrace a liar, an abuser of power and of people, a racist, a man thoroughly corrupt and incompetent—for the sake of transactional political advantage. Even if it is in pursuit of a just cause.

As Abraham Lincoln put it in his debate with Stephen Douglas,

[P]ublic sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.

Lincoln’s insight remains sound. In the long run, it matters more how we shape public sentiment concerning abortion than whether we appoint and confirm pro-life judges. For ultimately, that sentiment shapes the judges more than the other way around.

Persuasion precedes policy. No amount of bullying and bluster can bulldoze the right to life into a reality if it is not first written in the hearts of the people. In this respect, Trump affirmatively harms the pro-life cause. He negatively molds public sentiment on abortion. It is not right, but it is true: the pro-life cause and position is tainted by—deemed guilty by its association with—Donald Trump.

What does it profit the pro-life movement to embrace Trump and forfeit its soul?

Sadly, the most plausible counterargument is that the damage has already been done. It’s too late; we’ve already sold our souls; any impairment of pro-life credibility and integrity—Trump taint—has already been accomplished. We therefore might as well get out of it what we can and keep going down the same road, since repudiating Trump now won’t do any good. What’s done is done.

I reject this cynical stance. As long as Trump is president, he undermines and discredits the pro-life position. The longer he is in office, the greater long-run harm he does to the pro-life cause. The sooner he is gone, the quicker rehabilitation efforts can proceed.

The Short-Term Gains are Slight and Overstated

Third point: The purported pro-life benefits from Trump’s presidency are not all that great because the political and legal gains on abortion are likely to be short-term, ephemeral, and largely illusory. 

The primary benefit of a Trump administration is judicial appointments. But important as judges are, success in judicial appointments will not sufficient to accomplish the goals of the pro-life cause. At most they will produce short-run, marginal gains in abortion jurisprudence.

I hate to say it, but without public sentiment on the pro-life side I doubt that even a “solid” conservative majority on the Court will overrule Roe—particularly if the votes of Trump appointees are needed to supply the margin of victory. Most justices embrace—or hide behind the skirt of, depending on your point of view—the doctrine of stare decisis, at least to some degree or in some forms. Remember Planned Parenthood v. Casey? A majority thought Roe wrong; a majority reaffirmed it nonetheless, including “conservative” Republican appointees.

It is a mistake for pro-lifers to put their faith in Supreme Court appointments. They disappoint. True, a Justice Barrett is far better on this score than any liberal appointee imaginable. But it is a delusion to think that support for Trump equates with the demise of Roe v. Wade, let alone with effective and enduring prohibitions of abortion. Hoping for a judicial silver bullet is a pro-life fantasy. The reality is a long struggle to change hearts and minds. Consigning abortion to the ash heap of history is the work of generations, not years.

Even if you disagree about the prospect of transformative judicial appointments undoing Roe, you must count the cost in terms of impairment of pro-life values, republican principles, and everything else. Don’t bet the republic on Supreme Court appointments overturning Roe. There is less to be gained in judges than might initially appear. (There’s also an argument that whatever gains might be expected on this score by a Republican administration have already been achieved. There is probably less justification for accepting Trump on this ground now than there might have been the first time around.)

Point of Principle

My final point is actually the first one: A deal with the Devil is still a deal with the Devil. And such bargains are wrong in principle.

I know what you’re thinking: All politics is compromise, a choice among lesser evils. The alternative is worse. 

No, it isn’t. The alternative is bad, but only ordinarily bad. Donald Trump is extraordinarily bad—a dagger pointed at the heart of American democracy, American integrity, and American unity. He is dishonest and corrupt to the core, incompetent, and reckless. He is a true threat to the American order, even if his policy preferences align with yours.

Joe Biden is not. Biden’s politics and policies are largely contrary to my own. He is hugely unsound on abortion. But I have voted for him in order to save the republic.

And once our constitutional order is safeguarded, I will promptly turn around and begin working to resist the parts of his agenda which I believe are wrong. But I will do so secure in the knowledge that my side will have an orderly system governed by the rule of law which will make the long-term success of my beliefs possible.

From where I sit, Joe Biden will be a pro-life policy setback. But, unlike Trump, he is not a threat to the system that might one day produce a pro-life society.

If Biden is president, we will have a functioning system within which to contest policies and proposals with which we disagree emphatically. If Trump is reelected, there is a risk that we might cease to have effective, operable checks on abuses of power and abusive policies.

Both choices are bad. But only one is foundationally bad and closes off the possibility of doing better in the future.

The Deplorables, the Deluded, and the Deniers

Not all Trump supporters are “deplorables” who affirm his racism, corruption, dishonesty, willful ignorance, incompetence, lawlessness, and authoritarian instincts.

Others—with all due respect—are simply deluded: People who have somehow become convinced, against all evidence, that none of the things that his most ardent supporters celebrate are true.

And then there are the deniers and deal makers: Otherwise clear-eyed, well-intended men and women who acknowledge the reality about Trump’s character, conduct, and danger, but who nonetheless are willing to look the other way for the sake of abortion. They excuse, accept, tolerate. Like the victim of domestic violence who enables, shields, and defends her abuser—because of his good qualities—they are in denial. They fail to weigh the evidence properly.

To those in that category, I appeal to your better judgment. Is this man really, on balance, good for the pro-life cause?

Or does he undermine and discredit it, do it long-term damage, and threaten the very foundations of the public framework and institutions that might one day enable a consensus in favor of safeguarding the lives of the unborn?

Michael Stokes Paulsen

Michael Stokes Paulsen is Distinguished University Chair & Professor of Law, and co-director of the Pro-Life Advocacy Center, at the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis.  He is co-author of The Constitution: An Introduction (Basic Books, 2015).