For all the charges of his being overly bombastic and alienating, producing high unfavorables (though to be fair, Clinton’s unfavorables are high as well), there has been some agreement that Trump is not as conservative as a number of his Republican counterparts, most notably Ted Cruz. That is, it is his tenor and his unpredictability (and perhaps in the case of social scientists and strategists, his assertions that data are overrated) that seem to incite more frustration than the policies about which he speaks.
However, “unpredictability” appears to be the operative word given the number of changes in policy positions that Trump has taken over the course of his presidential campaign as he has worked to reach out to broader swaths of the American electorate, leaving some to question what he actually believes as opposed to what is merely a vote maximization strategy. Indeed, in a sense, he is the pinnacle of political responsiveness to public opinion. And now it is leading him to effectively say, “You want me to be pro-life? I’ll be pro-life now,” a swing in preferences the likes of which led to the notorious allegations of Kerry’s “waffling” over the war in Iraq.
Donald Trump previously has espoused pro-choice views, saying in 1999 to Tim Russert, “I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debating the subject. But you still – I just believe in choice.” Such a position is not unusual within the pro-choice community, which is why it is not characterized as pro-abortion. The position is that abortions are not good, but that the way to reduce them is by reducing the need for them (e.g., by promoting the use of birth control) rather than by reducing access, and preserving the woman’s choice in needed conditions. Trump when on to make the even more pointed (and noteworthy especially coming from a Republican) statement that he would not ban partial-birth abortion.
Yet in 2011, he declared at the Conservative Political Action conference that he was pro-life, and explained in the first Republican debate of 2015 that his change of heart was a reflection of seeing someone deciding against abortion and raising a child who ultimately thrived. He went on in March 2016 to hold that women receiving abortions once the procedure is made illegal should be punished, and he reiterated that he is pro-life with exceptions and that it should be left to states. His campaign later clarified that it would be the person performing the illegal abortion who should face punishment.
On May 10, Trump vowed to appoint to the Supreme Court justices who would be pro-life and who likely would work to overturn the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade: “I will protect [the sanctity of life]. And the biggest way you can protect it is through the Supreme Court and putting people on the court. I mean actually the biggest way you can protect it, I guess, is by electing me president… Overturn or overturn, look I’m going to put conservative judges on… They’ll be pro-life and we’ll see about overturning.”
Setting aside the semantic point that members of the Supreme Court are justices and not judges, this is a crucial shift in his campaign, attributable to his working to secure broader conservative support (despite attesting to the notion that the party does not need unity in order for him to win). Yes, he has previously held pro-choice stances. He even defended the work of Planned Parenthood in a Republican debate. And when shifting to the right, he has said that he is pro-life with exceptions, suggesting a commitment at least to protecting the life of the woman when her health would be compromised by bringing a pregnancy to term, with Planned Parenthood in some cases (e.g., Missouri) the only avenue for people to take in order to obtain an abortion (and even then potentially driving hundreds of miles and facing long waiting periods).
The shift to not simply being pro-life, but working to overturn Roe v. Wade (which even former Republican contender John Kasich acknowledged as being “the law of the land”) solidifies Trump’s status as embracing not simply the Republican Party brand, but its social conservatism with which he had not previously been as well-aligned. While Trump maintained on May 9 with the Wall Street Journal that it was “always possible to change. I always believe in flexibility and remaining flexible,” and no one has accused him of being overly rigid in his professed preferences, it is telling watching the directions in which he is moving as the GOP’s presumptive nominee. In light of his recent statements on the Supreme Court, despite the anti-establishment similarities between the Sanders and Trump followers, those who are left of center and ambivalent whether to vote in the absence of a Sanders nomination would do well to consider more squarely the social policy implications of the November election.