The Pro-Life Movement Is Teetering on Trump’s Tightrope
Several pro-life leaders whom I’ve long respected tripped over their feet in their rush to endorse Donald Trump right after the Indiana primary. For this, other activists harshly denounced them, provoking a furious controversy that threatens to splinter our movement.
In the real world, strange things happen — like the rise of Donald Trump. And we need to deal with them cannily when they do. Politics is not about perfecting elaborate schemes for reforming society from top to bottom, if only those less enlightened hoi polloi would shut up and get with the program. That’s ideological utopianism, and I’ll leave it to rabid Frenchmen chewing on napkins at cafes. (Read Roger Scruton to see the poison brewed at such places, and served up at universities.)
Politics is much more like managing a classroom full of teenagers, some of them gifted, some of them brave, and all of them interested in a dozen things other than what you’re writing on the whiteboard. You must convey a clear and consistent message, inspire their curiosity, and fan the sparks of nobility in each student’s mind and soul. You are the human face of math, literature, religion or history.
Of course we’ve all heard horror stories, of teachers who just don’t care, or hard-pressed schools that assign the intro Spanish course to a teacher who doesn’t speak it — so he stays one chapter ahead of his students in the textbook.
It’s the job of pro-life activists to be the public face of a hidden, helpless, and legally dehumanized person: the child in the womb. And right now I’m worried that the pro-life leaders who decided to back Donald Trump are acting like burned-out teachers: checking off the boxes, accepting commitments they know in their gut are empty, and squandering the respect of the people who’ve come to trust them. Respect is hard to win, easy to lose, and virtually impossible to reconstruct from ruins — as the GOP establishment learned this year through bitter experience.
I explained on Sunday in “The Pro-Life Art of the Deal” why rushing to endorse Donald Trump is tactically stupid: The man has done nothing during this campaign to earn our trust, and if we panic at the specter of Hillary Clinton and fall at Trump’s feet, all we will earn from him is contempt. That’s one way to fall off the tightrope.
But there is another. I was troubled to see how some left-leaning, but vocally pro-life writers reacted to this tactical blunder: They thundered that this was the final straw, the last betrayal, the absolute proof they needed that the existing pro-life movement is nothing but a sham — a negligent shill for a callous conservatism that only cares about cutting tax rates and boosting military spending. That reaction was grossly exaggerated and deeply unfair.
It is true that the pro-life movement does a worse job than almost any other organized lobby of bargaining for support, of leveraging endorsements, of trading energy and enthusiasm for real-world legal advances in protection for unborn Americans. I analyzed the reasons for this in “The Pro-Life Art of War,” and they include naivete, lack of imagination, and a squeamishness about playing hardball.
What no fair or honest observer could say is that pro-life leaders don’t really care about protecting life in the womb, that they are culpably negligent cynics and cold-blooded operators who herd their followers like mindless sheep. To say that sins against not just charity but justice. It’s just plain slander.
And I fear that it’s something worse: an excuse for those tempted by socialism’s empty promises to grab onto the lie of the Seamless Garment. That’s an ideological construct used by leftist Christians to say that every issue affecting human life in any way is morally equal to abortion: from motorcycle helmet laws to gun control and smoking. The Seamless Garment was stitched together in the 1980s as camouflage for pro-abortion Catholics like Teddy Kennedy and (later) Joseph Biden, so that they could pretend that they were no worse than pro-life conservatives. In its real world outcome, the Seamless Garment amounts to trading unborn children’s lives for a few extra food stamps.
The great Christian literary critic Rene Girard warned against precisely this kind of “I’m a pro-life Christian but I’m voting for Bernie Sanders” charade when he wrote about “Victimism.” That’s a political trick which “uses the ideology of concern for victims to gain political or economic or spiritual power.” It’s the favorite tactic of the Left, employed from the “bathroom wars” to debates over admitting Muslim refugees.
The pro-life movement naturally aligns with conservatives not merely out of crass electoral convenience. There are deep psychological reasons why leftists tend to favor legal abortion, while most conservatives oppose it. Indeed, Donald Trump’s long years of being on the wrong side of this issue, and the carelessness with which he speaks of it even now, are key evidence in the case that he is no way a real conservative.
The great French Catholic economist — and Tea Party conservative before his time — Frederic Bastiat diagnosed the key flaw of those on the Left: They are sentimentalists, and follow the politics that make them feel good about themselves. If they see an unemployed glassmaker, they will rush about breaking windows, then pat themselves on the back for all the jobs they have “created” for glassmakers. What they don’t see (and hence don’t care about) are all the people left unemployed because the shop-owners had to spend their savings replacing their windows. How does this tendency teach them to favor abortion? As my co-author John Zmirak wrote:
They hear the distress of women with unintended pregnancies, they see their distressed condition, they can picture themselves in their place and empathize with their suffering. What they don’t see, can’t hear, and will not imagine are the merely “abstract” rights of the unborn child who waits in the darkness. And so, in the name of compassion, they side with what they think are the best interests of the person whom they can see. They weave thereby a seamless garment of tyranny and injustice, all the while congratulating themselves. As Christ said of the Pharisees: They have their reward.