Election 2016

Trump Is Clueless About Women's Reproductive Rights—That's What Makes Him So Dangerous

Trump could still curtail women's rights despite doing a poor job pretending he understands this "pro-life" thing.

Photo Credit: Joe Seer / Shutterstock.com

Back in March, Donald Trump embarrassed himself and the Republican party when he was asked by Chris Matthews if women who have abortions should be punished and Trump, with a blasé attitude, agreed that the only logical way to enforce a ban on abortion is for there to be “some form of punishment.”

The furor that erupted spun out of control in no small part because of the anti-choice movement itself, which has long understood that one never admits to wanting to punish women for abortion. The statement was, like Trump’s inability to recognize a communion plate or his seeming ignorance of the basic tenets of Christianity, evidence that he doesn’t recognize the customs of the religious right movement he wishes to claim membership in.

Well, even Trump realizes you have to placate the religious right to run for office as a Republican, and so he and his campaign have been hustling really hard to learn the anti-choice lingo and throw the movement some cookies to win their love. Right- wingers may not care if you can quote the Bible, but if you want them to pretend you’re a Christian, you best learn to pander to the anti-choice movement.

Trump is trying, but his efforts are ham-fisted. Wednesday, the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy profile of Trump by Robert Draper where Trump took another go at trying to talk about this abortion thing.

“I didn’t mean punishment for women like prison. I’m saying women punish themselves,” Trump told Draper. “I didn’t want people to think in terms of ‘prison’ punishment. And because of that I walked it back.”

Uh-huh. To most people, this excuse sounds like so much word salad, but for those who follow the anti-choice movement, it’s clear what is going on here. Trump, realizing he doesn’t know jack about this abortion thing, obviously brought some consultants in to coach him in how to push anti-choice talking points without admitting that you want to punish and control women, because that, no duh, sounds misogynist.

The proper anti-choicer never admits that he thinks women who have abortions are dirty sluts that he wants to punish. The official belief is that women who have abortions are wayward children who were only having sex because of peer pressure. Forcing childbirth on them is constructed as a favor you’re doing them, protecting them from the supposed guilt they’ll feel. You’re not supposed to be “punishing” them so much as correcting them, through forced childbirth, in an attempt to get them onto the one true path of righteous womanhood, centered around chastity and child-bearing and ideally wifely submission.

Claiming the abortion and supposed shame and guilt a woman feels is punishment enough is a favorite deflection technique of anti-choicers, as is declaring that women are “victims” of abortion. Trump clearly had to take a couple meetings where he was told that anti-choicers prefer to portray their desire to shame and punish as an attempt to “help”, and this is just his awkward attempt to spout the talking points he was given.

Of course, pandering to the religious right is going to take a little more than robotically repeating half-remembered talking points some overpaid consultant gave Trump in a meeting. But that’s where Trump is lucky. As long as he shows a willingness to help them achieve their goal of getting a fetus in every uterus, it’s safe to say that the religious right will forgive his ineptitude at pretending to care about this crap.

Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court picks may appear hastily taped together from about five minutes of Google searches, but one thing is for certain: Pleasing anti-choicers was clearly a guiding principle in making this list.

As Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones notes, most of these judges are hardcore right-wingers on social issues: Anti-gay, anti-abortion and, as she explains, even anti-contraception. Three of the 11 people listed have ruled in favor of companies that want to deny contraception access to their employees, claiming that even though the insurance plans may belong to the employees themselves, the employer should have veto power over how you use your own plan. (It’s the same logic as saying that because your employer gives you time off for vacation, he should get to tell you where you can go.)

While the war on abortion rights has been amping up in recent years, this whole effort to remove a woman’s control over her contraception choices and give it to someone else, preferably an employer, is an exciting new flank of the war on women. Trump just signaled his eagerness to play along.

That’s why anti-choice leaders are lining up behind Trump, even though there’s almost no reason to think he’ll become any more convincing at pretending he gets or even really cares about their issue. He doesn’t really need to, so long as they can count on him to give them the judicial appointments they want. (And to sign any abortion bans that Congress sends to the White House for approval.) Which he will, of course, do, because he may not be a smart or coherent man, but Trump understands the basic premise of making a deal: Their votes for his cooperation.

That’s also why liberals shouldn’t take any comfort from Trump’s personal disinterest in the reproductive rights issue. He doesn’t need to care in order for anti-choicers to use him as a tool to get their way. This potential judge list shows exactly how this works: He needs to offer some names in order to seem serious, they have some names to offer, so a deal is made, without him having to spend a single minute worrying about why they have such a silly obsession with keeping women from exercising their reproductive rights.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 

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