Another day. Another Donald Trump gaffe. The latest in a list of outrageous, offensive and downright stupid comments from the Republican frontrunner came on MSNBC when, while being pressed for his views on abortion by Chris Matthews, Trump said that women who had the procedure should be subjected to “some form of punishment.”
As has been the case with some other of his bloopers, the condemnation for this absurd statement came in from both sides of the aisle as the pro-life movement, and his Republican rivals were just as angry about it as liberal Democrats like Hillary Clinton.
Then came the inevitable walk back as Trump’s camp issued a statement several hours later in which the candidate reversed his position to put himself in line with the pro-life movement saying that women who have abortions are victims and that should the procedure ever be banned, only doctors who perform the procedures would be liable to be punished. Moreover, in typical Trump style in which the billionaire warns us not to believe our lying eyes and ears, the statement then also claimed, “my position has not changed.”
Will this be just one more example of Trump being able to say something incredibly stupid and not be punished by the voters? Who could predict otherwise after what we’ve seen the last nine months? Trump seems to have an irrevocable “get out of jail free” card from much of the Republican primary electorate. They don’t merely excuse his willingness to say ignorant, foolish or prejudicial things. They like it because the spectacle of someone being willing to say things that no other politician in their right mind would say strikes them as refreshing and genuine. At a time when voters are sick of politics and government dysfunction, outsiders look good and nothing looks more authentically outside than a billionaire who dares to go where lesser mortals fear to tread.
While anti-Trump Republicans will be outraged, as should anyone who supports the pro-life movement — which is adamantly opposed to any such punishments — Trump backers will probably just shrug and ignore it the way they do every other absurdity that passes forth from his lips.
Nevertheless, this might help galvanize more Republicans to fight back against Trump. If, as the latest polls indicate, Ted Cruz wins easily in Wisconsin next week, Trump will be back on his heels for the first time since losing Iowa. But with him still holding huge leads in important Northeast states, it would be premature at best to assume that this, in addition to growing outrage over his thuggish attacks on Heidi Cruz and his campaign manager being charged with assault of a reporter, that Trump is in genuine trouble.
But this abortion comment won’t be forgotten so easily. More importantly, it will come with a price for both Trump and the Republican Party even if he is somehow stopped from becoming the Republican nominee.
After waiting four years for another Todd Akin moment, Democrats finally have their sound bite with which they can hope to reboot their old “war on women” meme. It’s true that Trump is a virtual sound bite machine of misogyny. But, as the infamous Missouri GOP senatorial candidate proved, comments on abortion from a male Republican are political gold for the left in that they demonstrate both animus against women and astounding ignorance on the issue. Trump’s promise to punish women is far more devastating than his talk about Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle or any of the other entries in his vast catalogue of insults of women.
Abortion is an issue that has always generated votes on the extremes — from ardent pro-lifers or ardent pro-choice voters — but rarely decides elections unless a candidate demonstrates the kind of extremism that Akin and now Trump showed. Moreover, as was the case with Akin in 2012, this is something that will be hung around the necks of everyone on the GOP side by both the Democrats and their allies in the mainstream liberal media. If Trump was getting killed among female voters before this, we’re about to see just how low he can go in that demographic.
But leaving aside obvious political blowback that will result from Trump’s comments, voters should regard this insight as being even more important. It provides us a view of what kind of a person is leading the Republican presidential nominating contest.
First of all, Trump’s on-the-fly comments about punishing women who have abortion shows us that he’s never thought seriously about this or most issues. It’s true that Trump fans like the fact that, unlike virtually any other politician, Trump doesn’t have set answers to these sorts of questions ready in his head. It’s one thing to be unrehearsed or unscripted. It’s quite another to show us that — as was obvious in the Matthews interview — he’d never actually thought about the issue before. Though abortion has roiled American politics for his entire adult lifetime, Donald Trump has never really bothered with it. If he had, he would have understood that speaking of punishing women is as anathema to pro-lifers as it is pro-choice voters. That accounts for the fervor of the outrage from the pro-life movement.
But what’s really interesting about this is not so much Trump’s ignorance. After all, what is ignorance about abortion compared to Trump’s lack of even the most elementary comprehension of a wide range of basic foreign policy issues such as NATO and nuclear non-proliferation that he demonstrated last week in interviews with the Washington Post and the New York Times? Presidents can get by without being involved in the abortion debate but are primarily responsible for foreign policy.
What the abortion gaffe proves is something else. It is gold-plated proof for anyone that wants to think about that Trump really is the liberal that his conservative critics keep telling GOP voters about. That sounds counterintuitive but think about it. Trump likes to compare himself to Ronald Reagan, a man who started as a liberal but eventually became the leader of conservatism. Trump’s freshly minted conservative beliefs are the product of only a couple of years of superficial statements, as opposed to the decades of thoughtful transformation that Ronald Reagan underwent. The idea that conservatives want to punish women that have abortions is a caricature of pro-life views and one that only liberals believe is the truth about the movement. Only a liberal (who also supports Planned Parenthood) would think that is what Republican voters would want to hear.
Thus, rather than demonstrating Trump’s refreshing authenticity, the abortion gaffe is, instead, more proof that he is nothing but a con man. Rather than an unfiltered voice of the people, Trump is really a fraud playing a conservative or a populist or whatever he needs at the moment for the sake of whatever audience he is hoping to win over. If Trump’s misogyny helps drown the GOP this year, the irony is that the remark that may help seal their fate was evidence that the GOP is nominating a liberal that sometimes plays a conservative rather than an actual Republican.