“I saw quite a change,” said CBS’s Lesley Stahl after interviewing Donald Trump for 60 Minutes on Sunday. “He was much more subdued, much more serious.”
Consider Trump’s comments on abortion. “Are you looking to appoint a Justice who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade?” Stahl asked. Trump’s response: “I’m pro-life, the judges will be pro-life.”
With that statement, Trump casually blew up decades of conservative legal argument. For years, conservatives have excoriated liberals for supposedly imposing their personal moral views rather than interpreting the Constitution. But asked whether his Supreme Court justices would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, Trump didn’t even feign interest in whether there’s a right to abortion in the Constitution. He said he’s against abortion personally and promised that his appointees would be too. Constitutional interpretation be damned.
It got stranger. “What about overturning the laws?” Stahl asked. To which Trump replied, “If it ever were overturned it would go back to the states.” Stahl drew out the implications: “Then some women won’t be able to get an abortion.” Trump disagreed: “No, it will go back to the states,” before adding, that “perhaps” women wanting an abortion will “have to go to another state. We’ll see what happens. That has a long, long way to go” before it becomes a reality.
This is deeply weird. It’s one thing to say you’re pro-life and thus want to end the federal right to abortion and send the issue back to the states in hopes that many of them will ban it. It’s another to say that you’re pro-life and thus want to send the issue back to the states while denying that any will ban it, at least anytime soon.
But that’s exactly what Trump does. When Stahl suggests that overturning Roe might actually prevent some women from getting abortions, Trump resists. He first says that women will simply have abortions in other states. Then he says none of these changes will occur for a “long, long” time anyway.
Trump, in other words, wants Stahl to believe both that he’s “pro-life” and that he won’t actually stop anyone from getting an abortion, at least not anytime soon. Intellectually and morally, that’s incoherent. But politically, it’s shrewd. Perhaps what Trump is wagering that for many conservatives, “pro-life” isn’t actually about banning abortion. It’s as much a form of identity, a way of placing yourself on the conservative side of the culture wars. If most Republicans really were adamant about banning abortion, after all, they wouldn’t have nominated Trump, a man with no history of commitment to their cause. By embracing the term “pro-life,” Trump tells these cultural conservatives that he’s one of them.
But by denying that his judges’ decisions will actually prevent anyone from getting an abortion, Trump intuits another truth about abortion politics: The closer politicians come to making abortion illegal, the greater the potential backlash.
It’s no wonder that Stahl found Trump’s answers confusing. She wanted to know how he’d handle abortion policy. He explained how he’d handle abortion politics. When it comes to politics in general, Trump has proven himself defter than almost anyone imagined.
When it comes to policy, most Americans are in pretty much the same position as Lesley Stahl: They don’t know what Trump believes, or if he even knows himself.