Yes, Trump will ban abortion if he gets the chance.
It's that simple, and news companies that pretend otherwise are helping him confuse you.
This is an actual New York Times headline1 about a man who, while running for president, said women who seek abortions will have to face “punishment,” made an unprecedented explicit promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, then did so as president, and who now brags “I was able to end Roe v. Wade” while seeking to return to the White House:
First, let’s take this article on its own terms. It is an attempt to inform readers about the odds of a Trump presidency, relative to that of other Republicans, rather than the stakes of one.2 I’ll come back to whether that’s what the paper should be doing in a moment. But for now, let’s stipulate that it’s what the paper is purporting to do, and ask: Have they accomplished it?
Thanks for reading Finding Gravity! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Nope! Not even close.
The article’s core claim, articulated in both the headline and the lede (“Donald J. Trump is showing surprising resilience on the abortion issue, appearing less vulnerable than fellow Republicans”) is that abortion hurts Trump less politically than it hurts other Republicans. You might be surprised, then, to learn that the article doesn’t contain a single fact, datapoint, or even anecdote in support of this hypothesis. Paragraph after paragraph of Trump trying to distance himself from his firmly anti-abortion record, but not a single poll number or even assertion that actually compares Trump’s political standing on the issue to that of other Republican candidates. Just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. For example, here are the article’s second and third paragraphs:
But Mr. Trump has held steady in recent surveys even among voters who favor keeping abortion mostly legal. President Biden, who holds a big lead among those who want abortion always legal, led the “mostly legal” group by only one percentage point against Mr. Trump in the recent New York Times/Siena College surveys of battleground states.
Note that the article promises a comparison of Trump to other Republican candidates, but leads with the apples-to-orangutans comparison of a referendum to a candidate. The article then cites the recent New York Times/Siena poll that the Times apparently believes is the single most important news in the western hemisphere this month. But it does so in a really weird way. The Times tells us that Biden “holds a big lead” over Trump among those who want abortion to always be illegal but leads by only one point among those who want it to be “mostly legal.” This is not nearly as informative as the Times pretends. What is Biden’s total lead among the 62 percent of the electorate that wants abortion to be always or mostly legal? The Times keeps this a secret. Weird!
Even more weird: The Times article doesn’t mention that Biden holds a nine-point advantage over Trump on the question of which candidate is most trusted on abortion:
That’s a question from the Times’ own poll — the one it has obsessively covered in more than 50 news stories, and the same poll it cited in this very article — and yet the Times doesn’t mention this question. That nine-point advantage is the largest for Biden over Trump on any issue the Times asked about, by the way. I guess that must’ve just slipped the Times’ mind when they were producing this article about Trump not being hurt by abortion. And finally, keep in mind that even if we stipulate that this poll shows abortion doesn’t hurt Trump vs Biden,3 it has nothing at all to say about the premise of the article, which is how abortion affects Trump relative to other Republicans. In order to do that, the poll would have to also measure Biden vs. other Republicans on the issue. It does not.
Anyway, you get the picture: The article is a complete failure. It doesn’t even attempt to actually compare Trump’s standing with the public on the issue of abortion relative to that of other Republicans, despite the fact that the stated premise of the entire article is such a comparison.
But I don’t really care about any of that. That’s just the Times’ being sloppy; its editors and writers failing to ask “wait a second, does the evidence we’ve compiled actually have anything to do with the hypothesis of our article?”4
What I really care about is: This article shouldn’t even exist. It’s a symptom of a completely bankrupt approach to covering campaigns and government, one that prioritizes horserace analysis over making clear the stakes of the election. That approach forgoes giving readers what they actually need (substantive information upon which they can base their votes) in favor of speculating about how they will vote. And that has real consequences. Indeed, if the Times is right that Trump is less vulnerable on abortion, this approach to journalism is a big part of the reason why.
The closest the Times article comes to substantiating its claim that Trump is not vulnerable on abortion is a few quotes from prospective voters saying they don’t think Trump really cares much about abortion. Here’s one:
[F]or many Republicans who want some abortion access, his lack of a defined stance — combined with his seeming long-term indifference on the issue — has not been a problem.
“I haven’t seen Trump say something either way on abortion; he doesn’t seem to care either way and that’s fine with me,” said one of the respondents, a 38-year-old woman from Schuylkill County, Pa., who spoke on condition of anonymity. She wanted abortion to be mostly legal, she said, and planned to vote for Mr. Trump again.
Now, remember: When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he made a literally unprecedented promise during the third general election debate that he would appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and he said women would have to be punished for seeking abortions. As president, he was the first president in history to attend the anti-abortion “March for Life,” he barred abortion advice at federally-funded clinics, he threatened to withhold federal funding from California if the state required insurance plans to cover abortion and, yep, he appointed three Supreme Court justices who provided the margin to overturn Roe v. Wade. And as he again runs for the presidency, he brags about being responsible for the end of Roe and says he is proud to have been “the most pro-life president” in American history.
Given all that, where would anyone get the idea that Trump “doesn’t seem to care either way” about abortion?5
Well I searched for the words TRUMP and ABORTION on the New York Times’ website, just to see what there is to see, went with the default “Sort by Relevance” option, and skimmed through the first couple hundred results and I’ve come to the conclusion that the way the Times covers Trump and abortion plays a key role.6
The vast — the overwhelming majority — of articles portray Trump conflicted, ambivalent, or even moderate on abortion. There seems to be an official Times Style Guide requirement to describe him as “uncomfortable” with the topic; the description appears in dozens and dozens of articles.
Take this September 17, 2023 article, for example:
The frame of the article is Trump-as-abortion-moderate, opposing DeSantis’s support for an abortion ban — the Times repeats Trump’s description of it as “terrible” three times, including the headline7 — and generally being uncomfortable with the topic. It portrays Trump as never having supported an abortion ban and as opposing at least some proposed bans. The article omits Trump’s boasts about being responsible for the repeal of Roe, which he did again in the very same interview the Times is reporting on; makes no mention of his anti-abortion policies as president; ignores his description of himself as the most pro-life president in history. And it buries the fact that in the very interview it is reporting on, Trump expressed support for an abortion ban:
So as he looks ahead to the general election, Mr. Trump — the front-runner for his party’s nomination by a wide margin in national polls — has tried to avoid taking a clear position in the hopes of not alienating additional voters.
“I’m almost like a mediator in this case,” Mr. Trump told Ms. Welker. Pushed on whether he would support a federal ban, he said: “It could be state or it could be federal. I don’t frankly care.”
That is Donald Trump saying he supports banning abortion. The Times is hung up on the fact that Trump won’t specify the details of the ban he supports, missing the forest for the trees. Donald Trump supports an abortion ban. That’s the forest.
Many other articles are even worse, simply portraying Trump as an abortion moderate and omitting his unequivocal statements taking credit for ending Roe and his actual anti-abortion actions as president. Some cross the line into outright deception. On April 20, 2023, the Times told readers:
Mr. Trump was mostly muted about the ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade when it happened. In an interview with The New York Times last year, Mr. Trump downplayed his central role in paving the way for the decision’s reversal.
“I never like to take credit for anything,” said Mr. Trump, whose name is affixed to most of his businesses and properties.
That is simply not what happened.
On June 24, 2022, the day of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe, Trump celebrated “the biggest WIN for LIFE in a generation,” boasting it was “only made possible because I delivered everything as promised” and insisting “These major Victories prove that even though the Radical Left is doing everything in their power to destroy our Country, your Rights are being protected, the Country is being defended, and there is still hope and time to Save America!”
Trump celebrated the overturning of Roe, took credit for it, and continues to take credit for it. It is simply false to portray Trump as “muted” or to pretend he hasn’t taken credit for it. Yet that’s exactly what the Times does. And then it publishes inane attempts at horse-race journalism that marvel at the public’s lack of clarity about Trump and abortion, as though they aren’t the reason for whatever ambiguity exists.
Now, it is true that Donald Trump is a paste-brained nitwit who often has no idea what he is saying or what it means and who feels no fidelity to either the truth or to his own past, current, or former statements, and it is also true that as a result of these conditions Trump has, at various times, said essentially everything possible to say about essentially every issue and so it can sometimes be difficult parsing out which of his statements actually reflect things he is likely to do and which are merely bluster, confusion, lies, efforts to avoid accountability, or a noxious stew of all four. In this case, however, it really isn’t complicated: The Trump statements about abortion that reflect his likely future approach to abortion as president are the ones that reflect his past approach to abortion as president.
Trump brags he’s responsible for Roe v. Wade being overturned … and he is! As a candidate he made an unprecedented promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe, then he did, then they did, then he bragged about it. This is not a difficult record to assess! And if the news media, led by the New York Times, would simply make that clear instead of helping Trump obfuscate his record and his likely future actions by portraying him as a moderate on abortion, uncomfortable with the entire topic and eager to avoid it, the public would have a clearer understanding that the person most responsible for the current assault on abortion rights is, indeed, a continued threat to abortion rights.
He’s gonna ban it if he can.
November 14, 2023. It is generally my practice not to link to the bad news articles I discuss, in order to avoid the positive reinforcement news companies take from people clicking on links to such articles. I am confident those who do wish to read the article in order to assess the validity of my critique of it can easily find it for themselves.
See NYU professor Jay Rosen’s the-stakes-vs-the-odds formulation of a decades-old media critique — one I hope to address at greater length soon.
I do not so stipulate.
Ordinarily you wouldn’t lead with like 10 paragraphs about the less important point, but I actually think it is really important that people understand news companies are terrible at horserace coverage. They shouldn’t be focusing on it so much but also they are really bad at it.
You know where this is going, don’t you?
Not the New York Times alone, of course, but The Times remains both a leader of and a useful proxy for the political media overall.
Given everything we know about Trump, his commitment to ending abortion rights, and his tendency to muse aloud about the political impact of everything under the sun, I think the best interpretation of his criticism of DeSantis’s proposed abortion ban is not that he opposes it as a matter of policy but that it is politically terrible. That is Trump’s discomfort with abortion: He isn’t uncomfortable with banning abortion, he’s uncomfortable with the politics of saying he’ll ban abortion. That’s a very, very different thing — and one that shouldn’t give any abortion rights supporter any comfort at all. And it’s a distinction the Times completely fails to make clear and often doesn’t even seem to recognize. Trump doesn’t want to say he’ll ban abortion, but he likely will ban it. The Times thinks the first part of that sentence is the important part; in fact, the second part is.