Following Donald Trump’s win in South Carolina’s Republican primary last week, conservative pundit Erick Erickson declared on his website that he will never vote for Trump because of the candidate’s support for Planned Parenthood’s services excluding abortion. Other conservative activists—like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore—have made similar vows, unconvinced by Trump’s claims to have abandoned his previous support for abortion rights in favor of a thoroughly pro-life position.
Citing Ronald Reagan’s conversion from a pro-choice governor to an unwaveringly pro-life president as a model for his own transformation, Trump may have convinced enough Republican voters—notably evangelicals—of his change on abortion to guarantee his nomination. In South Carolina, Trump won in large part because he captured 33 percent of evangelicals there.
But evangelical leaders are right to distrust Trump’s pro-life claims—not in spite of the examples of Republicans who changed on abortion like Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Mitt Romney, but because of them. Unwittingly, Trump’s nod to history undermines his claims because it highlights the contrasts of his biography from Reagan and exposes the very different political terrain of 2016 from 1988.
Although Reagan had signed one of the nation’s first bills legalizing abortion in 1967 as governor of California, he had secured a consistent pro-life record by the time he ran for national office in 1980. Indeed, Reagan was never the “liberal” on abortion that Trump has constantly described. Even with the 1967 legislation, Reagan had demanded the removal of a clause allowing abortion for fetal deformities before signing the bill into law. The following year, Reagan opposed another bill that would have further liberalized the state’s abortion laws.
By the time Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, he was well-known in anti-abortion circles as a friend to the movement, having stopped any expansion of abortion rights throughout his governorship. Indicating in the 1976 race that he supported the aims of a Human Life Amendment, Reagan declared he would allow for abortion only in the case where pregnancy threatened the life of the mother.
As the 1980 election took shape, Reagan had no lingering questions about his pro-life commitments thanks to a solid anti-abortion record stretching back more than a decade. This earned Reagan the National Pro-Life PAC’s endorsement early in the Republican race. “Of all the Republican candidates,” the group’s leader explained, “only Governor Reagan has unequivocally and forthrightly set forth his pro-life views again and again over the years.” In his biggest coup before the election, Reagan also secured an endorsement from the powerful National Right to Life Committee after pledging to nominate only pro-life jurists to the Supreme Court.
Trump can point to no similar history to assuage conservatives, and he is unlikely to garner any endorsements from the major pro-life organizations. Instead, influential pro-life leaders have begun organizing against Trump, including more than a dozen important pro-life women activists who declared Trump “unacceptable” on the eve of the Iowa caucus.
Rather than claim to be another Reagan, Trump might fare better with pro-life activists by comparing himself to George H. W. Bush or Mitt Romney. Both Bush and Romney had pro-choice records, but both had moved firmly into the pro-life camp by the time they sought the nation’s highest office.
Like Trump, Bush and Romney faced persistent skepticism about their late arrival to pro-life commitments. The Bush family’s longstanding support for Planned Parenthood proved a difficult legacy for Bush to shake, much as Trump’s relationship with the organization—and his ongoing defense of its work apart from abortion services. But Bush had eight years as Reagan’s vice president to convince the pro-life movement he was on their side, and he was on the record for supporting both a reversal of Roe v. Wade and the Human Life Amendment by the time he ran for the White House.
Yet even Bush and Romney are no model for how pro-life activists might think of Trump. With Bush and Romney, conservative activists and Republican Party officials alike recognized they could keep them in line with the usual political threats and institutional pressures that shape presidencies. Trump, on the other hand, has flaunted his independence from the political establishment, a feature of his candidacy that has made him wildly attractive with voters and wildly dangerous to the usual powerbrokers.
In Trump, pro-life activists correctly understand that they will have no influence or bearing upon his presidency should he win. If Trump’s support is identity-based rather than ideologically-motivated, pro-life leaders are wise to not take the candidate at his word when it comes to abortion. As Trump’s growing evangelical supporters show they are unbothered by his inconsistent positions, they embolden him to ignore the very interest groups—notably the pro-life movement—that have held such power over Republican politics for nearly forty years.
Trump understandably has pointed to history to authenticate his pro-life conversion. But history rarely serves its manipulators. More often history chastens and challenges, offering up less tidy analogues and more illuminating contrasts. Pro-life leaders have rightly rejected Trump’s alternative historical narrative of Reagan’s conversion and his own. But that may not matter. In Trump, they are facing a historical force that looks like it cannot be stopped.