Trump's March for Life speech was damage control

On the agonizing relationship between Trump and the pro-life movement

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, DickDuerrstein/iStock)

When Donald Trump addressed the crowd of an estimated 100,000 anti-abortion protesters at the annual March for Life on Friday, he became the first sitting American president to do so in person. Ronald Reagan telephoned a message of support in 1987, when the gathering was less than a tenth of its present size; George W. Bush did something similar in 2003, speaking blandly and equivocally. For the last two years Trump has delivered short remarks via satellite.

The significance of his decision to attend this year's rally cannot be overstated. Every Republican president since Reagan has claimed to share the goals of the pro-life movement, but somehow none could find the time to address what has become the focal point of anti-abortion activism in our nation's capital. It could be argued that Trump was simply paying lip service to opponents of state-sponsored infanticide, but that is still more than can be said for his predecessors.

Trump's remarks on Friday were brief and, especially by his standards, focused. They were also far more incisive than anything I have heard on the subject in many years from any American politician not named Rick Santorum, much less a president. Trump called every child a "precious and sacred gift from God" and declared all mothers "heroes." He denounced the iniquities of "global bureaucrats [who] have no business attacking the sovereignty of nations that defend the gift of human life." He praised the Little Sisters of the Poor and offered Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, as an example of a politician willing to "execute" children even after birth. This was not the cautious rhetoric of the Republican National Committee — it was the red meat that serious social conservatives, easily the GOP's single most reliable constituency, have craved for a long time.

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There was still a certain amount of the usual Trumpian campiness. His remarks were preceded by a recording of the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" and followed, as at any other Trump rally, by "You Can't Always Get What You Want." The crowd, which responded to his brandishing of his pro-life credentials with shouts of "USA" and "Four more years," did not seem to mind.

Just as Trump's insistence on appearing at the march should not discounted, it should also not be misunderstood. There is a phrase for what he was there to do on Friday — damage control. While it is seldom discussed in print, many pro-life activists continue to feel betrayed by Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, not only because Amy Coney Barrett would have been a more reliably anti-abortion candidate but because Kavanaugh, so far from proving himself an easier sell than the distinguished legal scholar and mother of seven children, ended up as the single most controversial judicial nominee in American history. Whether Kavanaugh would agree to strike down Roe v. Wade remains an open question. (It is worth noting that multiple sources familiar with Trump's private conversation say that he intends to nominate Barrett if Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat becomes available.)

The misgivings occasioned by his nomination of Kavanaugh echoed the ones I remember hearing from many pro-life activists during the Republican primaries in 2016, both before and after it had become clear that Trump would be the nominee. I do not think I have ever seen veteran political organizers as disenchanted as the leaders of various socially conservative organizations were at a meeting I attended at a D.C. bar that year in March. Here were people who felt that that they had no choice but to lend their support to a man they considered repulsive and likely to abandon their cause at the first opportunity.

This is why for me the most significant words spoken on Friday came just before Trump's address, when Jeanne Mancini, the president of the organization that sponsors the march, said, "Thank you for all the work you will do for life." Her emphasis, unmistakably pointed, was on the word "will."

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.