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The Televangelist

How Donald Trump has used the once-again raging fight over abortion rights and the religious right for his own cynical gain

A photo illustration of President Donald Trump as a preacher Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed an anti-abortion bill into law. The law criminalizes abortions performed at any stage of pregnancy; the doctor performing the abortion could be prosecuted as a felon and sentenced to 99 years, or less, in prison. Georgia passed a similar anti-abortion law last week. Missouri has a similar anti-abortion bill nearing passage in the state’s legislature.

Abortion-rights activists will, of course, challenge these statewide abortion bans in the courts; Georgia and Alabama are effectively daring the opponents of their respective laws to sue. The cases will almost certainly ascend to the highest court in the land, so hotly defined by its 5-4 conservative majority. Justice Stephen Breyer has, in a recent dissent, speculated about the court overturning Roe v. Wade on the majority’s whim.

President Donald Trump forged the majority. He has rewarded anti-abortion activists like he’s rewarded no other grassroots faction. The conservative Christians who dominate anti-abortion activism have found their man in the playboy president. The Republican Party finds its main success in Trump’s efforts to transform the courts, through his judicial appointments, into a vanguard for political conservatism.

Trump’s appointments may culminate with a climactic relitigation of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that articulated a woman’s right to abortion. Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, has roiled activists for nearly half a century as legalized abortion has become one of the most vivid (if overstated) distinctions between left and right politics. The right’s anti-abortion activists invest greater faith than anyone in Trump’s presidency. After Trump won the Republican nomination, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Trump whether he hoped to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe. “If we put another two or perhaps three justices on,” Trump responded, “that will happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.” In January, Mike Pence introduced Trump at the annual March for Life rally in Washington, D.C., as “the most pro-life president in American history.”

Of course, Trump strains credibility as an evangelical crusader. He hardly resembles the Bush family in his convictions, which seem more Machiavellian than Christian. In an October 1999 interview with Tim Russert, Trump described himself as “very pro-choice,” and he hasn’t since accounted for his reversal in persuasive terms; he simply pretends to have always been the man whom Pence now describes. But Trump doesn’t mention personhood and murder, talking points of the religious right. He talks about winning and seems more invested in his political base and the electoral college. Under Trump, there are more conventional Republicans, including evangelicals and Catholics, who sincerely assert the personhood of fetuses. Trump’s own ambivalence, so long as he cooperates with his party’s activists, remains rather beside the point.

White evangelicals are the core faction in U.S. anti-abortion activism, and they love Trump more than any other voting bloc. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s generation bolsters Trump as fanatically as Falwell’s father bolstered Reagan 40 years ago. Every few months, Trump’s support among evangelicals bewilders Trump’s critics. The liberals see the obvious contrast between the suburban and rural puritans and the Manhattan playboy. They spot hypocrisy. They hear the cynicism in Falwell Jr.’s propaganda. But there’s nothing so uncanny or unexpected about Trump’s loyalty to anti-abortion activists, “constitutional conservatives,” and Christian fundamentalists. Trump is nothing if not a televangelist: He blends virtue and vice, in spectacular fashion, and he profits massively from the conflation. Trump’s immigration rhetoric appeals to white voters who are destined to lose the demographic war in this century. Likewise, Trump’s anti-abortion commitments reinvigorate voters who lost religious skirmishes, including the one over marriage equality, in the eight years under Barack Obama.

It’s easy to forget why Trump selected Pence, of all people, as his vice president. Pence is the party’s leading evangelical. Pence, as governor of Indiana, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, drafted to protect religious fundamentalists against discrimination lawsuits from gay and transgender plaintiffs. Unlike Trump, Pence is an old-school, anti-abortion pampleteer. There are sincere religious convictions that animate conservative activism; Trump just doesn’t seem to share those convictions personally. The president does, however, share a constituency with Mike Pence, and so they share hope for a Supreme Court decision affirming Georgia and Alabama’s laws banning abortion nigh entirely. Trump’s presidency depends on such contradictions, which no conservative need resolve so long as the president and the fundamentalists are, together, winning.