Anti-abortion Zealotry: Trump’s Greatest Con Was Nixon’s Legacy

HOW THE ABORTION CONTROVERSY SERVES CONSERVATISM AND RACISM

For some Evangelical voters, as hundreds of recent social-media comments demonstrate, abortion is the moral and religious imperative that overrides all other issues. Because in many cases this blinds them to Donald Trump’s clearly visible sins, it’s important to understand how this came to be. A hint: it originated as a political strategy by Richard Nixon and the Republican Party nearly half a century ago.

For other Evangelicals, abortion just is one of a bundle of issues under the rubric of “social conservatism.” And then there are those less dogmatic members of this faith community who may want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but oppose Trump’s re-election. Those Evangelicals have weighed competing considerations, also rooted in deeply held religious convictions, to reach that conclusion. For many of them, good and evil are on the ballot. They utterly reject the idea advanced by some Evangelical leaders that Trump is the “Chosen One.” Or even that he has ever asked for forgiveness, has repented his past behavior, has taken Jesus Christ as his savior, or is redeemed. Trump’s notorious march across Lafayette Square, holding up a Bible, and the proclamation that “I am an Evangelical” failed to persuade them.

(To read what Evangelicals, both pro- and anti-Trump, have said in commenting about their values and political influence, CLICK HERE.)

But let us be as blunt as Trump himself: for some white Evangelical voters, support for Donald Trump is about racism, pure and simple. His many signals to white supremacists and swastika-wearing neo-Nazis, his attacks on Democratic mayors and members of Congress who are black or who represent substantial numbers of people of color: these actions and many more resonate with some unknowable number of Evangelical voters. And his musings on how the young man who drove to Kenosha, Wisconsin and shot and killed an unarmed protester could claim self-defense indicated how far he is willing to go to deepen the racial divide and to affirm which side he stands on.

Whether his Evangelical supporters have any self-knowledge about how they came to hold these views can’t be determined from their responses to our posts.  But they can be better understood by the indisputable history of Republican efforts to get them here. Using abortion as a wedge issue and a proxy for other, less savory impulses has been a Republican political strategy for many years.

THE NIXON LEGACY: TARGETING CATHOLICS; EVANGELICALS CAME ONLY LATER

In January, 1973, a Gallup poll reported that sixty-four percent of Americans believed “the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician.” That strong majority view hasn’t changed in the half-century following the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But in that time, the two major parties’ positions have reversed. Then, sixty-eight percent of Republicans and only fifty-nine percent of Democrats endorsed a woman’s right to choose. Even among Catholics, where opposition to abortion has been the most consistent historically, it was fifty-six percent. But in the wake of Roe v. Wade, Republican political strategists set out to separate from the Democratic Party the large number of Catholics who opposed the idea that child-bearing was a matter for a mother to decide. Evangelicals, if indeed they were considered at all, weren’t top-of-mind.

Pat Buchanan advised Richard Nixon to seize on abortion as one of several culture-war battles, along with amnesty for Vietnam-war draft evaders, marijuana, and aid to non-public schools.
Pat Buchanan advised Richard Nixon to seize on abortion as one of several culture-war battles, along with amnesty for Vietnam-war draft evaders, marijuana, and aid to non-public schools.

It was during Richard Nixon’s first term that Republican political strategists decided to use abortion as a political driver. Because many Catholic voters were passionately opposed to abortion, the GOP saw a chance to peel them away from the historic Roosevelt-New Deal Democratic coalition. Single-issue voters are gold for politicians who are skilled at manipulating such passions. (Few are better at this than Trump himself.) Starting in the 1970s, Republican strategists had in mind much more than protecting the fetus.

As it is today, the country was in turmoil. A long list of divisive issues, both political and cultural, included Vietnam, the feminist movement, hippies, Yippies, long-hairs, pot, protesters, civil rights marcher. It was the era of “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

I was a young lawyer working in New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s administration. He was a liberal Republican, not an oxymoron in those days. I remember in 1970 watching from my office window high up in in New York City’s Municipal Building as several hundred union members, mostly construction workers, attacked peaceful anti-Vietnam War protesters, mostly high school and college students. 

That was New York’s infamous “Hard Hat Riot.” The union presidents had told their members that if they left work and busted some heads, they’d still get paid. So they did. Many carried signs reading, “America, Love It or Leave It.” Many chanted “Impeach Lindsay.” 

The anti-war protests were part of a large national outcry following Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Just days earlier, Ohio National Guardsmen, using live ammunition, had shot and killed four Kent State University students.

In 1970, New York construction workers attacked peaceful protesters, a preview of how Republicans have pitted working-class whites against their own interests.
In 1970’s ‘Hard Hat Riot,’ New York construction workers attacked peaceful anti-war protesters, a preview of how Republicans have succeeded in pitting working-class whites against their own interests.

Looking down on that scene, I remember thinking, “You fools will pay a stiff price for what you think you’re doing, being patriotic Americans. Your decent wages, nice house in Queens, your kids in tuition-free colleges, everything you think is yours: it will be taken from you and you won’t know who to blame. The people who’ve taken it will tell you it was those black people on welfareand if nobody is listening, they won’t say “black people”as well as those liberal politicians like Lindsay. They’ll blame anyone but the bankers, the real estate moguls, the oil barons, the weapons makers, and the politicians they finance.” Today, while those words sound snotty to my more mature ears, it’s what I thought then. Now, of course, it’s what we can all see is true.

Anyone paying attention could see these forces beginning to play out in the state legislatures, in the courts, and on the streets. Even as legislatures began to advance more liberal abortion laws, the Catholic Church began organizing resistance. And yet, at the time, Evangelicals were not part of that resistance. It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that the Southern Baptist Convention took the stand to oppose abortion “categorically.”

Until then, Evangelicals had seen abortion largely as a Catholic issue. The overwhelming majority believed, true to their conservative instincts, that government should have a limited role and that the woman and her doctor ought to decide the issue. But what a change a few decades make! Today, opinion polls tell us that more than three-quarters of white Evangelical Protestants (77 percent) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The history of that shift is well documented.

In the 1970s, Republican strategists approached the Rev. Jerry Falwell, encouraging him to organize Evangelicals as part of a “Moral Majority” that would promote “pro-family” politics. It was only then that Falwell began talking about abortion.

Jerry Falwell Senior, whose Moral Majority was a reliable ally for Republicans starting in the Reagan era, preached against abortion in the service of tax breaks for his racist school.
Jerry Falwell Senior, whose Moral Majority was a reliable ally for Republicans starting in the Reagan era, preached against abortion in the service of tax breaks for his racist school.

He preached abortion. But race and money were key. As so many others did throughout the South, Falwell ran a “segregation academy” in Lynchburg, Va. But to maintain their tax-exempt status as religious institutions (parents didn’t pay tuition; they made tax-deductible contributions), the IRS ruled and the federal courts affirmed that these white Christian private schools could not discriminate according to race. That, of course, defeated their purpose. These schools had opened in direct defiance of the desegregation of public schools. Falwell wanted tax relief for his school. He knew he couldn’t get it from a Democratic administration. Even today, racism continues to rule some of those institutions. Under Falwell’s now-disgraced son, a strong Trump supporter, his Liberty University continued to forbid inter-racial dating among its students. And so we saw the Evangelical movement’s embrace of the political right wing, pegged to abortion but deeply informed by lingering racism.

In short, abortion transcended the religious domain, becoming another strand in Republican strategists’ campaign to push all the hottest buttons and realign their party into the majority. Properly framed and targeted—weaponizedabortion would be used as a proxy for everything that was roiling American life, including racial fears, economic inequality, and cultural change. Resistance to “Abortion on demand” was tied to support for family values and patriotismdefined to include opposition to feminism and the “permissive” youth culture—and the rest of the basket of social and ethnic issues that, along with race, could be sold as “cultural conservatism.”  

KEY PLAYERS: DEFENDING VOTER SUPPRESSION AND SEGREGATION

Who were the main players? As the expression goes, “where are the receipts” to back up this cynical narrative? A fair question.

Start with Paul Weyrich, a leading conservative thinker and political activist. A radical right-wing strategist, among many other things, he co-founded the Heritage Foundation and, with Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority. His chief assistant, Laszlo Pasztor, had been a leading figure in Hungary’s Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi political party during World War II. After Pasztor served some time in prison for collaborating with Hitler, he came to the United States. Here, he helped establish the Republican National Committee’s ethnic-outreach arm.

Taking a page from the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow South, Weyrich was an early leading figure in the ugly Republican tactic of “legal” voter suppression, particularly race-based voter suppression. That tactic, of course, became even more blatant after the Roberts majority on the Supreme Court disemboweled the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Weyrich was blunt about his intentions:

“So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. [Emphasis mine.] Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”[1]

As for abortion, here’s Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College professor who has studied the matter:

“It wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.”

Weyrich said social issues “are emotional issues, but that’s better than talking about capital formation.”

Or put another way: The Republicans can achieve their big-money donors’ fondest wishes by pandering to the prejudices of middle and working-class voters.

When Weyrich died, among his many eulogists were Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell.

Richard Viguerie, another far-right Republican political operative, got his start working for the TV evangelist Billy James Hargis.  Viguerie was the New Right’s go-to-guy for direct mail marketing, an important piece of political fundraising back in the dayand still today. 

Viguerie:  “The New Right is looking for issues that people care about, and social issue[s], at least for the present, fit the bill.”

The smoking gun in this case is the memorandum to Richard Nixon from his top strategist, Pat Buchanan: Abortion is “a rising issue and a gut issue with Catholics. . . favoritism toward things Catholic is good politics; there is a trade-off, but it leaves us with the larger share of the pie.”

Buchanan’s strategy guide for the 1972 presidential election, “The Assault Book,” ranked abortion and contraception first on a list of “SOCIAL ISSUESCatholic/Ethnic concerns.” Among other wedge issues Buchanan urged Nixon to exploit, abortion was grouped with amnesty for Vietnam-war draft evasion, marijuana use, and aid to nonpublic schools.

As with Donald Trump, neither Richard Nixon nor the Republican Party he led actually cared about abortion as a moral or religious issue.[2]

Nixon and his strategists saw the political opportunity to use it as an opening through which they could drive Catholics into the Republican Party. Already by the late 1960s, following the passage of Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation, Southern Democrats were moving away from the Democratic Party. As Lyndon Johnson accurately predicted, the Democrats’ shift toward racial justice would cost his party the formerly “solid South,” where white voters flocked first to Barry Goldwater in 1964 and then to George Wallace’s presidential candidacy in 1968.

And formerly Democratic politicians such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms would jump ship to the Republicans when the Democrats repudiated racism as one of their party’s principles.

Nixon: “Unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand,” he said, “is incompatible with [his] personal belief in the sanctity of human lifeincluding the life of the yet unborn.”

Those of us who lived through the Nixon era can almost hear the solemnity, the piety, the hypocrisy: “Tricky Dick” was doing his thing. And so we also can see the same cynical calculation on the part of Donald Trump, who will pretend to believe anything he thinks will buy him votes.

Though Trump masterfully exploits the passionate haters among the Evangelicals—that’s what demagogues do—those fires burn less brightly today than they did in 2016. That’s when he was first rallying racists to his candidacy, pretending to question Barack Obama’s birthplace and thus his right to hold office. Since that presidential election, Evangelicals of every stripe have seen Trump as president. At the same time, Democrats have been reminding voters how much was at stake for them and their families. That message has gotten through.

In this video, a voter confronts a Republican congressman over his votes to tear down the protections for his family’s health embodied in the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

Significantly, in 2018, despite voter suppression and gerrymandering, Democratic candidates won a majority in the House of Representatives, a historic landslide.

BEYOND ABORTION: FOLLOW THE MONEY

The Democratic Party gave the countryand particularly the white working classSocial Security, Medicare, Medicaid, union rights, environmental protections, and much more. Over and over again, Democratic presidents have picked up the pieces of a shattered economy wrecked by Republicans. It’s the Republicans, once they gain control of the government, who bow to their mega-rich donors, in a greedy frenzy demanding outrageous returns on their investments in Republican candidates. These demands take the form of massive tax cuts, tax loopholes, and stripping away the government’s regulatory role. It’s happened often enough, and Donald Trump has shined the light on it so brightly, that more and more Evangelicals recognize the pattern. Good and evil are on the ballot. But so are more immediate, measurable, and visible choices.

And so here we are in the end game for democracy itself. In 2018, voters sent Donald Trump and the Republican Party a message. Trump thumbed his nose and the Republicans bent the knee to him and the voter “base” whose allegiance he commanded. Given Trump’s obvious intentions, this year’s election results may well be the last message American citizens are able to send. How many Evangelicals are willing to live under one-man rule?

Those who still support Trump are the people commentators have in mind when they speak of a personality cult, and more recently, with 200,000-plus COVID-19 fatalities, of a death cult.  

For decades now, Republicans have been painting themselves and the rest of the country into a racial and cultural cul-de-sac. The “base” they created and conditioned for the demagogue in the White House blocks the escape of those Republicans not willing to walk out of the party. Almost all of Republicans in Congress are millionaires. If they had the courage to leave, they would not go empty-handed. Yet they cling to illusory powerillusory because, whatever happens in this election, they have surrendered any real, independent power forever. We’re about to find out whether the rest of the country can escape these politicians’ fate.   

A final message to the (American) mega-billionaires and corporate donors: first, with large parts of our country literally in flames and experiencing unprecedented floods and extreme weather, with a pandemic raging out of control, will they ever understand that they and their children live on the same planet? Will they acknowledge that by supporting this Trump-owned Republican Party, they are on the wrong side of nature and science?

And second, with a corrupt and lawless president and a corrupt and lawless attorney general attempting to extinguish our form of government, will they recall the little corporal with the funny mustache? The slightly ridiculous right-wing politician whom the conservative German corporate elite thought they could handle? And if they do understand, will they withdraw from the wrong side of history?


[1] Remarks to the Religious Roundtable (August 1980) as quoted in The Hidden Election (1981) by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers

[2] Roe v. Wade was decided by a 7-2 majority opinion written by Nixon appointee, Harry Blackmun. Another Nixon appointee, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., persuaded the majority to extend the constitutional protection “to the second trimester of pregnancy, until the point of fetal viability.”

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