Saying out loud what the GOP is thinking

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Photo: Gage Skidmore (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Rachel Maddow, in a fantastic and unusually warlike first block on yesterday’s episode of her show, quite clearly spelled out something about Donald Trump’s abortion remarks: that Donald Trump said out loud what the abortion movement has learned not to say out loud. He said out loud what is the inescapable conclusion of the assumptions and beliefs on which the anti-abortion movement rests. In Maddow’s words:

The political narrative and media narrative that come up in the last 24 hours in response to what Donald Trump said yesterday about abortion and what it means to be anti-abortion, what it means to want to ban abortion in this country, it is so out of touch and so facile right now it`s mind-bending. I mean, reporting on what the anti-abortion movement is, reporting on that movement`s aims, reporting on what it means to be a pro-life politician doesn`t just mean writing down what you want to say about them.

You don`t have to use the antiseptic language and chosen phrases they choose to use themselves when they describe their own perception. You don`t have to talk about them only the way they like to be talked about. When you talk about them in terms of their actual policy goals in an objective way, you very quickly realize what Donald Trump did, yesterday, it may be viewed as a gaffe, but it wasn`t a gaffe, right? He just used blunter language than the anti-abortion likes the use in public.

Let`s just get real about this for a second. If you are pro-life, that means you don`t think a woman has a right to have an abortion if she wants one. If you`re pro-life, you mean that you think there isn`t a right to get an abortion. It means you`re anti-abortion.

Anti-abortion doesn`t mean you don`t get an abortion in your own life. It means you believe nobody else should be able to get an abortion either.

When a politician says he or she is pro-life and will govern as such, what that means is that they would like abortion do be outlawed. It means they want the United States of America to be a country in which getting an abortion is a crime. If getting an abortion is a crime, that means anybody who gets an abortion is a criminal. Follow me here.

That`s what Chris Matthews was getting at with Donald Trump. And this is what he admitted to that has so upset everything that he said it out loud. But it`s true. If we become a pro-life country that abortion is illegal, then every time any woman becomes pregnant in the United States, she will face a government mandate that says she must bring that pregnancy to term and she must give birth by order of the government.

The government will use the criminal law to monitor every pregnancy in this country and to force every woman in America who gets pregnant to take that pregnancy to term and give birth [even] if it`s against her will. That`s what it means in brass tacks.

This is excellently and bluntly put. And I’m happy to see this sort of forthrightness and honesty about a political position coming from a reporter. It’s a great piece of clarifying commentary and reporting, of a kind which is too much missing from mainstream American journalism.

There are lots of positions that should be frequently spelled out with equal clarity in the public discourse of the US: say, that the war on drugs is a costly and suffering-producing failure as policy. That the influence on money in politics means that the wealthy get to wield an undue influence on public policy. That the American health care system does not work and that government-run “single-payer” health care is a model that has worked better in almost every other developed nation. Or, more relevant here: guns.

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As a European, it never ceases to amaze me that the pro-gun position in the US is not spelled out in full detail: the US is victim to a level and scale of gun violence which practically no other developed nation has.

To see someone say this with forthrightness and clarity,  read Gary Will’s tour de force essay “Our Moloch”, written in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, which is the finest piece of writing on this topic I know:

[Sandy Hook] was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch.

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That Maddow spells out the anti-abortion position is necessary for her to point out that Ted Cruz and the other also-ran Republican candidates also quietly hold the same beliefs that Trump made the mistake of articulating. These ideas are core tenets of the Republican party. They are a logical consequence of the core ideas of the anti-abortion movement.

Articulating these ideas clearly, as Trump has now done, allows a debate to happen that was hard to have before. This is a debate which is strategically unfortunate for the GOP.

The belief that life, in a moral sense, begins at conception, is a valid theological and ethical belief. Which can be argued for and against. I think the strength of the argument is weak. It’s not a belief that makes much sense. Aborted fetuses aren’t yet fully human in any of the ways I take to be legally and morally relevant. While it could be argued that one is killing living cells, it is hard to make the argument that is morally equivalent to killing a born, viable human being.

I nonetheless understand where the unease about abortion comes from. I myself have been in the room when an abortion took place, and for me at least it was an emotional and distressing event. Not because I thought what was happening was wrong, but because the abortion represented a major life decision and there is a decisive finality and instrumentality to it that can be unsettling when considering what is, in some sense, a potential human life. I get the unease. I’ve felt it too.

But we don’t legislate with our feelings. The disgust some conservative people feel about homosexuality is not an excuse for outlawing it. The displeasure about female sexual autonomy that some men feel does not mean that women should stop enjoying or having sex with who they want, in what way they want.

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And the problem with the unease felt about abortion is that it leads logically and almost inescapably to extreme political conclusions. The “pro-life” idea that life in a moral sense begins at conception has, as a completely logical consequence, the fact that women should  be forced to give birth, whether they want to or not. That their bodies are governed by the state. That the women and doctors who perform abortions are murderers. We should be honest about these connections in a way that, say, Ted Cruz or supposedly moderate Jeb Bush, are not.

In their pro-life worldview, this is a natural argument. That Cruz does not believe women should be punished is a testament to either great cognitive dissonance (murderers should not be punished) or a lack of principle so crude it should not be acceptable (I think these people are murderers, but I need the women’s vote). That women and abortion doctors should be punished is a logical conclusion. At least for manslaughter, if not for premeditated murder.

The leap to, say, killing abortion doctors is, while a little absurd for someone championing the sanctity of human life, also comprehensible within this framework.

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But what does it mean to be a modern republican in the midst of these clouded, half-articulated beliefs? It leads to unsustainable cognitive dissonance. It means living with self-contradictions which might, as much as anything else, be causing the great rift forming in the conservative movement. I mentioned the gun issue earlier, for instance. Over 33.000 people were killed by guns in the US in 2013 alone. The pro-gun position in practice means accepting and sustaining that level of violence and the occasional mass killing of, say, children. Not just the theoretical philosophical souls of abortions, but actual living children shot dead by the hundreds. Around 700 last year alone, not counting suicides.

I know this isn’t a novel observation. But the lack of candour and explicitness about the often radical or extreme positions occupied by normal US politicians is a distressing fact about this historical moment. It makes it hard to make the choices facing the nation clear. It feels warm and fuzzy to be pro-life. But the view becomes harder to hold when one considers state-enforced pregnancies and births. Women being jailed for having abortions. Or when one considers that maybe one’s own beliefs mean that murdering abortion doctors can be morally justified.

To those of us living outside this chaotic circus of distractions, elisions and obfuscations, it is a maddening show. How can those of you in the US not see clearer the absurdity of a party that calls itself pro-freedom while  advocating for the punishment of female autonomy? The pro-life party openly holding a political position that reliably kills tens of thousands of Americans every year? The unworking of these contradictions requires clarity and forthrightness about what these political positions mean in practice.

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