July 5, 2016
The Supreme Court announced a decision on June 27, signifying the most important ruling on the right to obtain a legal abortion in decades, and conservative leadersattacked the court with their usual grandstanding: Former presidential candidates Marco Rubio expressed his disappointment and recommitted to “fight for life and protect the unborn”; Carly Fiorina claimed “the Supreme Court put women's health and safety at risk”; and Ted Cruz argued that the court “sided with abortion extremists who care more about providing abortion-on-demand than they do protecting women's health.”
The abortion ruling had the rest of the country’s politicians evenly and cleanly divided—with the vast majority of Democrats praising the court’s intervention to stop the GOP from making abortion inaccessible and a right in name only, while Republicans primarily berated a court they believe is conspiring with the “abortion industry” in order to profit from the death of babies and physical and emotional maiming of their mothers.
But there was a deafening silence from the loudest person all, Donald Trump, the Republican party’s titular head, and presumptive presidential nominee, a man best known for speaking first and thinking second. For once he refrained from any sort of public comment. In fact, it took three days for Trump to so much as mention the court’s ruling, and only then did he give an evasive, non-specific response. Trump told a conservative radio show host that had Justice Antonin Scalia still been alive or if Trump had been able to appoint a replacement for Scalia, there never would have been a majority striking down the Texas laws—which is likely untrue, since that would have left the decision 5-4 rather than the 5-3 ruling that was handed down by the court. The words strictly adhered to a set of talking points released by his campaign the day of the ruling, which Politico obtained. Meanwhile, he steadily avoided making the type of sweeping “protect the unborn” rallying cries that even his failed challengers easily and quickly rattled off on social media or to any reporter calling for a quote.
Was Trump remaining completely silent on the matter? Apparently not, as we are starting to learn. While the presidential contender was stoically avoiding any public statements about abortion, he was privately telling the religious right exactly what they wanted to hear. "The Donald Trump presidential campaign reached out directly to Christian leaders after the Supreme Court's overturning of Texas abortion laws on Monday, while deciding against releasing official statements or social media postings,” reported the Bloomberg News. According to Bloomberg, the campaign also spoke with the members of his new Executive Evangelical Advisory Board as well. Those evangelicals now supporting Trump—such as Troy Newman, the leader of anti-abortion group Operation Rescue— are now saying they don’t need public statements from the potential president, because they have been completely reassured that he is on their side.
“He doesn’t need to repeat himself,” Newman told Bloomberg News. “He said he’d defund Planned Parenthood and put pro-life justices on the Supreme Court and that’s the cure. Right now, the judiciary is the problem.”
When it comes to prepping for the general election, Trump is playing a clever game. If he remains mum on controversial, divisive topics in public, and only addresses issues in somewhat vague generalities, there will be very little that the opposition can bring up against him when they create attack ads or prep for debates. That means no sound bites and video clips to turn into online and television ads, and no quotes to cite at campaign rallies. It’s controlling the news cycle by literally giving the media—and his opponent—nothing to use at all.
Meanwhile, in one-on-one conversations and off the record chats, Trump is telling his supporters exactly what they most want: that he is their man, completely ready to support their most extreme beliefs as soon as he steps into the Oval Office. While currently he is doing it with abortion, it can only be assumed that it will continue on with immigration, LGBT rights such as marriage equality and trans accommodations, and of course gun restrictions.
Trump is a politician who wooed his way into the endorsement by having the smoothest sales pitch. He convinced xenophobic voters he could fix the country by building a wall to stop undocumented immigrants from entering the country. He convinced Tea Party Republicans that he would rescind Obamacare and give Americans the “right” to once again be uninsured if they want. He convinced the elderly that he would get rid of government bureaucracy once he was elected – all except for the portion of the government that writes their Social Security checks and pays the Medicare reimbursements. And he’s now busy convincing the religious right that he will bring an end to legal abortion and allow them to discriminate when it comes to hiring practices, schooling and even allowing employees birth control access all under an umbrella of “conscientious objection.”
As he pivots to the general, however, he knows that the fraction of the mostly extreme far right that gave him the nomination is nowhere near enough votes to win him the White House. To do that, he needs to appeal to the majority of Americans who think deporting all Muslims is a ridiculous idea, that abortion should be legal for those who need it, that believe that schools should be gun-free zones and maybe being able to shoot off 30 rounds before needing to reload isn’t exactly what the fore fathers meant when they put a right to bear arms into the Constitution.
Trump has already shown in the past that balancing his way between those two types of voters isn’t his strong suit. After all, this was the man who once claimed he was pro-choice, but since he began running for president switched sides, later telling a reporter women should be punished if abortion is made illegal before pivoting away when even the pro-life movement told him he went too far. In order to have even the smallest shot at winning in November, his best bet is to avoid taking definitive stances on any divisive issue, hoping that a lack of a media record will be his best asset in a world filled with low-information voters. And because he has already told his base exactly what he will do for them, like Newman, they no longer have any need for vocal public assurances.
It’s a ploy that just might work, too. Both Republican voters and those who oppose likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are looking for an excuse—any excuse—to vote against her, even if it means supporting a candidate whose policy platform makes them cringe. From the Bernie or Bust contingent who claims a Trump term would teach the country a lesson to the fiscal conservatives who despise every bit of race-bating rhetoric, but cherish their tax exemptions above all else, an ambiguous Trump offers an opportunity to plead ignorance and cast a ballot for the Republican anyway. When he follows through on his backroom campaign pledges, they can shrug and claim they had no idea he would be so bad.
While we all know Trump's words have become dangerous, it’s becoming clearer that his silences are even more so. When they come, we can be sure he’s still talking, we just no longer exactly who he is talking to, and exactly what promises he is making.