Donald Trump appalled progressive observers and anti-choice activists alike last week when he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that, if abortion were banned, women who terminated their pregnancies should be punished. His remarks were logically in line with anti-abortion rhetoric, but so wholly terrifying to moderate voters that he was forced to walk back one of his statements for perhaps the first time in his campaign.
In last week’s MSNBC interview, Trump said that in his America, a man would not bear any responsibility for his partner’s illegal abortion. But if terminating a pregnancy really is murder (as anti-choice advocates like to claim) and a moral breach worthy of legal retribution (as Trump suggested), why wouldn’t a partner who helped coordinate or pay for the abortion be an accessory to the crime?
Maureen Dowd’s column in Sunday’s New York Times might hold some clues to Trump’s reasoning. In their conversation, Trump tried to redeem himself from recent depictions of his misogynist worldview. “It was a mistake,” he said of his retweeting of an image that disparaged Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi. “I attack men far more than I attack women, and I attack them tougher,” he said of his repeated ridicule of women’s looks. When Dowd baited him with an anecdote about a recent New York fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s LGBT supporters, where Rosie O’Donnell likened him to Lord Voldemort, Trump said “I won’t comment on Rosie” and “I wish her the best,” declaring that he’s “making progress” by refusing to insult O’Donnell in the press.
As for Trump’s disturbing abortion remarks, Dowd went personal:
Given his draconian comment, sending women back to back alleys, I had to ask: When he was a swinging bachelor in Manhattan, was he ever involved with anyone who had an abortion?
“Such an interesting question,” he said. “So what’s your next question?”
How should we interpret the GOP frontrunner’s non-answer, which seems curiously demure for such a bombastic self-promoter? “It Sure Sounds Like Donald Trump Has Paid for an Abortion or Two in His Life,” Mother Jones mused—a plausible read, since any candidate would deny such an allegation outright unless it contained some element of truth. Then again, Trump seems to have no compunction in lying about other unsavory facts of his past and campaign, and when he’s caught in those lies, he just comes up with a new story to explain them away. Why wouldn’t he deny helping a former partner obtain an abortion, even if he had?
Trump’s powerful, tough-guy image rests on his history of womanizing and wielding power over women by reducing them to sex objects. He is a self-styled lady-killer, and his unapologetic boasting about his sexual history is one reason why millions of voters consider him a manly man who can take our country back from namby-pamby Obama. Trump has taken great pride in his ability to attract and sleep with beautiful women—the subtext of his initial attack on Heidi Cruz was that his macho sexual prowess made him better qualified for the presidency than the clean-cut weenie, Ted Cruz.
In years past, when the narrative of American conservatism was largely controlled by religious values voters, the prospect of a past partner’s abortion might have derailed a Republican candidate. But Trump’s followers don’t mind that he was once vocally pro-choice, and they love when he brags about taking hot women to bed. Of course, if a voter accepts Trump’s alleged decades of casual extramarital sex, she shouldn’t be surprised that he may have, at one time, somehow participated in a partner’s abortion. Trump, however, is counting on folks to resist making that logical leap: If he admitted to any complicity in a woman’s abortion, he’d alienate the religious Republicans and independents he still needs to win a general election. But if he denied it flat out, he’d undermine his own virile image, which is as vital to his own fragile self-esteem as it is to the support of voters who want a libidinous playboy in the Oval Office.