In early 2016, when the prospect that he could actually become president was still the stuff of late night jokes and distant nightmares, Donald Trump stirred outrage when he suggested that women who seek out abortions would face criminal consequences under his administration. “There has to be some form of punishment,” he told Chris Matthews. This wasn’t his first controversy as a candidate; by that point in the campaign, he’d already called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” mocked John McCain’s war service, and demanded a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. And his comment to Matthews wasn’t exactly out of step with what the so-called pro-life contingent of his party had been working toward for decades. If abortion was to be made illegal, punishment would seem to be the logical conclusion.
But at the time, saying stuff like that out loud could still provoke a scandal, and Trump quickly went on defense—which, for him, meant taking as many positions as possible, many of them contradictory, until pinning him down was near impossible—not that it was seen as important to do so in spring 2016. By the time October rolled around, however, his actual positions on issues like abortion had become far more important to the national interest. He was officially the GOP’s guy, and while Hillary Clinton seemed poised to wipe the floor with him, the notion that Trump could bullshit his way into the presidency was no longer something that could be laughed off. So, in the third presidential debate, just a couple weeks out from Election Day, moderator Chris Wallace attempted to finally nail him down. “Do you want to see the court overturn Roe v. Wade?” Wallace asked.
“Well, if we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that’s really what’s going to be—that will happen,” Trump said, after some dithering. “And that’ll happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.”
Trump told a lot of lies, but in this case he followed through. He went on to muscle three justices onto the bench: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg last fall, Amy Coney Barrett. And while Roe wasn’t obliterated while he was actually president, Mitch McConnell—the architect of the conservative court—and the relentless anti-abortion movement has now gotten their return on investment: In a 5-4 shadow docket opinion Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s conservatives—with the exception of Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with the liberal dissent—allowed an extreme anti-abortion law in Texas to stand, effectively ending most abortions in the state and opening the door for other states to enact their own restrictions.
The law—which, as my colleague Charlotte Klein pointed out Wednesday, amounts to a near-total ban on abortions in the state—essentially does what the anti-choice movement has been trying to do for half a century. “The Supreme Court has ignored 50 years of precedent and set back the hands of time, essentially allowing Texas to be a pre-Roe state,” Planned Parenthood President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson said in a statement. “This is the loudest alarm yet that abortion rights are in grave danger, in Texas and across the country.”
Of course, this dramatic setback for reproductive rights didn’t happen in a vacuum. It came after a decades-long campaign by conservative activists and politicians, who are using the same tactics on other fronts in the culture wars. In states across the country, Republican legislatures have proposed and enacted draconian voter-suppression laws based on Trump’s bogus election fraud claims. (Texas was the latest to pass voting restrictions, following a fight with state Democrats.) They’ve also sought to exert more control over the election process itself, working to do away with the guardrails that kept Trump from overturning his loss in 2020. “It’s hard to see how this isn’t just a cursory act before the takeover,” Democrat Erick Allen, a state representative in Georgia, where Republicans have established an election review panel in Atlanta’s Fulton County, told Politico Thursday. “I don’t know anyone that’s thinking that this is not going to lead to what we think.”
Conservatives are beginning to apply that same intensity to other fights, including in America’s schools, where they’re warring against mask mandates, efforts to reckon with racism and inequality, and other measures opposed by the right—all with the support of the GOP establishment. “It seems very Tea Party-ish to me,” Dan Lennington of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which is counseling parent groups that have worked to recall school board members, including over one district’s decision to hire a diversity consultant, told the Associated Press. “These are ingredients for having an impact on future elections.”
Democrats may hold both the White House and Capitol Hill right now, but on multiple fronts, it is hard not to feel as though Trumpism is winning. The movement he set in motion, the movement that capitalized on his demagoguery, seems to be gaining momentum, its investments paying off. Its vision for the country may not be the one most Americans want to live in, but that’s beside the point: The GOP is betting that minority rule is possible, as long as they are organized enough.
What’s essential for the Democrats, if they want to preserve Americans’ rights, is to match their counterparts’ intensity. Joe Biden is vowing to do so, saying in a statement that the Texas abortion law “unleashes unconstitutional chaos” and ordering his administration to “launch a whole-of-government effort to respond to this decision” and “ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions.” But Biden and the Democrats have struggled to combat the GOP on other fronts, including voter disenfranchisement, thanks to a lack of urgency among some in the party and disagreements over things like the filibuster. The issue, then, isn’t just whether the Democrats can defend Americans’ rights; it is whether they all, as a party, can recognize that those rights are under assault and prioritize protecting them.
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— How a Deadly Crash Upended South Dakota Politics
— Matt Gaetz Tries to Shift the Narrative With a MAGA Romance
— Sebastian Junger on How the U.S. Corrupted Afghanistan
— Rudy Giuliani Is One Week Away From Waxing His Back in a Sweetgreen
— New York Prosecutors Are Full Steam Ahead to Take Down the Trump Organization
— How Turf Wars Mucked Up America’s Exit From Afghanistan
— Biden’s COVID-19 Origins Report Leaves the Lab Leak on the Table
— Governor Kristi Noem Joins Fellow Republicans in Quest to Kill Constituents
— From the Archive: The Man in the Window
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.