Can Trump rein in his own base on abortion?

Trump has egged on extremists whose anti-abortion stance has mobilised voters against him. That could cost him victory in November.

U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage to address thousands of anti-abortion activists at the 47th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis
US President Donald Trump takes the stage to address thousands of anti-abortion activists at the 47th annual March for Life in Washington on January 24, 2020 [File: Reuters/Leah Millis]

With the presidential campaign well under way in the United States, abortion rights are shaping up to be one of the defining issues of the 2024 election. President Joe Biden has placed it at the top of his electoral agenda, seeking to rally progressive and women voters. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans support abortion remaining legal while a number of legislative initiatives to pass abortion bans in Republican-dominated states have failed.

That has caused former President Donald Trump to rethink his own campaign strategy on the issue. Fearing he may alienate moderate voters, he has significantly toned down his rhetoric on abortion rights, recently indicating that he would not sign a national abortion ban.

This is not the first time Trump has flip-flopped on a key issue of public interest. He did so during the COVID-19 pandemic when he dressed his endorsement of vaccines in caveats about “personal freedoms” to please his support base. But this time, this strategy may backfire.

To be clear, Trump doesn’t substantively care about abortion rights. He seems to have gone from being “very pro-choice” in 1999 to being “pro-life” in 2011 to advocating legal punishment for women who had abortions during his 2016 campaign.

However, Trump does care about winning, or more precisely about being perceived as a winner. That is why as recently as last year, he was taking credit for “killing” Roe v Wade, the landmark case that guaranteed abortion rights until the Supreme Court overturned it in 2022.

“After 50 years of failure with nobody coming even close, I was able to kill Roe v Wade, much to the ‘shock’ of everyone,” Trump posted on his Truth Social platform last year, adding: “Without me the pro Life movement would have just kept losing.”

The problem that Trump now has is that the MAGA crowd sit far to the right of him on the issue of abortion and he does not seem able to rein them in. In fact, moderating his rhetoric on abortion may alienate some of his supporters, especially the white conservative evangelical base.

For evangelicals, the fight against abortion has been the centrepiece of their unspoken bargain with Trump: We’ll ignore your many moral and legal failings as long as you push forward our agenda. They may perceive Trump’s moderation of rhetoric as a betrayal of this bargain at a time when they have built momentum towards eliminating all legal abortions in Republican-controlled states.

Trump might try to hold onto these voters with other issues, such as LGBTQ rights, exaggerated narratives about urban crime and so on. But those may not be enough.

Already Trump is feeling the heat from conservatives. In April, Republicans in the Arizona State Legislature blocked a Democrat-led effort to repeal an 1864 law banning abortion, defying Trump, who had said the ban “went too far”. Days later, former Vice President Mike Pence, a devout Christian, criticised his former boss in a New York Times opinion piece, accusing him of “retreating” on the abortion issue, displaying “weakness” and “leading other Republicans astray” by encouraging moderation.

In early May, moderate Republicans in Arizona joined Democrats to repeal the 1864 law, but conservatives continued to defend abortion bans.

The eagerness of state-level Republicans to restrict abortion and their recalcitrance against calls for moderation, even from fellow Republicans, create a challenge for Trump. So he may change strategy and avoid confronting abortion hardliners.

This seems to be in play already. Trump was recently scheduled to virtually address supporters at an event hosted by the Danbury Institute, an ultraconservative organisation that seeks to completely ban abortion, which it considers “child sacrifice”. However, instead of doing a speech, his campaign sent a two-minute recorded message to be played to the audience in which he made one passing reference to protecting “innocent life” but otherwise sidestepped the issue of abortion entirely.

As much as he tries, Trump will be unable to avoid an issue that is mobilising voters against the Republican Party, especially as the Biden campaign has already started to hang the abortion albatross around his neck.

The topic will almost certainly come up in one or both of the debates the two candidates have agreed to have, and a number of states like Florida will have abortion measures on the ballot in November.

Trump may also try to sell his supporters the idea that it’s politically expedient to moderate, at least until after the election. But many of his most fervent anti-abortion supporters are eager to capitalise on the successes they have had during and after his first term in office.

Trump may, therefore, find it difficult to contain the political forces that he has unleashed, a reality that could end up costing him and his anti-abortion supporters victory in November.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.