By this time, everyone with a television, a smart phone or a computer has already seen the MSNBC town hall exchange between Chris Matthews and Donald Trump where the abortion question came up. (Even if you lack all three of those modern devices, you may have caught wind of it via the screams of horror emanating from the windows of your neighbors, both Democrat and Republican.) But on the odd chance that you were in a coma for the past sixteen hours and happened to turn to Hot Air before doing anything else this morning, here’s the short but brutal recap. (WaPo)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump came under fire Wednesday for saying that women should be subject to “some sort of punishment” for undergoing illegal abortions, a position that antiabortion and abortion rights groups alike emphatically denounced.
The GOP front-runner said during a pre-taped town hall hosted by MSNBC that criminal punishments would be appropriate for women seeking abortions if the procedure were made illegal nationwide. Moderator Chris Matthews pressed Trump on the practical implications of banning abortions.
Before going any further, I’d like to preface this column with something that at least approaches a bit of an apology to my friends in the #NeverTrump camp because yesterday’s events led to a wake-up call of sorts for me on a personal level. As regular readers know by now, I’ve gone out of my way to leave some maneuvering room for the GOP this fall by attempting to maintain Donald Trump’s status as a viable back-up plan if Ted Cruz fails to secure the nomination. (And I’ve been gently taken to task for it by some very prominent writers.) I recognize that I may have even engaged in a bit of willful disregard for some of the more troubling aspects of his campaign rather than simply throwing up my hands and tossing the keys to the Oval Office to Hillary Clinton. But after a night to sleep on and digest last night’s debacle, even I must confess that something in the stew smells like it’s gone past its expiration date here.
Allahpundit seemed to touch on part of what went wrong yesterday when he wrote this:
You can almost see the wheels turning in his head here: He knows, as a political matter, that he can’t let Cruz get to his right on abortion. Republicans will let him slide on a lot — a lot — but if he gives them reason to think he’s BSing them on an issue at the very core of social conservatism, it could give Cruz the break he needs to take off.
I think part of that analysis is correct, but it doesn’t fully get to the uneasy feeling that interview brought on. It’s a suspicion that I’ve had nagging at the back of my mind for months, even as I’ve tried my best to keep Trump viable as a general election candidate. Unlike Allahpundit, I don’t see this as Donald Trump making a quick calculation of how to best position himself against Cruz here. The more likely (and disturbing) conclusion is that Donald Trump is someone who really doesn’t know much of anything about the conservative movement beyond what he read in some headlines while contemplating a run for the GOP nomination. He’s like the student who failed to study for the test and is now picking the multiple choice answers which sound the best even if they are extreme catnip designed to catch the unwary in a failing grade.
This isn’t a crazy theory because what we’re seeing is the essence of a populist strategy without any real research behind it. If you want to win over the hearts and minds of conservatives, you identify what they most want but can’t obtain under the current rules and then offer them the moon. In retrospect, we’ve seen this too many times before, and while some of the answers sound great and stir up the masses with great support, they all fall short to one degree or another in terms of practicality. Immigration? Everyone else wants more border patrol and aggressive ICE enforcement. So I’ll give you a wall the size of the moon which won’t cost a dime. Trade deals? The other candidates are free traders who don’t address issues of job outsourcing and trade deficits. I’ll just screw everyone else on the planet and build virtual tariff walls. War on terror? Those other guys talk tough about confronting the enemy, but I’ll give you torture and huge conquering armies laying waste to the Arabian Peninsula.
And when it came to the abortion question, Mr. Trump obviously recognized that everyone on the conservative side of the fence was, to one degree or another, against the procedure. So his first impulse was to start putting pregnant women in jail. Too many authors on the Right have already described how damaging this is to the pro-life movement, but it took several hours of immediate backlash before Trump finally arrived at his third answer which was at least somewhat close to the correct one.
What this tells me is that Donald Trump never studied for the test when he decided to win over conservatives in his quest for the nomination. He just trusted in his instincts, scanned a few topic summaries and went into it like a real estate negotiation, promising the clients a mansion when he knew they’d wind up in a condo. Unfortunately this is akin to trying to win over the affection of a petulant child you’re babysitting who doesn’t want to eat their vegetables. Rather than promising a better selection of healthy options and a treat after the meal, your first move is to simply tell them everyone will have chocolate layer cake for their entire dinner.
It’s difficult to admit it, particularly when so many pieces of the plans Trump has proposed at least sounded like great ideas on paper. And the rest were able to be written off by saying, “at least he got a conversation started” on the issue. All that may be true, but underneath it all, Donald Trump doesn’t understand conservatism. He’s winging it as he goes along and the learning curve has finally left him behind.