Katie McDonough

"Pray for President Trump!”

Advertisement

The man was standing on a platform about six feet off the ground, bullhorn to his lips, sounding triumphant. He was flanked on both sides by images of fetuses and a hazard orange sign that read “Warning: Genocide photos ahead.” A group of high school students in matching hats responded with a brief, exuberant chant: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

The March for Life had just started its slow procession from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court, it was a mild winter afternoon, and Donald Trump had somehow become a good Christian.

Advertisement

This time last year, the new president was just a Republican frontrunner without a natural home in the anti-abortion movement. He described himself as pro-life with the same flat affect he used to announce that the Bible was his favorite book ("nothing beats the Bible") and explain that his change of heart on abortion had occurred after a friend reconsidered having one and later gave birth to a "total superstar." He never bothered to learn the ideological scripts, instead choosing to improvise about punishing women who have illegal abortions and offering qualified praise for Planned Parenthood during presidential debates.

By summer, even as he was poised to accept his party’s nomination, the mood among many anti-abortion activists remained skeptical. “I want to be able to trust him,” Jayne Gardner, a Republican delegate from New Mexico who had voted for Ted Cruz in her primary, told me at the time. “He says he’s pro-life and I want to believe it.”

At the same event, a woman who worked for her state chapter of the National Right to Life described her support for Trump as though she were explaining a decision to eat rancid meat rather than go hungry. “This is what we have,” she said dryly. “These are our options.”

Sponsored

But on Friday in DC, the man who once held fundraisers for reproductive rights organizations and called himself pro-choice, who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy and summarized his spiritual practice as, "I don't like to have to ask for forgiveness," had been refashioned by the march's collective imagination as virtuous.

“Finally, a pro-life president!" an older woman gushed as the last of the crowd reached the gates of the Supreme Court. Another woman standing nearby rested a “God working through Trump" sign against her Ugg boots. A few teenage boys had fitted knit beanies bearing the word "life" over their Make America Great Again hats.

Advertisement

You could explain some of it as an outcome of strategic rebranding and targeted marketing. In September of 2016, with the aid of Pence and top adviser Kellyanne Conway, the Trump campaign began to publicly cultivate evangelical and anti-abortion movement leaders to help with outreach. In a letter released that month, addressed with a generic "Dear Pro-Life Leader," Trump promised to nominate anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court, sign a federal 20-week abortion ban, and make the Hyde Amendment permanent law.

Promises to eradicate abortion are standard practice in modern Republican campaigns, and Trump will very likely deliver on all of his most destructive pledges on reproductive health. Pence and Conway also have a lot to be lost or won on the appearance of legitimacy around Trump's pro-life credentials. The cynical aspects of this unexpected relationship are obvious enough.

But Trump's role in the march—which remained metaphorical since he never did make that call to address the crowd he was reportedly planning—wasn't just as a means to a political end. Instead, he felt like a man who had been placed at the center of a redemption narrative that had nothing to do with him. I heard this at the inauguration, too: that Trump was a vehicle for God's grace, a man who had found his way.

Advertisement

It was another dazzling, terrifying example of the ways in which people have filled in Trump's deficits—in character, in knowledge, in interest, political conviction, and basic kindness—with all sorts of elaborate fantasies.

In the lead-up to the primaries, Marco Rubio had come out as opposing abortion in all circumstances—including rape, incest, and life endangerment. Ted Cruz falsely accused Planned Parenthood of mass murder and trafficking in body parts in virtually every public appearance he made. John Kasich had his midwestern Catholicism and record of decimating abortion access in Ohio to run on.

Trump was just some guy who couldn't pronounce Bible verses. He was still that guy as thousands of people marched down Constitution Avenue, many under signs bearing his name. A victory narrative needs its hero, and abortion opponents anticipate gaining considerable ground in the next four years. And somewhere along the line, political expediency turned into something like religious fervor.