How Trump Succeeded Where Reagan Failed
Question: Before Donald Trump, who was the last Republican president who didn't appoint at least one pro-choice Supreme Court justice?
Answer: Herbert Hoover.
This article will mainly be about how Donald Trump broke an almost-50-year trend of Republican leaders using and discarding their pro-life base. But first, let me briefly comment on a different issue that came to the fore early in Trump's presidency.
Back in December of 2017, Donald Trump announced that the U.S. embassy in Israel would be moving to Jerusalem. This made a lot of people angry. The press and the political establishment condemned it as a hostile gesture that would make diplomacy with "Palestine" harder. The U.N. Security Council voted to denounce it. The Palestinians rioted.
Trump went through with the move anyway, because to him, the thing that mattered most was that, during the 2016 election, he had promised that he would do it.
Curiously enough, several previous presidents had all made the same promise during their presidential campaigns. But once in office, they never followed through. In the eyes of the establishment, this was a sign of caution, prudence, and maturity — by not acting on their promise, these presidents were showing themselves to be above politics and all that.
But I see things a bit differently. As I see it, if those men had told their voters that they were against moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and explained why, then they could have made a plausible claim to be motivated by caution, prudence, etc. But in my book, what they actually did — fooling their base into thinking that they planned on doing something they did not really want to do — isn't called "being prudent." It's just called "lying."
Before Trump, most Republican politicians saw lying to their base — or at least to a certain part of their base — as a necessary and proper part of their job. Consider, for instance, this representative quote from Mac Stipanovich, chief of staff to Bob Martinez, the moderate Florida governor who later served in the first Bush administration:
There was always an element of the Republican Party that was bats--- crazy. They had lots of different names — they were John Birchers, they were 'movement conservatives,' they were the religious right. And we did what every other Republican candidate did: we exploited them. We got them to the polls. We talked about abortion. We promised — and we did nothing. They could grumble, but their choices were limited.
The tawdry history of how the pre-Trump Republican Party has used and discarded the religious right — especially the pro-life movement — is rather long. Even so, I think it's important for conservatives to know it, so I will do my best to summarize it.
Prior to Trump, the last Republican president who did not appoint at least one pro-choice Supreme Court justice was Herbert Hoover, who left office in 1933. Hoover appointed three justices to the Supreme Court, but they had all retired or died by the time the next Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was elected in 1952.
Eisenhower appointed five justices, two of whom — William J. Brennan and Potter Stewart — were still on the Court when it decided Roe v. Wade in 1973. Both voted with the liberals to create a constitutional right to abortion.
Eisenhower, a general with no former political experience, was notoriously bad at choosing judges. He even admitted, in private, that some of his Supreme Court nominations were the worst mistakes he had ever made. Perhaps he can be forgiven for picking the justices that he did...but the rest of the country would still have to suffer for it.
The next Republican president after Eisenhower was Richard Nixon, who took office in 1969. Nixon had run on a promise to appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court, and at first, he tried to do so. But after two of his nominees — Clement Hainsworth and Harold Carswell — were rejected by the Democratic Party-led Senate, Nixon gave up and started appointing judges of unknown character.
Out of Nixon's four appointees to the Supreme Court, three of them voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade, including Harry Blackmun, who wrote the decision. Only one Nixon appointee, William Rehnquist, turned out to believe in interpreting the Constitution literally.
After Nixon's resignation in 1974, Gerald Ford became president. Ford gave his one Supreme Court seat to John Paul Stevens, a liberal, as a gesture of goodwill toward the Democrats after the Watergate scandal.
It had been a bad few decades for conservatives, and for everybody who believed in limited government and the rule of law. But a lot of conservatives thought their fortunes would soon improve, because in 1980, Ronald Reagan won the White House atop a large, vibrant coalition of conservative voters, many of whom were pro-lifers motivated chiefly by Reagan's promises to appoint originalist justices who were against Roe v. Wade.
Nevertheless, within a year of his inauguration, Reagan chose Sandra Day O'Connor to fill his first Supreme Court vacancy. Many conservative leaders, like Jesse Helms and Phyllis Schlafly, had tried to warn Reagan against picking O'Connor, because several years earlier, when O'Connor was a member of the Arizona State Legislature, she had tried to get abortion decriminalized.
Reagan insisted that this didn't matter, saying he knew that as a justice, O'Connor would be pro-life. The Republican Party, despite some initial grumbling, fell into line. O'Connor was confirmed without a dissenting vote, and once on the Court, she became a reliable supporter of abortion.
A lot of moderate Republicans still thought Reagan had made a good choice. These were the people who believed that their party needed to "get with the times" on abortion and concentrate on things like tax cuts instead of wasting effort trying to protect unborn lives. Since nominating a liberal to the Court made it easier for Reagan to win Democrat support for the rest of his agenda, these people cheered him on.
Reagan later tried to make up for what he had done by appointing two originalists, Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork, to the next two open court seats. But it was too little, too late. By the time Bork's nomination came around, the Democrats had retaken the Senate; they rejected Bork and forced Reagan to appoint a centrist, Anthony Kennedy, instead.
Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, ran on the same promises that Reagan had. Then, once in office, he did pretty much the same thing. To avoid a confirmation fight, he gave his first Supreme Court appointment to David Souter, a man whose judicial philosophy was completely unknown. Even though Bush loudly proclaimed that Souter would be a conservative — and even though the Republican Party fell into line behind this claim — Souter ended up voting with the liberals nearly 100% of the time.
Bush appointed an actual conservative, Clarence Thomas, to his second vacancy, but the damage was already done. Out of the six justices appointed by Republicans since Roe v. Wade was decided, only two — Scalia and Thomas — were pro-life, and the constitutional right to abortion remained in place.
The next Republican president was George W. Bush. Like his father, he ran on a promise to appoint pro-life justices, and like his father, he wasted his first appointment, this time on John Roberts, whose liberal leanings were easily knowable from the fact that he had done pro bono work for the gay rights movement in the 1990s. (The problem here is that the gay movement's methods — which involved undermining democracy by asking judges to create imaginary constitutional rights — were unprincipled.)
By the time that Donald Trump took office, only two pro-life justices remained: Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Because Trump got only three vacancies, he needed to fill all of them with men and women of principle in order for his side to come out on top.
This was a tall order, since no other Republican president had appointed more than one pro-life justice. And yet Trump pulled it off.
The people in the donor class, and in the press, continued to look down on the pro-life movement, and to insist that it was irresponsible for Republicans to advance that movement's goals when they were in power. But unlike presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr., Trump didn't listen to those people. He had made promises to his base, and he intended to keep them.
Trump kept his promise to move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, even though the RINOs wailed and screeched. Trump also tried to keep his promise to build the border wall, but on that issue, his efforts sadly came up short, because he needed Congress to pass legislation that even most Republicans really, really didn't want passed.
Fortunately, on judicial nominations, Trump had more freedom of action, and with the help of Mitch McConnell and the Federalist Society, he chose three pro-life judges in a row — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.
So remember that the next time you hear anybody talking about how they wish we could all return to a time before Trumpistry made its mark on America. Remember that it is because of Donald Trump, and his unique level of respect for his base, that each state now has the right, if it so chooses, to enact laws protecting a baby's right to life.
Twilight Patriot blogs at twilightpatriot.substack.com.