The Irony of Electoral Backlash

By Julia Smucker

In late November 2012, the Consistent Life Network’s newsletter Peace & Life Connections pointed out a counterintuitive set of facts. First, the administrations of publicly pro-choice presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama saw declines in abortion rates and providers, under very different economic circumstances. Secondly, the Obama administration continued and even expanded many features of the hawkish foreign policy that was much more widely protested under George W. Bush. The apparent disconnects may be as much because of public perceptions as it is in spite of them, as motivation for grass-roots activism can appear more urgent “when not relying on presidential lip service.” For the activist of any stripe, working under threat is the ultimate motivator.

By the same token, the perception of having the powers that be on one’s side, whether true or not, can lead to an easy and often false complacency. For this reason, the election one cycle later of a candidate who has indeed paid unsubstantiated lip service to the pro-life movement (and this only since he began his presidential campaign, having previously referred to himself as “very pro-choice”) risks becoming one of its greatest setbacks. While those who have put their hopes in Donald Trump to end legalized abortion — a long shot at best — may be tempted to complacency by his victory, those who fear the same are anything but. The nervous reaction in some circles in defense of what is euphemistically termed “reproductive rights,” including an upsurge in support for abortion providers, is not unlike the surges in gun sales and rallying support for “gun rights” groups that predictably follow the public shooting incidents that have become all too commonplace. And like the preemptive reactions in fear of gun control legislation that often doesn’t happen, proponents of abortion are already stepping up their activism, and will likely continue to do so throughout Trump’s term of office — whether anything is done to protect prenatal lives or not.

Meanwhile, however, the same type of electoral backlash is also becoming a major catalyst for the protection of other vulnerable populations. Church authorities and organizations that provide services to immigrants — not only non-profits but also the leadership of Catholic colleges, Mexican-American Archbishop José Gomez and other Los Angeles authorities — are steeling themselves against the possibility of unjust deportations. Others are already taking the incoming administration to task on the need to address the social and moral sickness of racism. And the list goes on: public discourse bespeaks heightened concerns for the protection of religious minorities, particularly Muslims; the dignity of women, particularly survivors of sexual assault; and people with tenuous access to adequate health care. And in a further twist of irony, we may also see a rise in peace activism as we did in the Bush years, even though Hillary Clinton is at least as hawkish as Trump (or almost any Republican for that matter), and certainly more of an interventionist. Yet if any checks against excessive militarism might have been unduly lax under a Clinton presidency, as they were under Obama, those who are quite justly worried about such excesses are much more likely to be on the alert for them within a brass-laden Trump administration and Republican congress.

There are, of course, many others who took a gamble on Trump, whether in hopes that he will protect the lives of the unborn or the livelihoods of those who have been shafted by a post-industrial economy. These concerns are justified and indeed critical, yet those who put their hope in Trump to address them effectively are likely to be disappointed. This should not be any cause for celebration among those of us who have opposed him, but all the more reason to provide better answers to those misplaced hopes. It should be obvious from Trump’s speech and behavior that he is no friend of the vulnerable. Hence the need to advocate as strongly as ever for the dignity of the unborn and the working class of all races and social demographics, not to mention for welcoming the stranger, freedom from religious hatred and sexual violence, health care and living wages for all, and peace within and beyond our borders — in short, to continue advocating for the lives and dignity of all who are vulnerable to what Pope John Paul II called the culture of death and Pope Francis calls the throwaway culture, no matter who controls Congress or occupies the White House.

Julia Smucker is a passionate exponent of a consistent ethic of life informed by both the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence and Catholic social teaching. She has contributed to several publications and organizations including Feminists for Life, Life Matters Journal, Christian Democracy, Vox Nova, and the essay collection Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis. She has a Masters degree in Systematics from Saint John’s School of Theology in Minnesota.