At first blush, the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade doesn’t have much to do with the startling revelations produced by the Jan. 6 select committee.
Thanks, then, to Donald Trump for helping us get quickly to second blush: The ex-president himself seems to understand that the two are linked in a profound way, going well beyond the coincidence that not one but two monumental stories came crashing down near-simultaneously.
Both stories move the national debate into arenas in which tactics that Trump has used so often and so skillfully in the past are far less likely to be effective. These tactics include denial, distraction and counter-accusation — all harnessed to the reality that modern political culture has trouble distinguishing big matters from small or staying focused on any matter for very long.
This time seems different because both subjects are qualitatively different. Trump’s own words suggest he knows it.
He has complained publicly that pro-Trump House Republicans erred in boycotting the committee, leaving no one on the panel to defend him or dilute the impact of a well-documented and devastating narrative about his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. He has also let it be known, in ways he evidently expected to be publicized, that he fears the overturning of Roe will have a negative political rebound for Republicans.
Skepticism is warranted for any predictions that this or that controversy spells doom for Trump. There have been countless such controversies and predictions in the seven years since he first announced he was running for president and began his domination of national discourse.
But there is a specific way the Jan. 6 revelations, and even more so the Roe v. Wade repeal are different than scores of earlier uproars and obsessions. Both represent clear forks in the road on matters of fundamental national policy. People are being asked to walk one path or the other, with a vivid awareness that to walk down one path or the other will have large and lasting consequences for the nation, and even for themselves as individuals.
This was not true for most of the controversies of the Trump years. It was often said—usually as a metaphor but increasingly as a literal comparison—that Trump and Trumpism put the nation in a “new Civil War.”
Most times, the comparison failed. As in modern times, the actual Civil War was a time when large swaths of Americans looked at each other with mutual incomprehension and contempt. At the time, however, no one was in doubt about the question at hand: One side believed slavery was a positive good that should be extended as the nation grew with new states; the other believed slavery was an evil institution that should not be extended into new but instead placed on a path to gradual extinction. And so, as Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, the war came.
The same is true of other great moments of national conflict. In the 1930s, people who hissed FDR knew exactly why they were angry: He was shifting in lasting ways the federal government’s reach into the private economy. So, too, did the protesters of the 1960s know why they were on the streets: to end legal segregation and the Vietnam War.
The signature of the Trump era is that it produced indignation and contempt without, in most cases, a concrete question of national policy that was plainly to be resolved by the outcome of the conflict. The question of border crossings, and the spectacle of children being detained in cages, was one exception. But for many of the arguments of Trump’s presidency, the argument itself—and the way it divided one tribe from the other—was the primary point. Were you thrilled by Nancy Pelosi ripping up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union address, or appalled by it? Were you more outraged by Trump’s galling effort to tie aid to Ukraine to his personal political ends, or by the fact that Hunter Biden was making lots of money in Ukraine trading on his family name? On and on and on.
The two issues now before the country are unmistakably in a different category.
The Supreme Court’s declaration that there is no longer a constitutional right to abortion now puts the issue squarely in the political realm, where it is likely to remain for years to come. About one in five pregnancies in the United States ends in abortion. The country is now in the midst of a debate involving basic questions of rights and values in an intimate sphere of everyday life. What’s more, the fact of this national debate is understood, by all sides, to be a central part of Trump’s legacy—it would not have happened without the three justices he appointed contributing to a 5-4 decision.
The outrages Trump perpetrated in the wake of the 2020 election, leading to the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol, do not intersect with everyday life in the same intimate way as the abortion issue. But they do similarly present a vivid national choice, of a sort that can’t be easily dismissed by blurring the question or asserting that it is all just politics as usual. Any schoolchild knows that a departure from the peaceful transfer of power is not usual. There are very few Trump supporters eager to support the argument that it is okay for a president to continue asserting fraud when his own Justice Department appointees have told him they looked and found none. The root of Trump’s appeal was that his diverse outrages were all part of “owning the libs,” and driving opponents to distraction. White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified this week of an enraged Trump hurling a plate in the wall. She cleaned the ketchup stain off the wall. Trump will not so easily erase the image of impotent rage—the opposite of the blustery self-confidence that was the essence of his appeal to supporters.
One way to measure Trump’s predicament is to view it through the eyes of someone who supports his ostensible agenda. If you are a sincere opponent of abortion rights, you might be grateful for what Trump did to change the Supreme Court. But would you regard Trump—who for years boasted of his promiscuity, who once asserted “I am very pro-choice” and who is now uneasy about the ramifications of the court’s ruling—as the right person to carry the fight forward into its next, long-term phase? Let’s say you are genuinely concerned that efforts to make voting easier through vote-by-mail could dilute election integrity. Is Trump, with his reckless allegations and obvious self-absorption, really your ideal spokesman?
Two breathtaking developments—one at the Supreme Court, the other across the street at the House select committee—have sent American politics into a whole new realm. By experience and temperament, this is not a realm in which Trump is well-equipped to prosper.