Contested Lives and the Specter of Trump

Amid the postelection anxieties and punditry, the question of reproductive politics is last in line. Downwardly mobile white working-class men and, to some extent, white women, bear the burden of explanation for this stunning political upset. Those of us in the social sciences and neighboring fields are wondering how we might contribute to understanding those folks who voted for Donald Trump. Some ground has been cleared already. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in her National Book Award–nominated Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, wanted to get to know people who oppose many of the ideas she champions, going beyond “the commonplace liberal idea that many on the political right have been duped into voting against their interests.” In her empathetic ethnographic account, she suggests that fear of cultural eclipse, economic decline, and perceived government betrayal explain the appeal of Trump, even for those whose self-interest would seem to be better served by liberal policies. Hochschild’s account is well worth attention, as are others. However, I remain puzzled by the absence of discussion of abortion politics in this election, given the half-century of battles that have been part of both backroom politics and media spectacle.

The widespread sense of despair about Trump’s rise reminds me of the affect surrounding Ronald Reagan’s unexpected rise to power in 1980. I had started doctoral studies in anthropology in 1979 at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. By the fall of my second year, I had embraced feminist anthropology, just in time for Reagan’s election. Foreshadowing the present, many of us were shocked, wondering what might have motivated those who voted for Reagan.

Apparently, among the issues that mobilized these political subjects was the Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and the backlash that decision catalyzed. Although I started graduate school hoping to study camel domestication, I decided that this topic could wait in favor of the imponderabilia of a close-by, unknown cultural world. Who were these women so passionately mobilized to recriminalize abortion, calling themselves right-to-lifers? Why would they be acting in ways that seemed to work against women’s interests, as I recognized them? Even if I profoundly disagreed with their ideas, I was determined to explore their lives, taking them seriously, as both anthropology and second-wave feminism had taught me to do, and to understand the cultural forces that created this social movement. In 1981, when the first and only abortion clinic in the state of North Dakota opened in Fargo, I knew I had my research site; there, pro-choice and pro-life women were battling over the sudden public presence of abortion services in their small city. I spent considerable time there, working with those on both sides of the debate in an effort to understand what motivated their fervent and deeply opposed beliefs. As happens in such settings, many of them knew and respected each other in other contexts, from parent-teacher associations to choirs to work at the local women’s shelter. It was clear that anti-abortion women were not simply the victims of false consciousness. Indeed, many regarded the defense of fetal life as completely consistent with their Midwestern feminism, as well as their religious commitments. During fieldwork in clinics, churches, bingo parlors, Elks Clubs, and at endless meetings and demonstrations, I gathered procreation stories to grasp how life narratives around reproduction contributed to deeply held views on abortion. Fundamentally, those who told these narratives felt that the kind of lives they lived—and, by extension, that their children would live—were no longer valued in what they experienced as an increasingly commodified and secular world.

I completed my dissertation in 1986 and rushed to get my book out as quickly as possible, concerned that the issue of abortion would obsolesce. Clearly, I was wrong. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community was published in 1989. Abortion did not disappear; if anything, the culture wars around it escalated. The 1998 edition addressed the escalation of right-to-life violence and the increasing masculinization of the anti-abortion movement, especially with the emergence of the evangelical protest group Operation Rescue. These changes were part of a shift toward more antagonistic and sometimes deadly forms of anti-abortion protest, leading to increasing efforts to harass providers, a nationwide decline in clinics, and fewer doctors offering abortion services. This medical procedure is no longer routinely taught in medical school. The pro-life protests continue in Fargo and across the country, along with the pro-choice mobilization of clinic escorts. Across the country, access to abortion has been declining at record rates, partly a response to the efforts of Republican-controlled legislatures to restrict, if not criminalize the procedure.

Dorothy Montplaisir and Myrna Rivard protest abortions in front of the Red River Women’s Clinic in downtown Fargo
Dorothy Montplaisir and Myrna Rivard protest abortions in front of the Red River Women’s Clinic in downtown Fargo. Photo courtesy of The Forum.
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Clinic escorts Ali Belfiore and Kylie Oversen, outside the Red River Women’s Clinic. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Kleven.

Now, in 2017, our president-elect is so toxic that he makes Reagan look good. Once again, we wonder about who voted for him. Hochschild and others offer insightful accounts that we ignore at our peril. However, postelection coverage suggests that reproductive politics played a more significant role in delivering Trump’s presidency than recognized by analyses relying primarily on issues of class, race, and gender. The president-elect, pro-choice through the 1990s, made Machiavellian use of the issue, and abortion may have provided his electoral tipping point. As journalist Katherine Stewart reported:

At Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference back in June 2016, he [Trump] held up a list of potential justices as if he were selling shiny new bonds for a casino development. “These judges are all pro-life!” he assured the crowd, touting hard-right anti-abortion foes. Exit polls suggest that this strategy paid off big-league . . . Trump’s 81 percent of the white evangelical vote (compared to Clinton’s 16 percent) was higher than either Romney or Bush.

For the first time in a decade, I feel like I might need to return to Fargo.