When candidates for high office are faking it in order to persuade a party's base that, appearances and past record to the contrary notwithstanding, they really, really are “with the program,” they step into dangerous territory. They need to say what the base wants to hear. Indeed, they need to sound like one of the faithful.
But since they are faking it, and not actually speaking from conviction, the risk is grave that they will say something that blows their cover. Indeed, the risk is always there that they will say something that sounds to true believers like a caricature or burlesque of the philosophy they are purporting to embrace.
Do you recall when it happened to Mitt Romney?
In responding to a challenge to the authenticity of his claim to be a true conservative, he proclaimed himself to be “severely conservative.” At that instant, every conservative in the country knew the former Massachusetts governor was faking it. For no conservative ever had, or ever would, describe conservatism (or his own conservatism) as “severe.”
Indeed Governor Romney had spoken of conservatives as liberals speak of conservatives, not as conservatives speak of (or understand) themselves. He might as well have confessed outright to being a phony. The effect would have been no different.
Now, predictably, Donald Trump has done it.
The Republican base is pro-life—solidly, fervently so. To win the Party's nomination, Trump—a life-long abortion supporter and Planned Parenthood enthusiast—therefore had to pretend to have experienced a Pauline conversion to the pro-life cause. To make sure everyone knew how deep and sincere his conversion was, he yesterday stated that women who have abortions should be punished. But in saying this, he gave himself away, just as Mitt Romney had done.
Most pro-lifers and the entire mainstream pro-life movement oppose, and have always opposed, punishing women who seek abortions. Their goal is, and has been for as long as we've had a pro-life movement, restoring the historic laws of abortion (which were overturned in Roe v. Wade) that punished abortionists, and did not punish women.
In fact, Mr. Trump seems to have stumbled onto the best possible way of signaling to true pro-lifers that he is not one of them. He has inadvertantly embraced an idea that is falsely attributed to pro-life citizens by their opponents to weaken the pro-life cause by tarring pro-lifers as punitive, vindictive people who would send women, many of whom are desperate and frightened, and some of whom are acting under pressure or even coercion in seeking abortions, to prison.
Mr. Trump evidently wants to show us how genuine his conversion is by depicting himself as severely pro-life. But pro-lifers are compassionate, seeking the good of unborn children and their mothers, never pitting them or their interests against each other. We are interested in saving babies, not punishing mothers. And we know that we don't need to punish mothers to save babies.
What Mr. Trump has succeeded in showing pro-life Americans is that he is not one of us.
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.