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Fortress of division: Rolling back Roe vs. Wade will be more culmination than calamity

Trump's return would only put country's tectonic political plates on a more violent collision course

Riot fencing surrounds the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Thursday in anticipation of ongoing protests following the leaked draft opinion indicating the court will overturn Roe v. Wade.
Riot fencing surrounds the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Thursday in anticipation of ongoing protests following the leaked draft opinion indicating the court will overturn Roe v. Wade. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — What felt like a sudden, seismic political and cultural change this week was anything but. Rather, the coming end to federal abortion rights merely codified shifts that have been under way for over a decade.

Glasses will clink Friday night — and likely before — as Washington copes with one of the most calamitous weeks in years. But the events of this week were more culmination than calamity. 

The words Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, a staunch conservative, wrote in a draft majority decision following a February internal vote to overturn the abortion protections in the court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision were more rehearsed than rash.

Since Donald Trump first took that infamous or famous, depending on your political tribe, ride down the golden escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015 to announce his presidential bid, political analysts often called his “Make America Great Again” movement the ultimate product of our changing politics.

Then came the Jan. 6, 2021, ransacking of the Capitol — complete with threats to Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers — by a pro-Trump mob revved up by their political messiah and angry he lost to a 78-year-old guy with a gaffe problem who largely ran a pandemic-era campaign from his Delaware home. After the Washington Metropolitan Police Department played cavalry to the Capitol Police and ended the insurrection, that seemed like the final product.

Wrong again.

The shifting of the country’s dramatic political and cultural plates could have finally shaken to their final transformative resting places with 34 words written in a working document not meant to see public light until the end of the court’s term this summer.

“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” Alito wrote in the leaked draft opinion. “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. … It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

There were no fiery tweets from an unexpected and mercurial commander in chief, no MAGA cap-wearing rioters beating law enforcement officers with fire extinguishers or poles attached to tattered American flags. 

The now-under-investigation leak of the end of a woman’s uniformly federal right to choose whether to proceed with a pregnancy feels like, just maybe, a true culmination of the angry tribing off Americans into red and blue warring factions — and came when an editor at Politico published a bona fide blockbuster scoop from Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward on Monday evening.

A simple click of a mouse, then the usual email and mobile news alerts. Just like for an especially interesting article about a sports star or trendy restaurant. The final earthquake was delivered in a manner so unlike this chaotic period in history.

‘Most extreme’

Unless, of course, the republic is — somehow — still closer to the beginning of this volcanic era of bitterness and change than the end.

If the president and Republican senators viewed the stripping of a nearly five decade-old right for millions of Americans as a reason to let the lava cool, they did a poor job of showing it.

Less than 48 hours after the Roe earthquake, President Joe Biden sped a political version of his signature Camaro right into the chaotic intersection of the White House and Congress by delivering a broadside on Sen. Rick Scott, the Florida Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee and who has been busily selling his own sweeping economic plan. 

Scott has dubbed it the “ultra MAGA agenda.” Biden pounced during remarks on the economy at the White House on Wednesday. “It’s a MAGA agenda, alright,” he said. “It’s extreme, as most MAGA things are.”

But the Democratic president who ran in 2020 as the only candidate who would unite America’s tribes did not stop at warning Scott’s plan is a “Make America Great Again” populist tax hike on many Americans masquerading as a conservative fiscal plan. He went way beyond that, in fact, making the kind of historical declaration that is vintage Joe: “This MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that has existed in American history.”

Several Republicans fired back the next day, with Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley — who appears to want Biden’s job — going right at the 79-year-old president with charges about his mental status that are routinely pushed by conservative media outlets with no medical proof. 

‘Increasingly incapable’

“It’s insane. … It’s totally inappropriate for the president of the United States. And he’s talking about, what, 80 million Americans that didn’t vote for him,” Hawley said. “This is someone who should not be president. He’s clearly increasingly incapable of being president.” (For the record, in 2020, about 81 million Americans voted for Biden, and around 74 million voted for Trump.)

To Hawley and most other Republicans, be them MAGA or establishment, Biden and his party want to, as many say each day, “destroy” the country. But the most destabilizing force in American politics — and maybe culture, as well — since 2015 has been Trump and his MAGA movement, no matter whether one agrees with that faction’s hardline right-leaning populist policy whims.

Trump appears to be enjoying his coy-playing about a 2024 presidential bid. After all, his maybe-I-will-maybe-I-won’t act keeps him in the headlines — and it should. That’s because his entry or bowing out will alter the shape and tenor of the race and drastically affect the future of the United States. That’s called news.

But the MAGA movement, designed to be transformative, has tentacles across the country and many heirs. And its founding father, more than anyone else, put  our political and cultural tectonic plates on such a violent collision course with one another.

Trump could be back in the White House in less than three years. That would mean this week was merely the latest tectonic event, with many more to come.

“This is a culture war. This is, of course, the grand prize, the Roe v. Wade decision,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard B. Durbin of Illinois, said this week in an interview. “But there are many other elements they [Republicans] are chafing over. Gay marriage; some of them have serious plans to regulate birth control and family planning; consensual sexual activities among adults.”

“It’s all on the table, if you read the cultural agenda from the right,” Durbin said, adding Trump, as president and since, has proven he is willing — often enthusiastic — about pushing far-right nominees and policies to assuage his MAGA base. “I don’t even want to think about the premise of his return, but…”

Protective fencing was erected around the high court this week, something that once seemed unthinkable and unnecessary. The tall black structure is fitting in many ways, for it has transformed Washington’s last truly independent arm of government into a fortress of political division.

Parts of this article first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.

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