With a Trump-shaped hole in the Republican Party and a wave of conspiracy theorists finding footholds in the halls of Congress, the GOP is more extreme than ever. To cover up their extremism and the violence it has incited, they’re in search of a sideshow, and their emerging strategy is one we’ve seen before — papering over the cracks in their party with inflammatory anti-choice rhetoric and disinformation.
The strategy is out in full force at Fox News. According to Media Matters, Fox News experienced its “worst month” for television ratings in nearly 21 years in January. Their solution to getting those numbers back up? Reupping dangerous anti-choice disinformation, featuring anti-choice spokespeople on their programs, and mercilessly attacking President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and other Catholics for supporting reproductive freedom.
But this isn’t just a Fox News phenomenon.
Pay No Attention to the Extremism Behind the Curtain
Despite their best efforts to appear distant from their base’s fringe, Republican politicians’ actions tell a different story. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), who pumped a fist of approval at right-wing militants in the leadup to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, later claimed he never intended to overthrow the election results and said he “[didn’t] know” what the QAnon conspiracy theory is. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) also claimed he didn’t know about the conspiracy theory — which, based on his past statements, was demonstrably false.
Republican politicians can’t resist talking out of both sides of their mouths. They’re well aware that being perceived as extremists is damaging. But ultimately, they know that conspiracy theories play well with the base’s fringe, who they just can’t help throwing a bone to. Republicans are all too willing to give credence to conspiracy theories — that is, until they get rightly called out.
And when they do get called on their extremism, they’re quick to pivot to abortion as a distraction. Take Trump’s former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany as an example. Last month, she took to Twitter to spout QAnon dog-whistles — only to backtrack and claim that her tweets meant to reference abortion, not QAnon, when journalist Jake Tapper called her out.
And at least two Republican members of Congress, Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), are conspiracy theorists and extremists who rose to prominence with the backing of the Republican establishment. No coincidence, both have benefited from their ties to anti-choice ideology, particularly in times of distress. After making a name for herself by flouting Colorado’s COVID-19 guidelines for businesses, Boebert was endorsed by the anti-choice organization Susan B. Anthony List. And Greene explicitly invoked abortion as cover when she found herself in hot water over past comments threatening Speaker Pelosi and perpetuating conspiracy theories around 9/11 and school shootings. As she headed to a House GOP conference meeting where her inflammatory comments were at the top of the agenda, she wore a mask that read — you guessed it — “End Abortion.”
The same tactic is playing out across the policy realm, where instead of working to provide much-needed COVID-19 relief, Republicans are making a show of their anti-choice ideology to draw attention away from their increasingly extreme platform. In Washington and across the country, anti-choice activists and politicians are holding up stimulus bills over so-called “pro-life concerns” while simultaneously ramming abortion bans through state legislatures.
It’s not just that Republican lawmakers are refusing to denounce the extremism — they’re actively catering to it. Instead of reflecting on why they lost the White House or taking steps on pandemic relief, Republicans would rather let conspiracy theories run amok, cede leadership on important issues, and then occasionally make inflammatory statements about abortion care to distract from their failures. Watching conspiracy theorists and Republican politicians use anti-choice fear-mongering in attempts to cover up their extremism is giving us a dangerous sense of déjà vu.
Hiding Behind Abortion … Where Have We Seen This Before?
Over the years, when Republican politicians have faced scandals or criticism on their regressive policies, they’ve distracted with misleading claims and disinformation to rile up their base in the name of “protecting children.”
In the 1970s, as their support of segregation became a political liability, the architects of the Radical Right made the active decision to create a new culture war around abortion. Though they pioneered this strategy, it was Donald Trump who perfected it. Time and again, the former president would pander to anti-choice extremists to distract from his administration’s failures and his own personal crises — from the Access Hollywood tapes scandal, to the Republican Party faltering in the 2018 midterms, to the 2019 government shutdown, and beyond.
Republicans know that trotting out their opposition to abortion to score political points has real-life consequences for people who need access to abortion care, yet they keep choosing this strategy. Because it’s never really been about abortion for them — it’s about political power and control, and opposition to abortion is their sword and shield. Meanwhile, they’re making it harder for pregnant people to access care, inciting violence against abortion providers and patients, and limiting access to other healthcare services like contraception — they don’t care as long as they can avoid answering for their political failures.
Using abortion as a political pivot may have worked before, but this time, we’re not falling for it. Trump’s continued shadow influence over the Republican Party and the rise of extremism sparked the same kind of divides Republicans faced in the 1970s. Today, Republicans are as fractured as ever. They will continue trying to unite their party on the backs of pregnant people who need care. It’s up to us to ensure they do not succeed.
Further Reading: In The Lie That Binds, NARAL President Ilyse Hogue documents how the formerly non-partisan, largely non-controversial issue of abortion rights was reinvented as a Trojan horse, concealing a much larger reactionary movement bent on maintaining white, male-dominated control in a world grappling with long-overdue conversations about racism, sexism, and access to power. To purchase the book, and for tips on how to recognize and fight back against disinformation and deceptive Republican messaging tactics, visit https://theliethatbinds.com.