What Donald Trump Can Learn From Frederick Douglass

As a scholar of conservatism, I’m finding this Trump-wants-to-punish-women-who-get-abortions moment fascinating. At its heart, I’ve argued, “conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.”

It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves….Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.

Though certainly hostile to women’s agency, Trump’s position recognizes it. He’s saying women make the choice to get an abortion, abortion is a crime, so do with women who get an abortion what we do with anyone who commits a crime: hold them accountable, punish them.

Trump’s detractors in the GOP refuse to recognize women’s agency. It’s the abortionist’s fault, they say! Hold the doctor accountable, not the poor unsuspecting women, who’s just an innocent victim of the doctor’s evil ways. (After much outcry, Trump seems now to have come around to this position.)

Seting aside the obvious politics of and maneuvering around this argument—the anti-abortion forces recognize what an electoral disaster Trump’s position is (as does he now, apparently) because they’ve been running from that position for decades—there’s some complicated stuff being worked out here about how to deal with the agency of a subordinate class, particularly when that class is insubordinate, when it defies your will.

If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn. And then you run into the problem that Frederick Douglass so shrewdly made a muchness of in his attack on the inconsistencies of the slaveholder’s position:

Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write.

If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.

On a related note, it’s amazing to me how the anti-abortion crowd has managed to claim they are the inheritors of the abolitionist movement. Though the analogy is admittedly imperfect, if anyone has the right to the anti-slavery mantle, surely it is those who believe that women should not be compelled to have their bodies used against their will. There is a reason it’s called labor, after all.


  1. Theo March 31, 2016 at 10:37 am | #

    I doubt you will have too many male comments this time, Corey. I always notice that on your site when you speak on topics related to women. Abortion is still an “icky” thing to them, it doesn’t hit home with them as it does with women. even those who tacitly go along with it. The kind of man who opposes it opposes it because he does not want to see his dominance threatened, not for any so-called reasons of morality. I’ve always believed that many of the tacit male supporters of abortion feel the same way about it as well and are willing to let the reactionaries have their way with it. Also, I’m not sure that your point will be understood by most conservatives, or most anyone else, even though true. What I did notice in the New York Times’ treatment of the story was the incredible space they gave over to conservatives’ hypocritical outcry against Trump’s opinion and their and the Times’ refusal to catalogue all the legislation that specifically attempted to punish women in that way (unsuccessfully as yet) and in myriad other ways (successfully). Kasich’s comments stand out particularly for their disingenuousness, as his anti-abortion proposals and legislation are draconian as all the rest are. Of course, the entirety of the legislation against abortion is designed to punish women, to make them suffer in every way possible for abortion, no matter how badly needed by the woman and her family as well. Also interesting was that the Times did not link to the comments as it did with the FDA story about the abortion pill. Of course, anyone may comment and anyone may read comments. It is just interesting that the Times did not link to them.

    • Roquentin March 31, 2016 at 1:42 pm | #

      I feel like I should say, if you’ve spent any time in conservative circles, by your own volition or otherwise, you would quickly realize that opposition to abortion emanates as much from women as it does from men. I do not mean to be rude, but automatically assuming support for pro-choice political stances are something only popular with women is counterproductive.

      I also find it a little frustrating that there are a great many arguments for abortion which would appeal to most men (ie, not being forced into fatherhood and giving up half one’s income in child support for a brief fling) that often simply aren’t a part of pro-choice arguments. To make pro-choice politics the sole political territory of feminism and feminism only doesn’t help matters any. I’m not saying this as a dig at feminism either.

  2. Roquentin March 31, 2016 at 10:51 am | #

    I would present the case that the key psychological motivator for the conservative opposition to abortion is less about controlling women (even if that is a major part as well) so much as punishing them (and to vastly lesser extent, men) for engaging in sexual activity. For them, having kids is divine retribution for not remaining celibate. Solely focusing on controlling women neglects this aspect, as well as how fervently many fundamentalist Christian women support this.

    During my sister’s wedding, the grandmother of her groom hijacked the wedding speeches to go on a rant about voting for Trump and defunding Planned Parenthood. This was in a very German, very Catholic, very conservative area. Anti-abortion signs are ubiquitous. In African countries which still practice female genital mutilation, it is generally the older women who underwent this procedure themselves who fight the hardest to see it continue. Think of it this way: how hard would it be to accept that if you’d spent your entire adult life denying yourself sexual enjoyment and pleasure to realize it was all for nothing. Think of that rage and fury, seeing kids getting to have and enjoy all that sex you never allowed yourself.

    Once again, the baby is seen as divine retribution for sin. There have to be consequences for promiscuity for them….there absolutely have to be and if there aren’t they will invent them. The scare tactics and refusal to treat AIDS seriously is absolutely a part of the same dynamic.

  3. Alex March 31, 2016 at 11:57 am | #

    Extremely interesting. Thanks for this.

  4. escottnyc March 31, 2016 at 12:31 pm | #

    Corey, I appreciate your insight. It helps clarifies why I feel uneasy about not prosecuting the women, but prosecuting abortion facilitators. It takes “agency” from women (so misguided to seek abortion).
    Though I don’t want women punished and think they have the right to abort, I’m unhappy thinking people are comfortable dispensing and withdrawing “agency”. As you point out, even Slave States affirmed slave agency, though with practical reasoning. Women choosing to abort would be harder pressed seeking an abortion than runaway slaves, assuming penalty for facilitators only.

  5. troy grant March 31, 2016 at 2:16 pm | #

    For Trump, the truth is negotiable. The object is to win, in this case to win votes from the religious majority.

  6. David Nichols March 31, 2016 at 5:23 pm | #

    For Trump, I suspect the most salient question is “How many women can we jail during my presidency? All of them? Most of them? At least let me inprison the ugly ones.”

  7. Chris G March 31, 2016 at 8:31 pm | #

    > If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor.

    That is the perfect rejoinder to this interview with a pro-lifer on NPR this morning – http://www.npr.org/2016/03/31/472501022/reaction-to-donald-trumps-abortion-comments

    An excerpt: “Well, because the pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”

  8. jimbales April 1, 2016 at 10:51 am | #

    You might be interested in this response from blogger Fred Clark.

    Clark is an liberal/progressive evangelical who writes:
    When I was a teenager, my white evangelical tradition suddenly adopted and began enforcing a new essential dogma of anti-abortionism. I was a good student. I was wholly, loyally, and enthusiastically on-board with the new program and could recite our new catechism without flaw and without fail.

    So I knew the Standard Answer that Donald Trump tripped over yesterday, and I recited it automatically whenever I was asked the question he was asked: “If abortion is illegal, do you think women who have abortions should be punished?”

    The Standard Answer is this: “Of course no one is talking about putting women in jail. No one has ever said that’s what should be done. We would only punish the abortionists, not the women.”

    Later he began to question the “Standard Answer”, writing:
    “But I urgently wanted to ensure that no one thought I was arguing for the imprisonment of women because of two reasons. First, I did not want my questioners to think that I (or “we”) wanted to see those women imprisoned because I realized that criminalizing those women would make my/our political goal of criminalizing abortion more difficult to achieve.** That motivation for the Standard Answer involved some unprincipled calculation, and it was unpleasant to realize that such calculation was a factor in my argument — an argument that I had been taught to believe was based wholly in our superior moral worldview.

    That was unsettling, but not as unsettling as the second reason my invocation of the Standard Answer was so insistent. I did not want my questioners to think that I wanted to see these women punished because I genuinely did not want to see them punished. At some basic level — some level at which I had not yet allowed myself to articulate my own thoughts to myself — I did not think that punishing these women would be good, fair, right, necessary or just. I thought punishing these women would be wrong.”

    Clark closes with:
    The Standard Answer is not really an answer at all. It was never supposed to be one. It’s purpose is mainly to give us something we can shout so loudly that we don’t have to hear ourselves think.

    The entire post is well worth reading, and you may (like me) find Clark’s blog worth following.

    Jim Bales

  9. L.M. Dorsey April 1, 2016 at 12:28 pm | #

    The old anxieties about the “social issue” (than which no greater than parturition), now unencumbered by any need to pull punches with the obstructionist half-measures imposed on voter registration, say, or applying for food stamps, and so on.

    The carceral reflex is the tell. That we need no longer stoop to moralizing. Or apologize for enjoying our theatre of cruelty.

  10. J. Jones April 1, 2016 at 9:50 pm | #


    This article in A.V. about Soviet and American cinematic cold war villains oddly reminded me of the pattern you (and Douglass) describe.


    Soviet filmmakers rarely had American villains in the way that our movies had Soviet villains. Perhaps Americans couldn’t be the same sort of villains to the Soviets because that would imply that Americans had an agency. Dialectical materialism can’t allow that. Yet for us Soviets, at least members of the Communist Party, had to have agency in order for ‘Communism’ to be a choice.

    Someone else could express this better. Bad cold. Hard to think.

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