For many backers of former President Donald Trump, Friday’s Supreme Court decision was a long-awaited vindication.
The court’s 6-to-3 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned the landmark 1973 abortion case Roe v. Wade. It’s an outcome made possible by Mr. Trump’s three appointments to the bench — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — and his supporters were quick to thank him for the win and jeer at Never Trumpers who had doubted the president. Dobbs will be “the enduring legacy of President Donald J. Trump,” tweeted Andrew Giuliani, who this week lost the Republican primary for governor of New York, and who is the son of the former Trump campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani. “To the Never Trump people: Elections matter. Here’s a link to the ruling,” wrote Melissa Mackenzie, publisher of The American Spectator. “Give Trump the credit he deserves,” she concluded.
Conventional wisdom holds that this praise will translate to votes for Mr. Trump for the next Republican presidential nomination. This ruling “will likely be at the heart of his appeal to conservatives if/when he runs for president again in 2024,” argued CNN’s Chris Cillizza shortly after Dobbs dropped. Mr. Trump promptly took credit for the ruling while potential rivals were conspicuously silent.
Predicting voter behavior is often a fool’s errand, and conventional wisdom might prove correct. But it seems more likely that G.O.P. voters — or at least a critical mass of them — are saying thank you and moving on from Mr. Trump.
Dobbs feels like a conclusion to a story that began in 2015. Mr. Trump made Supreme Court nominations as means of overturning Roe a key promise in his 2016 campaign, describing it as a sure thing at his final presidential debate. The end of Roe would “happen, automatically,” he said, were he elected and able to appoint multiple justices. Now it has happened. As Mr. Trump’s own supporters would say: promises made, promises kept. That, and the mere fact that competition in the 2024 G.O.P. primaries seems not just possible but probable, suggests a political season has reached its close.
Mr. Trump is not a man for all seasons. A substantial part of the former president’s appeal to his base was his destructive capacity. His talk of taking on a “rigged system” and “deep state” conjured images of a full gut job on the American government. He would bring about the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and make way for a “new political order,” in the words of Stephen Bannon, then his chief strategist. To drain a swamp, after all, is to destroy it. The point of a President Trump, for a core portion of his supporters, was his function as a wrecking ball. Yet with Dobbs decided and Roe undone, the single biggest tear-down those voters wanted is complete.
Going forward, they might want a new candidate for a new era, someone suited more for construction than demolition — or, at least, someone with more varied talents, less personal baggage and a more substantive administrative record. This opportunity to change horses may be particularly attractive to the subset of Republicans who explicitly framed their support of Mr. Trump as a transactional arrangement to fill Supreme Court seats and thereby end Roe. “I voted for the Supreme Court. I didn’t want to vote for Trump,” a pro-life voter named Jim George told The Washington Post in 2017. “With Trump, you just hold your nose.” Dobbs gives George and Republicans like him occasion to reopen their nostrils to more conventionally appealing scents. It does the same for any Republican for whom Mr. Trump’s record beyond SCOTUS — unwalled borders, unended wars, the administrative state very much intact — has begun to look a bit thin.
It’s too soon to say whom the new candidate might be, but the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who is increasingly speculated about as Mr. Trump’s most formidable challenger, could fit the bill. (A recent poll from New Hampshire shows that Mr. DeSantis leads Mr. Trump as first choice among the state’s G.O.P. primary voters who are Fox News viewers by 46 percent to 32 percent, and by 54 percent to 34 percent among conservative radio listeners.) Republicans can transfer their loyalty to Mr. DeSantis or some other 2024 contender without endangering Mr. Trump’s “enduring legacy” a whit. Where the Supreme Court and abortion policy are concerned, they have nothing to lose by moving on and, with a more disciplined and competent leader, potentially much to gain.
Mr. Trump’s own response to the ruling is illustrative here. His statement teased a forthcoming national salvation, presumably through his own re-election, but offered no vision for a post-Roe agenda. Perhaps that’s because Mr. Trump, always an unconvincing pro-lifer, appears unsure of what to make of the world he has wrought. Speaking Friday on Fox News, he blithely posited that “in the end, this is something that will work out for everybody.” Reports in The Times and Rolling Stone, citing unnamed sources close to the former president, indicate that his first reaction to the Dobbs decision was to worry about how it would affect his standing with suburban women.
Last is that language of “legacy” itself, which may mean some Republicans are already realizing the advantages of leaving the Trump times behind. Andrew Giuliani was not alone in his use of that word in reactions to the Dobbs news Friday. “We have Trump to thank for this,” tweeted commentator Allie Beth Stuckey. “Ain’t a mean tweet in the world that can overshadow what is now the greatest presidential legacy in history.” And while plenty of responses took the Dobbs news as proof of political life, others had something of a retrospective tone or even gave a grateful goodbye: “Thank you, Donald Trump. You had the courage to run in 2016. You got 3 SCOTUS picks. Roe is gone,” said Ned Ryun, C.E.O. of the right-wing activist group American Majority. A Washington Post columnist, Marc Thiessen, while lauding Mr. Trump as “our greatest pro-life president,” worth four years of chaos and unspecified “behavior after the 2020 election,” hoped outright that he “does not run again in 2024.”
The praise is effusive, yes. But legacies are the stuff of funerals, retirement parties and lifetime achievement awards. This is not the language one uses for a politician whose glories are ahead of him. It envisions him as a leader whose work is remembered fondly — but still remembered, not anticipated.