There are many horrifying things about President Donald Trump that I am prepared to believe, but the claim put forward by Linda Greenhouse in the New York Times — that he has loosened up the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate out of sexual traditionalism — is not one of them.
The Trump administration has, to its credit, issued a more liberal version of the employer-provided birth-control mandate, one that offers conscience protections to institutions beyond churches and closely held business concerns, and that expands the exemption beyond narrowly religious objections to include moral objections that are not necessarily religious in nature. A free society makes a lot of room for moral and religious disagreement, which is why the original mandate was thrown out by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires that government use the least onerous means when burdening religious exercise and that it do so only in the pursuit of a legitimate public interest.
For context, consider the fact that during World War II — an existential crisis not only for the United States but for the entire free world — the United States routinely offered exemptions from military service to members of pacifistic religious sects such as Quakers and Brethren. The federal government went so far as to establish alternatives to war bonds for those who objected to supporting the war through financial instruments. Perhaps you believe that a federal law mandating employer-provided no-copay birth-control pills is very important — it isn’t as important as whipping Hitler.
Greenhouse argues that the move represents a step toward transforming the United States into something more like Saudi Arabia, a bit of hyperbole that is risible even by the basement-dwelling standards of the New York Times op-ed pages. That the Times’ generally excellent reporting remains institutionally shackled to its insipid and second-rate opinion pages must be a source of frustration for its reporters, even — especially? — the ones who share that plain-Democrat-vanilla viewpoint.
In reality, the reform moves us in precisely the opposite direction: toward pluralism. Saudi Arabia has a state religion ruthlessly enforced by moral police. Greenhouse et al. would very much like to see something like that in the United States, a kind of state-sponsored Wahhabi progressivism enforced at the point of a bayonet: Bake that gay-wedding cake, buy those birth-control pills, subsidize that abortion — or else.
There are two issues that need clarifying here, one having to do with Trump individually and the other having to do with Republicans generally.
Greenhouse et al. would very much like to see a kind of state-sponsored Wahhabi progressivism enforced at the point of a bayonet: Bake that gay-wedding cake, buy those birth-control pills, subsidize that abortion — or else.
Greenhouse argues that conservatives dread “empowering women — in school, on the job, in the home — to determine their life course.” Trump is not a conservative, but Greenhouse means to include him here, and the claim is absurd. If anything, Trump often has erred too far in the other direction, advancing and promoting women beyond their individual capabilities and competence. When Trump acquired the Plaza in Manhattan, he put his wife (his first lady, not the third one) in charge of the expensive and complex task of renovating it, and burned through so much cash that the whole thing went bust. As the Times put it, “Just a few years later, the Plaza wound up in bankruptcy protection, part of a vast and humiliating restructuring of some $900 million of personal debt that Mr. Trump owed to a consortium of banks.” The banks eventually forced the sale of the property, which was acquired by — hey! — Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who would later mockingly describe the transaction as a “bailout.” Similarly, Trump has given his daughter, Ivanka, a knockoff-handbag peddler, a White House portfolio for which she has no obvious qualification. Yes, those were members of his family, but he often has advanced non-Trump women to senior positions in his organization, often taking risks on unproven executives.
He’s also kind of a pig, a fact attested to by women who consider him a mentor. The Washington Post describes this as a “paradox,” but it is nothing of the sort. Trump, who gleefully celebrates adultery, isn’t a sexual reactionary pining for an Ozzie and Harriet culture — he’s a cynical liberationist in the mold of Hugh Hefner and Harvey Weinstein.
Not a lot of burqas in the Miss Universe Pageant.
Greenhouse’s claim about Republicans in general is also difficult to harmonize with the facts, especially given the recent Republican effort to make birth control available on an over-the-counter basis. That points to the actual contest of visions here: Republicans have, on the matter of contraception at least, adopted a live-and-let-live attitude, one that would make birth control available to women on the same basis as any other consumer good and that would — let’s not forget — still oblige most employers to include it, free of copay, in their health-insurance plans, unless they have strong religious or moral objections to doing so. Democrats have opposed efforts to make birth control available over-the-counter. Why? The more cynical among us might suspect that they prefer contraception to remain as a government-mandated benefit for which women can be grateful to the party of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Clinton, rather than something they simply buy for themselves, like a cup of coffee.
A libertarian, consumer-oriented model that accommodates different religious and moral viewpoints, or a state-enforced one-size-fits-all moral order determined by powerful rulers: Which of those actually sounds like the American way of doing things, and which sounds more like the Saudi approach?