April 10, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Wisconsin, antiabortion politics and the Republican death drive

The problem isn't messaging.


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The thing about antiabortion politics is there’s no going back. You can’t spend decades equating it to murder, then go soft on murder. The other thing about antiabortion politics is there’s no going forward. Some Republicans are now seeing that the whole “abortion is murder” thing is a loser. 

This would appear to be a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But that suggests an exit. There is no exit. Republican legislators can’t help themselves. They’re caught in their own death drive. 

I’ll explain.

These Republicans can’t get their position more in line with where voters are, because most voters believe abortion should be legal with some limits here and there. At the same time, they can’t soften their position for fear of being accused on being soft on murder.

Charlie Sykes (The Bulwark) and Matt Lewis (The Daily Beast) criticize the inability of state-level Republicans to adjust to change. Both look to last week’s blowout election in Wisconsin (for a state Supreme Court seat; the Democratic candidate crushed it) to say that, in reaction to total abortion bans in swing states, independent voters are going to continue taking the Republicans to the wall if they don’t turn around.

Lewis said if Republican legislators “were sick of losing, they’d be paying attention to the results in Wisconsin — and taking them seriously. That doesn’t mean they’d flip-flop on core beliefs regarding abortion. But it does mean they’d be busy working on a strategy.”

In his headline, Sykes asks whether the GOP is addicted to losing. “Despite all the red blinking lights — and they are flashing everywhere — the GOP simply smacks its lips and says, ‘This is fine.’ More, please.”

The Wall Street Journal’s anonymous editorial page writers are getting nervous. “Republicans had better get their abortion position … more in line with where voters are or they will face another disappointment in 2024. A total ban is a loser in swing states. Republicans who insist on that position could soon find that electoral defeats will lead to even more liberal state abortion laws than under Roe.”

These Republicans can’t get more in line with where voters are, because most voters believe abortion should be legal with limits here and there. At the same time, they can’t soften their position for fear of being accused on being soft on murder. The problem isn’t doing a poor job of selling antiabortion politics. The problem is antiabortion politics.

To see the problem clearly, consider a secondary theme of antiabortion politics undergirding the principal (abortion = murder). That theme is rooted in nostalgia – for the days when a man was a man, a woman was a woman, and an embryo was not sacrificed on the altar of modernity. 

These days never existed. Humans have experienced the full range of human sexuality and gender expression since the history of humans began. The antiabortionists believe they do exist, however, for a reason: in order to maximize the emotional trauma that comes with liberal democracy moving on from the old days. Because liberal democracy never stops moving on, neither does the antiabortionist’s trauma. 

The trauma is woven into their personalities. It must, given the bedrock belief in the existence of the old days. But, again, those days never existed. So the antiabortionists ensnare themselves in a vicious cycle. 

The more they long for the old days, the more trauma they feel. The more trauma they feel, the more they long for the old days. Victimhood is the base on which they build their group identity. They can’t help it.

It’s their death drive.

“Death drive” comes from Freud. The father of psychoanalysis studied veterans of World War I who repeatedly re-experienced combat trauma as if it were happening in the present. They couldn’t move on, because they scrambled to recover a time when they weren’t traumatized. 

In Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood, Casey Ryan Kelly applied Freud’s concept to rightwing politics, particularly its favorite mantra, “Make America Great Again.” The death drive, he told me, invokes nostalgia for time “before we were fractured by trauma” – when a man was a man, a woman was a woman, and an embryo was not sacrificed on the altar of modernity. 

“We revisit traumatic moments to recover a version of ourselves [that’s] coherent, stable and unified. The return is compulsive because we can never recover something we never had. So we do it perpetually.”

The death drive was harmless as long as the Republicans weren’t risking real power. They’d make a stink about “cRIticAl RaCE tHEory,” beclown themselves a bit, then walk away looking like victims of discrimination. Not only did they avoid risking real power. They enhanced it.

That changed after the fall of Roe. The Supreme Court returned to the states the authority to regulate abortion. With that, GOP lawmakers no longer had to pretend to be victims to put women back in their place in their imagined sense of history. They could just go ahead and do it.

The death drive is compulsive, though. The more they see themselves as victims of trauma that never happened – that urge will never stop – the more grotesque they are going to be in regulating or banning abortion, even in the face of growing resistance by a majority of Americans that hasn’t changed its mind about abortion in decades. 

The Republicans have entered a new phase.

The death drive is killing off their power.

They can’t help it, though. The problem of antiabortion politics isn’t messaging. It’s antiabortion politics. A majority doesn’t like it. The antiabortionists, however, will never admit it. They’re victims, after all.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bern on April 11, 2023 at 6:25 am

    Barbarians with mandates and gavels.

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