Donald Trump And The Reagan Playbook On LGBTQ Rights4 months, 19 days ago
This years Conservative Political Action Conference( CPAC ), which took place the weekend before last, provided a window into how Donald Trump is handling the religious right, which has had setbacks during the course of its Obama era, as LGBTQ rights surged. I chatted with quite a few social conservatives in the crowd, and last week I published my interviewwith Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow at the notoriously anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council( FRC) who also served as the domestic policy chair of Donald Trumps transition team.
The Blackwell interview was quite illuminating. He was candid about how a religious freedom executive order, which would allow for discrimination against LGBT people and others, was still coming from the presidents desk, despite the Trump administration playing it down after a draft had leaked last month. Blackwell, former Ohio Secretary of State, is a devout warrior among evangelical crusaders. Hes passionate and forthright in his notion and enjoys discussing them.
I had interviewed Blackwellin 2008 at the GOP convention in a thirty-minute discussion in which he defended its statement of claim that homosexuality is comparable to arson and kleptomania, because it is, in his view, a compulsion that can be contained, repressed or changed, though thats in complete opposition to the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and just about every other authority on the subject. Blackwell seemed to imply, against all scientific evidence, that anyone could succumb to this compulsion hence the religion right assert that homosexuality is a choice even including himself.
Ive never had to construct the choice because Ive never had the advise to be other than a heterosexual, Blackwell had told me. But if in fact I had the recommend to be something else I could have in fact repressed that urge.
People like Blackwell dont change their minds easily about these things. And here he is now, freshly emboldened, having served on Trumps transition team and readying for the expected religious liberty order, working for a group, the Family Research Council( FRC ), that is to the Trump administration what Jerry Falwells Moral Majority was to the Reagan administration in the 80 s.
Tony Perkins, chairwoman of FRC, has steadfastly supported Trump and had driven evangelicals to turn out to vote for him by a large percentage, just as Falwell did for Ronald Reaganin 1980 and 1984. While both Reagan and Trump were divorced celebrities who came out of decadent Hollywood and New York respectively before entering politics, theyve each been viewed as speaking the language of evangelical Christians, presenting themselves as unlikely but committed fighters for social conservatives.
The president said when he was a candidate that there is a war on Christianity in America, the former head of FRCs Center for Religious Liberty, Ken Klukowski, told me at CPAC, considering Trump. And as someone who is a religion liberty lawyer who frequently represents the evangelical and Catholic communities in this country, thats precisely the sort of language that most people in that situation utilize. There has been unprecedented hatred against people of devout faiths in recent years. So the problem is there. Its been clearly defined. The chairman is aware of it.
During the 1980 election campaign, meeting with evangelical church leaders in Dallas, Reagan cemented his relationship with evangelical voters, famously saying, I know you cant endorse me , But . . . I want you to know that I endorse you .
Its a strikingly similar statement to many of Trumps promises to evangelical leaders: Short on details, big on commitment and promise. At the time of Reagans election, evangelicals believed they were were in the wilderness and assured a country in moral disintegration in which tradition was uprooted, coming off of the 60 s and 70 s civil rights and freeing movements for women, people of color and gays.
Many evangelical leaders had believed they were betrayed by President Jimmy Carter, an evangelical himself. He was pilloriedby social conservatives for supporting abortion rights and not referencing God in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1980( in contrast to Reagan who did soat the Republican National Convention ). In that context, the fact that someone like Reagan was even speaking up for evangelicals and promising to push their agenda including against abortion was enough to galvanize them.
Evangelicals have similarly conveyed being in the wilderness during the course of its Obama era, a period in which they experienced major defeats as LGBT rights surged forward with Obamas repeal of dont ask, dont tell and at the Supreme court with wedding equality. Like Reagan, Trump not only held himself out as someone whod fighting to take them back to a long lost era Make America great again! but also presented himself as a leader taking on foes of religion liberty around the world. For Reagan, it was the evil empire of the Soviet Union, presented as an existential threat( ironic, dedicated Trumps current opinion of Russia ), and for Trump it is Muslims, whom he portrays as a evil religious and existential threat. Both humen augmented their fight for evangelicals against immorality within the country with combats against those outside the country who are perceived as threatening to religion liberty.
So, with Trump employing the Reagan playbook, here is how things will go down. He will string them along with a lot of flowery statements, including biblical references, and stimulate grand promises, such as allowing them to have a tax exemption while engaging in political activity repealing the Johnson Amendment in the U.S. tax code which will likely never happen. Hell hope that nominating a judicial originalist like Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court will satisfy them. And hell give them morsels here and there, meant to placate them, but they cant be too revolutionary since that could cause too much outrage in the larger electorate.
Perhaps most consequentially, Trump wont speak up or dedicate resources to issues or crisis that arise affecting LGBTQ people as the AIDS epidemic did in a catastrophic style in the 80 s, ignored by Reaganuntil it was out of control. Silence and ignorance permitting people to literally be harmed, suffer or die can go a long way at fulfilling the individuals who dislike us. Weve already seen this with the Trump administrations decision not to continue defending a court challenge by several countries against Obama administration guidelines to protect transgender students and then rescinding the guidelines solely.
But, while at first being thankful that Trump is even paying attention to them, evangelical leaders will soon become vocal and demanding, as they did with Reagan.( This is already starting to happen ).
The big difference thirty years later, however, is the organization and energy of the those of us who fight for equality. And that brings me back to CPAC. Blackwell spoke about the religion liberty order which would allow for discrimination against LGBTQ people as being redrafted to stand up to judicial scrutiny. But its also likely being re-written to withstand public scrutiny too. Last months leaked draft of the order and we should be thankful for whistleblowers who are exposing some of the horrific plans the Trump administration has under wraps caused an uproarin the media and among the public that forced the Trump administration into retreat, even if temporarily.
After the Muslim ban fiasco, the Trump team surely didnt want another tragedy, even as religion groups continue to pressure Trump for the executive heads order. Both situations showed how public outcry and the courts could help keep the administration in check, even as its stimulated a second attempton the Muslim ban( if a weakened version ). LGBT rights have come into the mainstream, unlike in the 80 s when fags were almost universally dreaded and shunned.
Religious conservatives will become louder, but theres only so far that that Reagan playbook can take Trump today. He can be pushed back, and stopped, if we stand firm and organize. Thats especially true if LGBTQ activists dont begin to compromise on rights a strategy some LGBT activists have actually suggested which would be an enormous trap.
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