“At least Trump isn’t antigay.” Well, that’s what I’m told. Whenever I’m in a conversation about Donald Trump’s latest racist tweets or thwarting of democratic norms, someone points out the silver lining that the president of the United States doesn’t traffic in homophobic bigotry like he does racism. Sure, he is no champion of LGBTQ rights; he merely pays lip service to the anti-gay tendencies of his base. But his heart — or hate — isn’t fully committed.
I’m told Ivanka quells her father’s antipathy or that I should interpret the absence of homophobia as some affirmation of LGBTQ clout. The gays are so powerful now, even Trump won’t go after them.
Somehow, I’m not comforted.
President Trump is vocally and aggressively opposed to rights for LGBTQ Americans. It’s just, we don’t recognize the homophobia in the eliminationist thinking behind “go back where you came from,” or the threat to LGBTQ rights that inhumane detention centers for immigrants pose.
Since the Cold War, Americans associate democracy with prosperity and strength. Those who write about democracy, however, who study its history and permutations, know that liberal democracy is delicate. Seemingly robust democracies easily slip into something less open.
In writing the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt documented the cultural changes in Germany that preceded the rise of the Third Reich. The Jews were a historically convenient scapegoat, but through a fear and loathing of a targeted other, The Weimar Republic was dismantled for everyone. All that’s required is the exclusion of one group to unravel a system of precedents and principles that protect all groups.
Umberto Eco produced perhaps the best understanding of fascism by describing it as a functioning democracy that catches nationalism like a virus. Left untreated, the condition worsens and kills its host. In his list of universal characteristics of fascism, he includes two salient ingredients:
(1) Fear of difference: “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders.” And, (2) appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
Once a fear of the not-us among us is firmly established and the economically frustrated are whipped into a sufficient panic, the dismantling of liberal democracy hastens. The liberal in this context is not a counterpoint to conservative. It doesn’t refer to the Democratic Party but to the type of democracy that prioritizes individual rights over the will of the majority.
In liberal democracy, the dignity of the individual is universal even when individuals are different, scary, or unwanted. One’s liberty of conscience includes a right to disagree with religious authorities. The majority’s faith is not a rational basis for unequal treatment under the law. Self-determination includes a right to embrace a trait another abhors. In short, the protection of individualism is what gives democratic participation its meaning. As Justice Kennedy wrote in the Majority Opinion in Lawrence v Texas, the Supreme Court case that found sodomy laws to be unconstitutional:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
These are core democratic principles that come from The Enlightenment and inform every democratic institution. Since Stonewall, gay rights have steadily advanced based on an appeal to these core, democratic principles. Antigay discrimination isn’t merely wrong or cruel; it violates the very principles that undergird our system of government. Elections and representation have little value if the people voting aren’t fully free to be who they are.
President Trump’s rhetoric infrequently targets LGBTQ people specifically. But, it quite frequently negates the dignity of the individual necessary to justify equality under the law.
This is not some intersectional abstraction of shared struggles. It speaks quite practically to how state power gets interpreted and applied. A convenient scapegoat – in this instance, immigrants coming across the southern border – is easily used to justify legal discrimination. Once that principle is circumvented, the path is used to target others.
We should care because fellow humans are suffering. Once we recognize that suffering as our own, the credit Trump gets for not being antigay becomes immaterial. Who cares? He’s anti-personhood.
The heart of the matter – the undermining of individual dignity – is why so many conservative Evangelicals are in love with Trump even though he represents the opposite of everything they champion. He’s getting them something they’ve wanted for decades: an erosion of liberal democratic protections for individuals.
The Christian Right has long sought to use the instrument of state power to oppress and silence LGBTQ Americans. Even if Trump isn’t blowing that particular dog whistle at the moment, he’s supplying a whole artillery of discrimination destined to outlive his tenure in office.