Commentary

Republicans believe they have just the ticket to win back voters. It’s transphobia.

: A supporter holds a sign that says
: A supporter holds a sign that says "Support Trans Youth" in Washington Square Park on the 8th Annual Trans Day of Action on June 22, 2012 in New York City.Photo: Shutterstock

Republicans have declared war on transgender Americans, and in particular young trans people. A record number of bills are pending in state legislatures to limit trans youths’ access to health care and to sports, a sign that the party has decided to the attack is a political winner.

The GOP assault on trans rights isn’t new, of course. The Trump administration banned transgender military personnel, moved to let providers discriminate against trans patients and rolled back Obama-era protections in for students. But the current crop of bills in at least two dozen states are a sign of a concerted effort by Republicans to use transphobia as a wedge issue against Democrats.

Related: The GOP’s attacks on LGBTQ people this week in Congress were the worst in decades

The bills flying through state legislatures fall into two categories: one attempts to ban providers from providing gender-affirming health care for trans youth, and the other bans trans women from participating in women’s sports.

Amazingly, the GOP believes that these attacks will actually serve them well at the ballot box — not just with their base, but with white suburban women.

“This issue will help [the] GOP win midterms,” former Trump associate Stephen Miller recently told Politico. Miller is best known as the architect of Trump’s anti-immigrant efforts, including the separation of children from their parents at the border.

“This is the wedge issue that will bring suburban women back to the polls and increase their support for Republicans, and Republicans would be foolish not to lean into it,” Penny Nance, president of the right-wing Concerned Women for America, also told Politico.

The logic behind these assertions is hard to discern. For one thing, white suburban women fled the GOP because they couldn’t stand Trump and his sexism. (Miller’s child separation policy also drove them away, so his track record on the issue is really lousy.)

For another, the more Republicans portray their party as the party of bigots, the less likely they are to attract the voters they lost. “If it’s introduced cruelly or as a way to ‘shame the libs,’ this isn’t going to be helpful,” GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said in the same Politico article.

But the Republican’s sudden concern for women’s sports is laughable. Title IX, the federal law that finally provided parity to women’s sports in schools, is the same one that Trump administration used to give male students accused of sexual assault extra protections.

Moreover, meddling in the decisions parents make about their children’s health care isn’t likely to sit well with former Republican voters either. At best, it’s hypocritical; banning conversion therapy is bad, but banning trans care isn’t? At worst, it’s the kind of government intrusiveness that Republicans are supposed to reflexively despise.

As important as women’s sports are, they are not going to be the motivating issue for voters. That will remain the economy and other major issues, like health care.

The idea that transphobia will boost turnout relies upon the GOP playbook of 2004, when anti-marriage equality measures helped turn out voters scared of same-sex weddings — and that was an attempt to turn out the base, not to recruit voters who abandoned the party.

Indeed, the belief that transphobia is the big political winner for Republicans is a sign of two problems for the party: its control by the religious right and its fundamental lack of actual conviction in their policy beliefs.

What Republicans are doing is flailing around for something, anything, that will maintain their image. Trump tried racism, trying to convince suburban women that the Black Lives Matter movement was meant that housing projects would drive real estate prices down in the suburbs and crime up. That message flopped.

Yet despite his failure, the GOP is listening to Trump on transphobia as a political issue. Last week at CPAC, Trump called trans women athletes “biological males” and said their participation means “women’s sports as we know it will die.”

As if Trump knows anything about women’s sports.

Furthermore, the last time the GOP tried to play the transphobia card, it blew up in their faces. North Carolina has a Democratic governor now because Republicans were so devoted to H.B.2, their anti-trans bathroom bill, that it created a backlash leading to the incumbent Republican losing.

You would think that experience would have chastened the party, but apparently not.

The Republican party is so unmoored from reality that it genuinely believes that embracing conspiracy theorists and social grievance issues is the way to success. Indeed, at a time when the largest economic stimulus bill ever is in the verge of passing, Republicans aren’t offering alternatives but instead fulminating about children’s books.

It’s fine if you want to live in your own echo chamber, as Republicans want to do. But once someone leaves the chamber, shouting louder isn’t going to get them back.

Mike Pence is narrating a FOX News documentary glorifying Rush Limbaugh

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