One thing you can count on with Republicans: just when you think they’ve hit rock bottom, they grab a shovel and start digging. More than a year ahead of any actual primary, the field of presidential wannabes is already filling up, and every one of them promises to be even more anti-LGBTQ than in previous election cycles.
Topping the list (and the first to formally announce his candidacy) is Donald Trump, who still holds a tight grip on the Republican party. Eighty percent of registered Republicans view the former president favorably, a formidable barrier to any challenger.
Of course, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seems more than willing to challenge Trump, lining up support from big donors tired of Trump’s antics. Then there’s former Vice President Mike Pence, who has long seen himself as ordained by God to be president and seems willing to run against his old boss even though his chances are virtually nil.
All three candidates will fight for the same base: conservative evangelical voters. Or, more accurately, people who identify themselves as conservative evangelicals. The fact is that many so-called evangelicals these days aren’t actually church-goers, but instead seize the identity as political shorthand.
Battling for the same votes, all three candidates will undoubtedly pull out all the stops. That means trying to outdo one another when attacking LGBTQ people to differentiate themselves from the competition. They’ll each bring a dreadful history to the primary season.
When Trump first ran for president in 2016, he didn’t seem to have the same personal animosity toward LGBTQ people that his Republican peers did. All for Trump, all politics are transactional, and if appointing homophobic and anti-trans judges to the federal judiciary pleased his evangelical supporters, he was glad to do it. At the same time, Trump joked about how his vice president wanted to hang all gay people.
But in the run-up to his announcement, Trump has been using vicious language to attack LGBTQ people at his rallies. He has railed against “the sickos who are pushing sexual content in kindergartens or providing puberty blockers to young children.”
“Let’s just say they’re not good – are not just engaged in acts of depravity in many cases they are breaking the law and they should be held fully accountable,” Trump said at one July rally. He also trashed trans athletes as “disrespectful to women.”
Meanwhile, DeSantis has made attacking LGBTQ a cornerstone of his resume. Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law is a testament to the “anti-woke” (to say nothing of anti-First Amendment) philosophy DeSantis is using to appeal to GOP voters. DeSantis has outsourced the most savage rhetoric to his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, who has branded anyone who opposes the Don’t Say Gay law as a “groomer.” Meanwhile, DeSantis earned extra points with the religious right for using the government to punish long-time nemesis Disney for its opposition to the law.
No wonder DeSantis explicitly presented himself to voters as a Christian warrior. “Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes,” DeSantis said in a talk at conservative Hillsdale College. “You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida we walk the line here, And I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.” As a final touch in his re-election campaign, DeSantis, who will never be renowned for his humility, ran an ad touting an endorsement from God himself: “God made a fighter,” aka DeSantis.
Then there is Mike Pence, the former vice president whose presence on the 2016 ticket sanctified Trump for wary evangelicals. Pence’s conservative religious credentials are impeccable. After all, this is a man who described himself in his stump speech as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”
Pence brought a rich anti-LGBTQ track record to the White House as a Congressman and governor of Indiana. Pence expanded that record during Trump’s presidency, Pence was a major force behind the administration’s ban on trans military personnel. He was also good at getting religious conservatives appointed to key administrative positions where they could shape policies (for the worse).
The odds still favor Trump at this point, but a lot can change–like an indictment–between now and early 2024. But as unpredictable as the race may be at this point, the one certain thing is that attacking LGBTQ people will be central to everyone’s campaign.