Shortly after announcing his 2024 presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) went on Fox News and showed everyone how obsessed he is with transgender people.
“How would you address the ongoing war in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine on day 1 of a Ron DeSantis presidency?” host Trey Gowdy asked.
“First, I think what we need to do as a veteran is recognize that our military has become politicized. You talk about gender ideology, you talk about things like global warming that they’re somehow concerned, and that’s not the military that I served in,” DeSantis responded, saying absolutely nothing about Ukraine, where almost no American troops are serving. Even if the issue were primarily about U.S. military involvement, “gender ideology” would have nothing to do with anything.
But responding to the question is never the point in these campaign interviews; getting out one’s campaign soundbites is. And the military being too pro-trans (and also pro-gay and anti-racism, according to Florida Republicans) is the talking point he wanted to get out there to show that he, too, would be willing to ban trans people from serving openly in the military, just like his top rival Donald Trump did in 2017.
DeSantis isn’t the only one who is trying to work transphobia into places where it makes no sense. Yesterday, former Trump administration official and 2024 candidate Nikki Haley made nasty comments about transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, blaming her for teen girls considering suicide. There is nothing to tie Mulvaney to teen suicide rates, but no one cares about facts when they’re trying to stoke a moral panic.
“Everybody knows about Dylan Mulvaney? Bud Light, right?” Haley told an audience of New Hampshire business leaders who were probably there to hear what she had to say about business and not Instagram videos. She was met with silence. “Make no mistake. That is a guy, dressed up like a girl, making fun of women. Women don’t act like that. Yet everybody’s wondering why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year?”
Both Haley and DeSantis are facing an uphill battle against Trump, who is currently the top choice of over half of Republican primary voters. They have to stand out somehow instead of being one of a dozen not-Trumps – how most GOP primary candidates failed in 2016 – and they’re betting that outrage against the very existence of transgender people is how to do it.
After two years of hundreds of anti-trans bills being considered in state legislatures across the country – including bans on trans people participating in school sports, trans people being called by the correct names and pronouns, and trans youth getting gender-affirming health care – and two years where anyone flying a rainbow or a trans Pride flag risked getting labeled a “groomer” or a “pedophile,” people can be forgiven for forgetting that, as recently as 2020, anti-trans activists were trying to get the attention of the Republican Party to make transphobia a campaign issue.
That was where the country was in the middle of the pandemic. In August 2020, Terry Schilling’s small and relatively unknown anti-LGBTQ+ organization American Principles Project was forced to run its own anti-trans ads in several campaigns in an attempt to get the Trump-Pence campaign and the national Republican Party to even think this was an issue worth mentioning.
“What I’m hoping is that once we release these ads and numbers start to move, the Trump campaign will see it’s a powerful issue that the Republican Party can use to its success,” Schilling said a mere two months before the election that year.
That’s not to say that Trump was pro-trans equality; his administration repeatedly attacked transgender rights as well as LGBTQ+ rights more broadly every chance they got. But they didn’t think that it was the top vote-getting issue last time around, the one issue to bring up at every campaign stop to rile up the base and get swing voters into the GOP camp.
Trump himself has been talking more about trans people at his campaign stops this past year, calling out “the perverted sexualization of minor children,” a Republican expression that covers any form of support for LGBTQ+ people.
Mike Pence, another likely 2024 candidate, has also been making transphobia a bigger part of his not-yet-a-campaign, telling people at events in Iowa that he’ll stop the “radical gender ideology” that has “invaded our schools, our colleges, and our workplaces.” Just two days ago, in an interview with Scripps News, Pence brought up his opposition to trans rights and promised to implement a ban on trans people in the military and a national ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth, saying that he would campaign on the military ban if he runs in 2024.
Even South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who hasn’t announced her 2024 campaign yet and is speculated to be trying to get the VP slot on Trump’s ticket, ran a national ad in early 2022 touting her opposition to trans rights. “In South Dakota, only girls play girls’ sports. Why? Because of Governor Kristi Noem’s leadership,” the ad told the nation, even though she was officially just running for reelection as governor then.
The 2004 presidential election was historic in its homophobia. George W. Bush and other Republicans saw marriage equality as the top issue that could drive Evangelicals to the polls. Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect said that the GOP saw “the specter of gay marriage as a political gift from the gods.”
Twenty years later, it looks like they’re making the same bet with the basic humanity of transgender people. The Republican primary – when it’s not just Trump dunking on the other candidates who will be too afraid of his supporters to respond in kind – will be full of outlandish stories about schoolteachers secretly performing gender-affirming surgery on kids in restroom stalls, student-athletes with arms “30 feet long” setting world records in middle school, and hypnotic children’s cartoons making little boys wear dresses.
And when the primary is over, the winner will go on to attack President Joe Biden’s record of supporting trans equality through executive orders, rules, and guidelines as well as lawsuits in his first four years in office.
It’s going to be a rough 18 months.