How Trans Americans Became the Latest Republican Scapegoat
As the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary intensifies, candidates are making their cases on a variety of controversial issues, such as U.S. aid to Ukraine, abortion policy, and the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. While the primary debates have featured fierce disagreements on these topics, one issue that seems to unite the candidates is their stance in favour of anti-trans legislation. From sports participation bans to gender-neutral bathroom controversies to the supposed infiltration of radical gender ideology into American schools, Republican candidates across the board have brought transgender Americans to the center of this election. But how has a group that accounts for such a small percentage of the US population become the latest political obsession of the Republican Party? And more importantly, how has this group become the cultural centrepiece of the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary?
The Rise of “Anti-Woke” Politics
While the term lacks a concrete and universal definition, there is no denying that anti-woke politics have become a marquee issue in conservative circles over the past couple of years. The term’s popularization is associated with Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor began using the term “woke” more frequently during the earlier days of the Biden Administration to refer to a supposed takeover of radical leftist ideology seeking to dismantle oppression of sexual, racial, and ethnic minorities. The rise of anti-woke politics then was aimed at protecting the intellectual freedom of those who perceived such social justice efforts as a threat. DeSantis’s anti-woke discourse ultimately culminated in his signing of the pioneer of anti-woke legislation: the Stop WOKE Act. The Florida state legislation was signed in April 2022, barring educational institutions and corporations from instruction, which would cause anyone to “feel guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” due to their race, colour, sex, or national origin. Subsequent legislation in the same vein has been enacted in Florida and around the United States, such as the so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill” or the Parental Rights in Education Act signed by DeSantis in 2022. Such laws have laid the legislative groundwork for Republicans’ newfound culture war heading into the primary election season.
Trans folk as the new scapegoat
During the last Republican presidential primary in 2016, immigration was a key issue on the campaign trail. In the Republican context, then presidential candidate Donald Trump rose to fame thanks to his bold and unapologetic characterizations of Latin American immigrants, typecasting them as criminals and threats to American peace and security. Due largely to Trumpian immigration discourse, the scapegoating of Latin American immigrants became a pillar of the political discourse throughout the 2016 election. While the issue no doubt remains prominent in the current presidential primary, Republican strategists understand that performing well with the Hispanic American community has been crucial to increased Republican success and will be vital in 2024.
While anti-immigrant discourse has remained relevant in Republican politics, the appetite for a cultural scapegoat seems to have shifted in the direction of trans folk. From DeSantis’s discourse of radical gender ideology seeping into American schools and corporations to Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s depiction of trans girls’ participation in school sports as the “feminist issue of our time” to fellow Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy’s characterization of “transgenderism as a mental illness,” Republican presidential primary candidates find themselves in virtual lock-step with one another on the existence of transgender Americans. A notable exception to this trend is former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has voiced his opposition to trans-health care bans.
The Republican unity in using the trans community as their latest cultural scapegoat reflects not the views of a majority of American voters but rather a political calculation of what they believe will appeal to their target voters. While anti-trans legislation and rhetoric unsurprisingly appeal to reliable Republican voters, anti-trans discourse also has notable support in communities Republicans have made inroads with, including Hispanic and Black men, as well as voters of all races and ethnicities without a university degree. The root of the Republican scapegoating of trans Americans is undeniably a political calculation that such discourse will appeal to groups Republicans must perform well with in order to pave an electoral path to 270 in 2024. Another demographic that falls under this category is suburban moms, which Republican anti-trans discourse often caters to with narratives of wars on girls’ sports and the corruption of educational curricula by radical queer ideology.
Will this strategy work?
The jury is still out on whether this scapegoating of trans Americans will work in the Republicans’ favour. The indicators are inconclusive. This scapegoating strategy, of course, led the Republicans to electoral success in 2016 as they swept both houses of Congress and the presidency. Since it worked with Latin American immigrants, and many strategic voter demographics have indicated skepticism of the existence of trans people in opinion polling, perhaps the strategy could prove successful again in 2024. It is, however, important to note that despite voters’ mixed views on transgender people in opinion polling, anti-woke and anti-trans legislation such as those we have seen in Florida has been a nightmare legally, financially, and socially in places where it has been adopted. Furthermore, as rates of queer and trans Americans continue to increase relative to the US population, creating a boogeyman out of the trans community may prove an increasingly harder feat. So, while the Republicans seem to be locked in on their culture war strategy, voters will ultimately have the last say on whether or not they buy into their anti-trans politics.
Edited by Arezo Farah.