How the GOP is turning up the dial on 'hate and fear'
Rep. Jim Banks, R-IN (Screen capture)

Ron DeSantis, the most likely GOP candidate for president in 2024, has gone to war with trans people and Disney, saying he’s doing so to protect Florida’s children. It’s a slick trick that seems to be working for him and his Republican colleagues, and is thus spreading to other states.

Authoritarian politicians in electoral democracies typically exploit people’s fear to gain political power, and then use that power to destroy the democracy itself from within. But first they have to create that fear by building up a straw-man villain.

Republicans today are running that strategy to try to turn America, like Hungary, into a strongman oligarchy.

All they need to run the con is to identify a minority group and convince people they’re a threat to the nation:

  • Hitler began his rise to power by demonizing Jews and promising to “solve the Jewish problem,” as he laid out in his book Mein Kampf.
  • For Mussolini it was communists and gays that he claimed he would stop from harming Italian society.
  • Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy also promised to protect Americans from communists, although there was a strong anti-gay and antisemitic undercurrent to their criticisms.
  • Margaret Thatcher promised to liberate the United Kingdom from the tyranny of labor unions, as did Ronald Reagan for America.
  • Rodrigo Duterte says he’s ridding The Philippines of drug users through extrajudicial murders.
  • India’s Narendra Modi claims he’s “protecting” his country’s Hindu majority from its Muslim minority by stirring up assaults in Muslim areas.

Pick a country, anywhere in the world, and 100% of the time you’ll find “strongman” leaders or wannabee leaders claiming to protect the country from a minority. This goes as far back as written human history; protecting “us” from a minority “them” is a consistent and sure-fire path to political power.

In America the groups most easily targeted have historically been racial minorities, particularly descendants of formerly enslaved people, migrants from south of the US border, and from Asia. But racial minorities are now approaching parity with whites in much of America, and have acquired considerable financial, social, and economic power over the past sixty years.

It’s still politically profitable to hate on racial minorities: just look at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s recent hearings on Judge Jackson and how, after his televised rants about pornography and Critical Race Theory, Ted Cruz was caught checking his props on Twitter.

Nonetheless, it’s getting harder and harder for white politicians to simply and openly exploit race like George Wallace or George HW Bush used to do.

Since the election of Barack Obama as our first Black president, and the steady increase in racial minority faces on TV in the years since, Republicans needed a new group to demonize and “protect average Americans” from.

For decades that was gay men and lesbian women, with nonstop sermonizing from the likes of Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham about the dangers of the so-called “homosexual agenda” and how gay marriage would “destroy” heterosexual marriages.

But decades of hard work by gay rights advocates have helped gays and lesbians to come out of the closet in huge numbers; today most people either have an openly gay or lesbian family member, friend, or co-worker.

So the new group Republicans have chosen to hate are trans people, particularly trans kids: a minority within a minority that’s lacking a strong national power base or constituency and will probably never grow to a level of voting power, affluence, or social visibility that would let them hold their tormentors to account.

Consider how Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-QA) attacked Judge Jackson during the judge’s confirmation hearings:

“You serve on the board of a school that teaches kindergarteners, 5-year-old children, that they can choose their gender…” Blackburn began, adding: “Your public endorsement of this type of progressive indoctrination of our children causes one great concern when it comes to how you may rule on cases involving parental rights.”

Blackburn then gleefully demanded Judge Jackson define what is a “woman.” Jackson sidestepped the question, noting that she was a judge and not a biologist, but Blackburn and her Republican colleagues had what they wanted: a metaphoric bloody scalp they could wave on Fox “News.”

Judge Jackson, they could now claim, had endorsed the “trans agenda.” And there’s a method to this seedy GOP madness.

Republicans serve a single master: great wealth. But to get and hold power, they must have enough votes to get elected, so every election cycle they have to find a group they can claim to be protecting “average” Americans from.

For George HW Bush, it was Willie Horton and Black murder/rapists. His son warned us against the dangers of “radical Islam” and Middle Eastern terrorism. When Trump announced his candidacy he was blunt about going after Mexicans.

And now DeSantis and the thundering GOP hoard with their “Don’t Say Gay” bills have turned from racial minorities to gender minorities as the “threat” from which they’ll protect us in 2022 and 2024.

It’s an old playbook: hating on LGBTQ people has a worldwide history of success in this regard, from ancient times to last weekend’s election in Hungary.

Tucker Carlson’s and Vladimir Putin’s good buddy Viktor Orbán, for example, made sure there was a referendum on Sunday’s Hungarian ballot near his name that asked:

  • Do you support the teaching of sexual orientation to underage children in public education institutions without parental consent?
  • Do you support the promotion of sex reassignment therapy for underage children?
  • Do you support the unrestricted exposure of underage children to sexually explicit media content that may affect their development?
  • Do you support the showing of sex-change media content to minors?

It worked well for Orbán; not only did his referendum win a 96% “No” vote, but, running on it, he also won re-election by a landslide.

Apparently, the news of Orbán’s success Sunday got around here in America. I received an email Monday from the Koch-funded group Freedomworks with a one-question poll:

“Do you agree that elementary school children should NOT be taught sexually explicit material in school? Yes/No”

It was followed by a Freedomworks email on Tuesday laying out the GOP’s 2022 straw-man attack line:

“There's simply no reason elementary schoolchildren should be taught racist propaganda or sexually explicit material. That should be something every American can agree on.
“But the radical Left fights tooth-and-nail to keep their Marxist indoctrination program, Critical Race Theory (CRT), and inappropriate sexually explicit material in the classroom.
“Parents should have the right to choose whether or not their children are exposed to these sick, leftist radicals.”

This is the oldest playbook in the world. Anybody who was bullied as a child knows exactly how it works: bullies identify those least able to defend themselves and attack relentlessly.

From blood libels against Jews, to McCarthy’s “list of communists in the State Department,” to Josh Hawley implying Judge Jackson delights in helping out the most vile of pornographers, it always starts with one small kernel of story and gets twisted into a culture-bending hate campaign.

Trans kids have one of the highest suicide and depression rates in America (twelve times that of cis kids), but when they receive gender-affirming support and healthcare their risk of depression drops by 70 percent and their rate of suicide drops by 63 percent.

But they’re such a minority most Americans don’t know a trans person, and so don’t have a personal reference point for empathy. Which makes them easy targets for demagogues needing a group to demonize.

Republicans are following the examples of rightwing neofascists around the world. With this anti-LGBTQ agenda, strongmen are winning elections from Putin in Russia, to Orban in Hungary, to Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Sarah Palin laid out the “gender libel” at the foundation of it all for Republicans a dozen years ago, saying:

“I said I didn’t hate people who engage in homosexual behavior… I simply said by legalizing it you are opening the door to many other things such as bestiality, child molestation and abortion. See… these things are all interconnected.”

Americans have real concerns and, before the GOP went all Qanon, they mostly had to do with staying healthy, paying the bills, and getting the kids off to school. But Republicans want American voters — particularly straight, white American voters — to live in a constant state of terror.

Republican strategists know that a terrorized populace will quickly defer to a strongman authoritarian leader who promises to keep them safe from the evil monsters they’ve identified.

While Democrats talk about “boring” stuff like raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicare, and making quality, free education available to everybody, Republicans have fine-tuned their expertise at seizing news cycles to keep their voters freaked out that the 0.3% of Americans who are trans (and their gay and lesbian friends) might “groom” their children.

Rep. Jim Banks, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, warned us that the GOP wasn’t going to even bother with actual bread-and-butter issues in the upcoming elections. Everything, he argued, should be reduced to terrifying people about the dangers of the LGBTQ agenda to their kids.

“My encouragement to you is, lean into it,” Banks told Republicans in a memo last year. “Lean into the culture war.”

First they went after Disney; their most recent freak out is over a short vid co-produced by the Oreo Cookies folks that features LGBTQ people.

Republicans are turning the “hate and fear” dial up to levels we haven’t seen in this country since the 1950s.

And they’re doing it so they can push more tax cuts for the rich, deregulation for corporations, and addiction to fossil fuels, all without GOP voters realizing the 3-Card Monty game they’re running.

Hang on and get ready. As Trump said about January 6th, it’s gonna be wild.