This week, as Senate Republicans geared up to take away health insurance from millions of Americans, Donald Trump made a devastating announcement: "The United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military," he tweeted Wednesday morning.
Trump attributed the ban decision to "the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail," but there are only a few thousand active-duty service members who identify as transgender, and their health costs account for somewhere between 0.04 and 0.13 percent of the budget for "active-component health care expenditures," according to RAND. So Trump's stated reasoning was, unsurprisingly, bullshit.
A White House official was shockingly candid about the actual reasoning behind the ban, telling Axios, "This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of this issue. How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like [Michigan Democratic senator] Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?"
In other words, this is a transparent attempt to heat up what's often labeled "the culture war," best exemplified by identity-based political issues, from the exquisitely petty "War on Christmas" pushed by FOX News to the North Carolina "bathroom bill" that barred trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their genders.
Trump, otherwise no social conservative, loves to play up these issues. In speech delivered to the Boy Scouts on Monday evening, he said, "Under the Trump administration, you'll be saying 'Merry Christmas' again when you go shopping. Believe me. 'Merry Christmas.'"
These aren't dog whistles but open appeals to conservatives who aren't as ideological as much as they're angry—angry at immigrants for taking the jobs, angry at phone menus that ask them to press 1 for English, angry that they have to think about whether someone is a Christian or not, or whether they're hurting someone's feelings by using the wrong pronoun. Maybe Trump will make all of that better. Or maybe he'll just infuriate liberals, which is the next best thing.
Or, as Jane Coaston put it in a recent op-ed for BuzzFeed, "The policy conversations and conflicts and basic premises that once governed conservatism—or at least appeared to—have been largely replaced by a set of principles built on the rock-solid foundation of irritating liberals." GOP policies can do much more than merely annoy liberals—ask any trans soldier—but knee-jerk reactions against social progress is what defines conservatism today. Maybe in the past conservatives used the Bible or some nod to tradition to defend their views. But in the age of Trump, they can skip a few steps and go right to hating whatever liberals say.
In a column on Townhall headlined "We Must Elect Senator Kid Rock," conservative Kurt Schlichter wrote, "We're past voting for the ideology. Now we're ready to vote for the id." These two sentences, quoted by Coaston, better explain the rise of Trump, and the reasoning behind the majority of his political decisions, better than almost anything you'll read. Trump has succeeded by playing into broad cultural fears, never mind that his policies are hurting people, like trans folks in the military or undocumented immigrants, who don't have the power to defend themselves.
This rhetoric seeps into everything, even what should be serious policy debates. The GOP, it has become apparent, doesn't know what it wants to replace the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, with. But that doesn't matter when everything is about whose side you're on.
Here's how a recent White House newsletter put it: "Obamacare has wreaked havoc on the lives of innocent, hard-working Americans. The question for every Senator, Republican or Democrat, is whether they will side with Obamacare's architects or with its forgotten victims." Obama(care) is the villain. Repeal and replace is heroic. You are the forgotten victim. Who's side are you on?
The bills that Senate Republicans are considering right now would actually cause premiums to rise for most people, and those who got Medicaid thanks to the ACA could see that insurance taken away. The problems of the ACA—not enough people receiving affordable care—will only be made worse. That hasn't stopped the GOP, which seems less and less in control of the rage its used to win elections. The GOP can't manage to build anything, but they sure know how to destroy. The only question is, how far can they go down this road? And will they annihilate themselves in the process?
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