Ken Mehlman wanted to apologize. Speaking with The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder in 2010, the former Republican National Committee chair came out as gay, and acknowledged that, despite being a party leader, he had not worked against the GOP’s strategy of setting up anti-marriage-equality referendums in key states prior to the 2004 election.
“Mehlman said at the time that he could not, as an individual Republican, go against the party consensus,” Ambinder wrote. He added that Mehlman “often wondered why gay voters never formed common cause with Republican opponents of Islamic jihad, which he called ‘the greatest anti-gay force in the world right now.’”
The interview represented a shift in conservative politics, as the Republican Party moved from demonizing one group of Americans to another. The time for blaming the nation’s problems on gay people was over; now was the time to come together as a country and blame our problems on Muslims. For the past 30 years, the GOP has pursued a consistent strategy: Find a misunderstood or marginalized group, convince voters that the members of that group pose an existential threat to society, and then ride to victory on the promise of using state power to crush them.
As president, George W. Bush had courted both Muslims and Latinos as part of his coalition, which somewhat restrained the right’s nativism. But that changed following Barack Obama’s election, after which the Republican Party embraced harsh anti-immigrant and conspiratorial anti-Muslim politics. Republicans today are focused on using the state to discriminate against trans people.
In 2004, gay people were the GOP’s target. Mehlman told Ambinder that Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove had “been working with Republicans to make sure that anti-gay initiatives and referenda would appear on November ballots in 2004 and 2006 to help Republicans.” Rove gloated to The New York Times in November 2004 that “moral values” had carried Bush to reelection. “People do not like the idea or the concept of marriage as being a union between a man and a woman being uprooted and overturned by a few activist judges or a couple of activist local officials,” he told the Times. Rove later denied that he’d had anything to do with that strategy.
In 2010, when Mehlman apologized, Obama was president. Same-sex marriage was not yet supported by most Americans—Obama himself did not support it at the time—but the trajectory was clear. From 2004 to 2010, support for marriage equality increased from 31 to 42 percent. The military’s ban on openly gay service members would be repealed that year. Although the Republican Party would continue to oppose marriage equality, it had become clear that the party had to find a new target, one with fewer political allies.
In fact, it already had. Mehlman’s remark to Ambinder about “Republican opponents of Islamic jihad” was a nod to the political climate of the 2010s. By that time, Republican legislators were embracing the anti-Muslim conspiracy that the imposition of Taliban-style Islamic law in America was imminent. This strategy was consonant with many Republicans’ embrace of the myth that Obama was a secret Muslim who had not been born in the United States and was therefore not eligible to be president—the same myth that first endeared Donald Trump to the Republican base. Although anti-Muslim fervor has hardly subsided, this political strategy peaked in 2011, when dozens of states introduced anti-Sharia laws.
Also during this period, Republicans pursued a series of draconian anti-immigration laws modeled after Arizona’s S.B. 1070, criticized by immigrant advocates as the “show me your papers” law, because it allowed police to stop anyone they suspected of being undocumented, effectively requiring noncitizens—or anyone who might be mistaken for one—to carry proof of status at all times. Such proposals were a clear license for racial profiling. As with the anti-Sharia legislation, Republican elected officials across the country fell all over one another in an effort to display their animosity toward immigrants by passing or proposing similar legislation. The Supreme Court struck down much of the Arizona bill in 2012 on the grounds that it conflicted with federal law, which takes precedence on issues of immigration.
At the time, the Obama administration was cracking down on illegal immigration in an attempt to bring Republicans to the table for a grand bargain on comprehensive immigration reform—but it was more effective politics for both Democrats and Republicans to pretend that Obama was less of a border hawk than he really was.
Again and again, Republicans have targeted groups they believe too small or too powerless to spark a costly political backlash. By attacking them, the GOP seeks to place Democrats in a political bind. If they decline to bow to demagoguery, Democrats risk looking either too culturally avant-garde for the comfort of more conservative voters—whose support they need to remain viable—or too preoccupied with defending the rights of a beleaguered minority to pay attention to bread-and-butter issues that matter to the majority. This strategy has worked in the past—President Bill Clinton, who signed the federal statute outlawing same-sex marriage in 1996, was no Republican. Many people across the political spectrum accept the premise that defending a marginalized group’s civil rights is “identity politics,” while choosing to strip away those rights is not.
In 2004, Republicans pursued a good-cop/bad-cop strategy: Bush sounded notes of tolerance and acceptance in public, while Republican strategists pursued an anti-gay-rights agenda behind the scenes. In 2012, the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, ran to the right of Bush on both immigration and LGBTQ issues in order to prove that he was “severely conservative.” In 2016, the Republican base wanted a nominee who would sound their hatreds with a foghorn rather than a dog whistle. Trump obliged, promising to ban Muslims from coming to the United States and build a wall on the border with Mexico. Trump had previously mocked Romney’s harsh “self-deportation” policy as “maniacal,” but the reality-show star knew what the Republican base wanted in a president when he finally ran.
That brings us to 2021. Republicans lost the fight over marriage equality so decisively that some now pretend not to have vigorously opposed it in the first place—much to the alarm of many religious conservatives, who are their most dedicated supporters. The fight over immigration is locked in a stalemate, because Trump showed national Republicans that embracing nativism is less politically costly than they had supposed. Anti-Muslim animus has hardly disappeared, but it is no longer as useful a tool to oppose the current leader of the Democratic Party, an elderly Irish Catholic man.
Conflicts between civil rights and religious freedom can certainly present thorny legal dilemmas, but most of what I’m describing here involves Republicans consciously choosing not to leave people alone. There was no threat to life or liberty that demanded same-sex-marriage bans, Sharia bans, or draconian state-level immigration laws. They embraced these causes because they believed that picking on these particular groups of people was good politics, because of their supporters’ animus toward them, and because they believed that their targets lacked the votes or political allies to properly fight back.
And so Republicans have conjured a new existential threat, targeting trans people, a tiny segment of the population that is nevertheless the subject of full-blown panic. Earlier forays into anti-trans politics resulted in a backlash, with North Carolina’s infamous 2016 “bathroom bill” being repealed. But Republicans have since redoubled their efforts, with a particular emphasis on “protecting” children, a familiar echo of their opposition to the civil rights of gay Americans.
Republican legislators in Arkansas just passed a ban on gender-affirming medical care for trans youth, overriding the governor’s veto, and Alabama is on the verge of passing a similar ban. Republican legislators in North Carolina have proposed legislation that would go further, forcing state employees to immediately notify parents in writing if a child displays “gender nonconformity,” forcing public workers to act as gender cops. A Texas proposal would label gender-affirming care a form of child abuse and separate trans children from parents who helped them secure it. More such proposals are sure to follow, as Republicans indulge the moral panic about trans identity, hoping to reap the benefits of once again forcing Democrats to defend the civil rights of a small community that lacks the numbers to outvote them.
These laws are egregious violations of personal liberty, inserting the state into decisions best made by families in consultation with medical professionals. That many of the people involved in passing such laws are among those who fought marriage equality is no coincidence. Perhaps they believe that, in picking a fight with children, they’ve chosen a war they can actually win.