In the early years of the Donald Trump administration, a writer for The Atlantic magazine coined the phrase “the cruelty is the point” to describe the organized Right’s vicious and callous treatment of immigrants, racial minorities, and queer people. The phrase has since been adopted by liberal cultural critics and even the Democratic Party’s electoral committee for state elections to describe conservatives’ fixation on trans people.
Joanna Wuest is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College.
This article first appeared in LuXemburg.
No doubt, cruelty is on full display in state governments controlled by the Republican Party and in the broadcasts of right-wing media figures who warn parents against schoolteachers who would “trans” their children. It is clear that trans people are being subject to a kind of “social death” through policies that outlaw gender-affirming healthcare, restrict the use of public restrooms, and criminalize “drag” — that is, granting street cops the authority to decide whether a gender-nonconforming person may appear in public at all under the thin guise of protecting minors from sexually “lewd” adult entertainment.
Such displays of cruelty are especially breath-taking given the massive gains that trans civil rights advocates have made. Indeed, 30 states protect against gender identity discrimination. In 2020, a surprising ruling by the Supreme Court interpreted federal employment law protecting against sex discrimination to encompass gender identity and sexual orientation (notably, dozens of US-based multinational corporations advocated for this very judicial outcome). Although opponents of trans rights have long pursued their own discriminatory policies, it was not until 2021 that these rights restrictions gained momentum at the state-level.
The shock and horror of this rapid backsliding aside, we might benefit from focusing less on the cruelty itself and more on its political function and utility. That is not to say that an organized political Left can or should neglect the targets of such barbarism, not least because such attacks (which might be dismissed as “social” or “cultural” issues) disproportionately burden working and poor trans people who cannot so easily flee adverse conditions.
However, there is a point — and an obvious one at that — to the ongoing demonization of trans identity, one that requires a full view of the organized Right’s goals, tactics, and coalition-building to see. From a political economic vantage, we might assess how and why trans people have become such a useful scapegoat — an object of blame and scorn — in what are ultimately efforts to insulate business interests from public accountability and to dismantle democracy’s ability to redistribute wealth to the many from the few.
Unlike past essays for the Law and Political Economy Project and Boston Review in which I delineated the various economic incentives that drive capitalists into a mix of pro and anti-trans political projects (my next book tackles this subject further), this essay focuses mainly on those forces which consistently find trans scapegoating useful — even lucrative. The right-wing power bloc here has deep roots in fossil fuels, “dirty” manufacturing, large-scale family firms, and the usual array of financial and real estate interests and draws significant electoral support from small business owners and disaffected conservative Christian voters.
Although my perspective is somewhat parochial, many of the coalitional dynamics and authoritarian aims are far from unique to the US. To the contrary, these appear to be an international phenomenon. Similar reactionary movements against gender-nonconforming people from Europe to South America to Africa (where US-based groups have been active for decades) dot the global landscape.
The fight in Germany over gender recognition legal reforms has also brought together a similar coalition of far-right politicians, trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), and religious parties and institutions. Accordingly, it is absolutely crucial to begin with asking questions about who benefits from the present assault on trans lives.
Business, Social Conservativism, and the Meaning of Gender Equality
In the US, associations of capitalists have long struggled to sell their opposition to wealth redistribution through appeals to conservative social norms.
In the wake of the Great Depression from 1929–1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal completely transformed American government and society, creating some of today’s most powerful sources of social welfare, labour protections, and regulations on business. Unsurprisingly, wealthy elites in banking and manufacturing were so distraught over the New Deal that they created organizations like the American Liberty League, which lobbied and litigated against the new regulations and even plotted a coup to replace FDR with a fascist military dictator.
Given the unpopularity of an overt pro-capitalist ideology in a time of hunger and instability, these industrialists courted religious leaders like megachurch evangelist Billy Graham who could tie libertarian economic ideas to Christian values. In this sense, they could frame the New Deal as an affront to the religious liberty and social mores of the American people.
Despite some initial success, it would not be until the 1970s that industry leaders made much more significant headway in uniting with religious traditionalists in what would become known as the Religious Right. It was during that period that the Catholic political strategist Paul Weyrich and others like him formed a coalition that would bloom with the Reagan Revolution of 1980 and strengthen therein after.
With funding from those like Joseph Coors of Coors Brewing Company and the Scaife family’s aluminium fortune, Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation in 1973. Since then, Heritage and its peer groups have fought against marriage equality and trans civil rights while also championing “free market” economic policies. Other organizations like the National Council for Policy, which has been associated with the 6 January insurrection, were also founded with big business donor money. Still others like the Concerned Women for America gave conservative religious women a group of their own to pursue anti-queer and anti-government causes.
While LGBTQ+ rights are anathema to the modern conservative coalition not least because of its religious traditionalist pillar of support, it is crucial to observe how fundamentally improvised some of these policy moves have been.
Overall, the Religious Right’s purported strategy was to siphon off socially conservative blue-collar Democratic Party voters who were upset both by their stagnating wages — the 1970s were the first decade after the New Deal that Americans ended up poorer than they began — and the cultural fallout of racial desegregation and the Sexual Revolution. In combining social conservativism with an attack on government and labour, Weyrich trained those like televangelist and leader of the Moral Majority Jerry Falwell to spurn federal workplace safety regulations at least as much as he denounced “homosexual sodomy’s” threat to the American family.
This coalition also spurred a movement for “parental rights” and a federal “Family Protection Act” in the 1980s, which fomented sex panics over “groomer” gay and lesbian schoolteachers and sex education curriculums to undermine support for public education. Gradually, the alliance of certain corporate and religious traditionalist interests became the foundation of the Republican Party and the network of interest groups and donors that orbits it.
In this sense, today’s anti-trans policies downstream from this earlier period of coalition formation. Many of the state lawmakers and “concerned parents” groups that push anti-trans legislation today are funded by industry leaders and their “dark money” donations. These include billionaire family-held businesses and foundations led by Charles Koch, Betsy DeVos, and Lynde and Harry Bradley and deregulatory corporate groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council which work at the state-level.
The Kochs and others even fund religious legal organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the two of which now appear almost annually before the Supreme Court in litigation against LGBTQ+ adoption rights and reproductive healthcare access. Although attorneys at Becket claim to represent all religious minorities — from Sikh inmates seeking to grow beards despite prison policies to Seventh Day Adventists who lose unemployment insurance for refusing to work on their Saturday Sabbath — the trail of donor money and Becket’s most impactful litigation on behalf of Christian conservatives tells a different story.
These industry donors also fund TERF groups that lend the façade of gender equality to their politics. For several years now, it has become routine to see so-called radical feminists like those affiliated with the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) on Fox News and in the campaign materials of conservative foundations. In some ways, WoLF is more of a front group than a genuine coalitional partner of the organized Right. In 2016, the TERF group was awarded a 15,000-dollar grant from the ADF, a sizable contribution to its annual budget of 50,000 US dollars. Compare that to WoLF’s frequent collaborators like the Family Policy Alliance, the Heritage Foundation, and ADF, which together operate with over 100 million dollars annually.
Others like the Hands Across the Aisle Coalition (HATAC), which has held several panel discussions with the Heritage Foundation, feature members of WoLF and the Family Policy Alliance. HATAC has also submitted legal briefs to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development opposing trans women’s access to publicly funded shelters and other sex-segregated facilities. Here, HATAC’s coalition partners here have included Concerned Women of America and anti-Equal Rights Amendment leader Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum.
There is an additional bit of history here that explain these supposedly “unlikely allies”. The present-day conservative-TERF alliance appears far less anomalous when situated in the longer history of women’s rights and social conservative collaborations.
Since the 1970s, activists from both camps have agitated for victims’ rights legislation that has resulted in increased sentences for violent offenders and restrictions on the production and distribution of pornography. Aligned against liberal notions of gender equality, the real threat of male abusers, and the spectre of “predatory” trans women, these forces have advanced their joint projects with the rhetoric of safety, privacy, and dignity. This is all, of course, a clever move by conservative strategists to claim gender pluralism and equality as their own.
Scapegoating Teachers and Trans Kids, Destroying Education and Labour
A quick look at campaigns for trans athletics restrictions, “Don’t Say Gay” laws, and bans on “critical race theory” demonstrates just how much dark money buttresses these protests and what their ultimate aims might be.
Across dozens of Republican Party-controlled state governments, corporate-funded parents’ groups have protested both education curriculums and public-school policies regarding recognition of adolescent gender identities (e.g., the names and pronouns by which a student wishes to be identified). WoLF, for instance, is heavily involved in keeping trans athletes about of sex-segregated sports as well as preventing children and adolescents from receiving gender-affirming support.
Another group, Parents Defending Education (PDE), advances this program by suing school boards and superintendents for allegedly discriminating against white students while coaxing students into queer and trans identities. Although PDE masquerades as a grassroots organization, it is currently led by Nicole Neily, a former president of the Koch network group, Speech First, and Aimee Viana, a former Trump administration appointee. Others like Moms for Liberty and similar book banning groups have ties to billionaire donors and industry leaders.
Occasionally, spokespersons for these industry-backed parents’ groups reveal their end goal for public education and the unionized public sector workforce. When a Moms for Liberty leader was asked by CNN about who coordinates what she sees as a “gender ideology” conspiracy against children, her first answer was “teachers’ unions”.
This sounds an awful lot like critical race theory ban mastermind, Christopher Rufo, who works for the Manhattan Institute, a think tank funded by major corporations and right-wing donors. Rufo has admitted that his aim is to provoke “universal public school distrust.”
The conservative opposition to sexual and gender minority healthcare is a front to dismantle the federal bureaucracy’s career civil service workforce and replace those personnel with political operators.
Such rhetoric is a useful instrument for destroying teachers’ unions and looting education funds through privatization schemes.
Among those leading the charge are conservative non-profits with dark money connections like the DeVos Family Foundation, which extolls the benefits of the “choice” that attend school privatization. Another natural ally of so-called “grassroots” parents’ groups are foundations like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which promote “school choice” privatization initiatives with oil and coal money from the Kochs, Peabody Energy, Exxon Mobil and Chevron. Ultimately, the beneficiaries of this upward wealth transfer are large educational industry giants, vast networks of private (mostly) Christian schools, and conservative politicians. These powerful interest groups have a shared interest in breaking teachers’ unions, lowering wages and work protections for public employees (which helps to lower the expectations of non-union and non-public workers), and razing oversight at all levels, from local school boards to the Department of Education.
This politics of scapegoating can also explain Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s ongoing crusade against LGBTQ+ rights. DeSantis and many others who have pushed laws that would deny gender-affirming healthcare for minors share a deeper desire to raid state coffers and to destroy labour unions along the way.
DeSantis has signed a so-called “paycheck protection” law that would impose a costly bureaucratic nightmare on Florida unions by ending the longstanding practice of deducting union dues from members’ payroll. Of course, the law threatens the longevity of teachers’ and healthcare workers’ unions while exempting police and firefighter ones. By demonizing teachers as parasitic — that is, a threat to both their own members’ pocketbooks as well as pernicious child “groomers” who impose a radical “gender ideology” on the youth in their care — DeSantis and many other Republican governors have set their sights on crushing the opponents of their corporate plundering once and for all.
While LGBTQ+ rights are anathema to the modern conservative coalition not least because of its religious traditionalist pillar of support, it is crucial to observe how fundamentally improvised some of these policy moves have been.
After all, it has been less than three years since the Republican Party settled on trans youth as the centrepiece of their state legislative agenda. For instance, governors in solidly red states like Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Eric Holcomb of Indiana were relatively slow to board the anti-trans train not least because some segments of capital were vocally opposed. White-collar offices for companies like Apple, Google, and Nike, for instance, have frequently touted the economic merits of a diverse workforce. In rare occasions, they have even boycotted states that implemented anti-trans policies.
In the face of this threat from capital, Holcomb vetoed a trans sports bill in 2022 while Noem spent 2020 and 2021 perseverating over whether she could afford a business backlash. Holcomb himself had his own brush with such boycotts.
Holcomb was initially appointed lieutenant governor in 2016 following a leadership shakeup precipitated by an earlier economic boycott over then-governor Mike Pence’s discriminatory religious liberty legislation. In the past year, however, a barrage of conservative legislation across dozens of states has insulated governors from the threat of boycott — after all, where is all that capital to go, especially given that discriminatory legislation is correlated with worse labour protections? No longer under threatened, Holcomb and Noem have abandoned their tepid stances, signing bans on gender-affirming healthcare for youth while allowing money to flow increasingly into privatization education.
The lesson here is that the target of scapegoating is less predetermined than is the underlying objective: the destruction of social welfare as we know it.
Corporate Anti-Science Politics and Trans Healthcare
Laws and policies that restrict gender-affirming healthcare play into this corporate-religious coalition’s efforts to undermine faith in scientific expertise and the role that it should play in public policy.
Taking inspiration from tobacco and oil industry campaigns against cancer research and climate change, conservative policymakers and attorneys have argued that clinicians and biologists are not as certain as they seem about the nature of LGBTQ+ identities or the proper healthcare regimen for gender-nonconforming youth. It is that uncertainty, they assert, that should prevent the regulation of pollutants and prevent queer people from accessing life-saving medical treatments.
Over the past several years, conservative state lawmakers and litigators have erroneously framed trans adolescents’ access to puberty suppression medications and hormone replacement therapies as either unsafe or dangerously untested. As of May 2023, 17 states have enacted either laws that restrict or outright ban gender-affirming healthcare for minors.
A series of recent email leaks have shown that the ADF has worked behind the scenes with fringe medical associations to pass and defend these bans through appeals to flawed scientific research. Among the most notorious of these studies was conducted by medical researcher Lisa Littman, whose much maligned 2018 study invented the term “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) to erroneously suggest a social contagion cause for increasing rates of adolescent transgender identification.
Although Littman was forced to retract most of her article’s claims after it was revealed that she had only interviewed parents of trans children through “gender critical” and TERF-adjacent website forums, the ROGD concept has spread rapidly throughout conservative litigation and media outlets. Wall Street Journal writer Abigail Shrier made it the centrepiece of her 2020 bestseller, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, which provided the basis of her recent congressional testimony against a federal trans civil rights law.
This still all begs the question of how these attacks on gender-affirming healthcare — and concurrent restrictions on reproductive healthcare — further capital’s interests. At its core, this program is about limiting the role of nonpartisan expertise in the government’s regulatory decision-making and curtailing the federal bureaucracy’s ability to regulate everything from healthcare to the environment.
In one recent case making its way through the federal courts, a conservative coalition comprised of prominent anti-labour lawyers, former Trump administration officials, and religious healthcare providers are seeking to restrain the federal government’s ability to regulate healthcare in total. Braidwood Management v. Becerra features a challenge to Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) regulations concerning health insurance plans provided by employers. Basically, this regulation requires that such insurance plans cover certain preventative medical services and medications including certain contraceptives, sexually transmitted disease screenings, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs that prevent the contraction of HIV.
While the rights of vulnerable minorities cannot be overlooked, the more fundamental task at hand is to defend and strengthen labour union power and public goods including healthcare and education.
The conservative lawyers have argued that Christian healthcare providers and business owners who manage healthcare plans object to covering contraceptives as well as PrEP medication which they believe “encourages a homosexual lifestyle”. Rather than simply seeking a religious exemption to these policies, the lawyers have asserted that the HHS agencies involved in formulating the policies must be radically restructured.
While the specific legal manoeuvres here are complex — they involve an interpretation of the US Constitution that concerns the presidential appointments of officers who run bureaucratic agencies — its consequences are easy to see.
Essentially, the conservative opposition to sexual and gender minority healthcare here is a front to dismantle the federal bureaucracy’s career civil service workforce (many of whom are scientific experts and unionized workers) and replace those personnel with political operators. The broader legal strategy for replacing civil servants with political appointees has been laid out in a law review article by former Trump Department of Justice attorney and now George Mason law professor Jennifer Mascott, which has been cited favourably by both the Supreme Court in recent years.
As for the personnel themselves, dozens of right-wing organizations — including the Heritage Foundation — have prepared a sophisticated plan for the federal bureaucracy for the next Republican president. In doing so, these groups seek to avoid Trump’s failed last-minute rule and personnel changes and his broader struggle to effectively wield an intransigent bureaucracy.
Put simply, what appears to be a culture war on minority healthcare is in fact an industry-funded fusillade on public control of regulatory institutions and the government more generally. Industry donors and leaders are presently shrinking government capacity to provide social welfare while reducing the scope of who is included in the demos that is served.
Addressing the Fundamentals
In thinking through what is to be done from the vantage of an organized Left, it is instructive to note first what might not be useful.
The foregoing focus on history and political economy illustrates how wrongheaded it is to blame the supposed swiftness of changing gender norms. This is useful given that liberal intellectuals and the New York Times’s editorial leadership have distanced themselves from the more blatant reactionaries in red state regimes while openly wondering whether the speed of trans visibility, healthcare access, and civil rights might have played a role in inviting “backlash”.
The fact that public opinion has changed relatively quickly in favour of trans people should also help to dispel this notion. While a few recent measures suggest some lost ground, it seems more likely that the barrage of highly orchestrated conservative campaigns — along with the willingness of some establishment media outlets — have moved the needle slightly against trans rights. The myopic look to the public attitudes and trans people themselves for an answer leaves unaddressed why so much political effort is expended demonizing such a small group.
While the rights of vulnerable minorities cannot be overlooked, the more fundamental task at hand is to defend and strengthen labour union power and public goods including healthcare and education (with anti-discrimination principles and protections included). That means embracing an ethos of solidarity more generally and avoiding the temptation to engage in debates about whose suffering is most worthy of a Left’s attention.
After all, recent history suggests that the Right is experimenting with racial, sexual, and gender scapegoating tropes and will use whatever furthers their agenda of upward wealth redistribution. While trans people are the victims today, we cannot lose sight that such assaults stem from a billionaire-led operation against the rest of us.