With a few tweets that seemed to serve as “guidance” for the Department of Defense, President Trump appears to have banned transgender people from U.S. military service. We are now well into the “rule by tweeted decree” phase of this phantasmagorical presidency. Over the past few years alone, we’ve seen the digitized course of our political life casually trash the foolish conventional wisdom holding that “the internet isn’t real life” at least a thousand times over. But this is a mocking coup de grace, even from a man whose stock and trade is the beclowning of democracy.
We are now debating, in real time, whether three tweets constitute policy. It looks like they do; heaven help us.
This was not the first attack on trans people by Donald Trump, of course. He and his “beleaguered” attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have been noisily undoing the halting progress made on behalf of trans rights under the Obama administration. In February, for instance, they withdrew Obama’s guidance on Title IX, which argued that the gender equity law protected transgender kids’ rights and access to equal accommodation.
But this latest move is especially invidious, even if its policy implications are extraordinarily murky for now. Whether we like it or not (and I certainly do not), ours is a militaristic nation that has elevated its armed forces to a Valhalla of worshipfulness. To borrow the satirical Starship Troopers slogan, “Service guarantees citizenship!” Who’s allowed to serve is a fair marker of who is and is not considered an equal citizen in the eyes of the U.S. government. For good, and for so much ill, the military is America’s idealized vision of itself. To pointedly exclude a class of people from it, or permit them to serve unequally within it, as our segregated armed forces did for decades, is to put a clear message up in lights for all the nation to see: “these people are undesirable.”
We can oppose Trump’s order and everything it sets out to do without valorizing the military’s bombs and bombast.
This is entirely agnostic to the otherwise important criticisms to be made of the military and its role in the American imperial project. It is certainly true that acceptance in the armed services is not a royal road to equality. But it does close off one powerful argument for bigots, which isn’t nothing. In a country where military symbolism is paramount, acceptance in the armed services sends a clear message. It’s simply a fact of American life that much of our culture lies downstream from our military.
Speaking as a trans woman, I will say it’s a bit grating to suddenly see all of these political leaders—including Republicans!—stand up and say, on this issue, “transgender people are people,” (a phrase that ranks rather high on the list of “Things I Never Thought I’d Hear From Orrin Hatch’s Mouth”). The issues facing us are legion and urgent; each passing year heaves with the deaths of dozens of transgender women of color, murdered in cold blood. Trans people of color and trans sex workers are over-incarcerated, over-policed, and denied every conceivable opportunity; yet this daily background radiation of terror and manifest injustice did not merit the full throated outcry we see today.
Still, belated outcries are very much preferable to the alternative, and it’s at least somewhat reassuring that so many people in power recognize that there’s a cruel caprice to Trump’s senseless decree. That should be the response across the political spectrum.
On the left, we’ve been living a life of murderous political triage for the last several months, having to set aside one lofty cause or argument to address the many things on fire right now. It’s much the same here. As distasteful as it will be to argue for military inclusion, the cost for not doing so is to legitimize a clear attempt to paint a target on all trans people’s backs.
This Trump order, after all, will further poison a climate that is already choking so many of us, regardless of whether we happen to be in uniform; Trump’s words portray us as a disordered burden, a stereotype that directly impacts every aspect of our lives—employment, healthcare access, equal protection under the law. Sitting back and clicking your teeth about “homonationalism” won’t end the American empire; it will, rather, only allow a bigoted president to sell out a vulnerable minority group without meaningful opposition. Leftist and anti-imperialist voices should not cede the field of opposition to militaristic centrists; we can oppose Trump’s order and everything it sets out to do without valorizing the military’s bombs and bombast.
In the same vein, we should resist the zero-sum logic of the “distraction” meme—a zombie idea that keeps lurching out of the many shallow graves dug for it by a host of marginalized people. From right to left, many arguing that Trump’s tweets about trans people in the military are a mere “distraction” from any number of things: the Russia investigation; the ongoing, murderous healthcare debate; or, apparently, from Trump’s secret plan to get trans people into the military according to Julian Assange:
Trump's "trans out of the military" is an obvious political distraction attack. "liberals" leap on the bait and do exactly what Trump wants.
— Defend Assange Campaign (@DefendAssange) July 26, 2017
Oh, to have the luxury of believing this sort of rectal-gazing nonsense!
As ever, Chelsea Manning shows us how to thread the needle; both critiquing military excess (like the F-35 boondoggle) and standing up for trans service people.
— Chelsea E. Manning (@xychelsea) July 26, 2017
All the “distraction” skylarking on behalf of Trump’s antagonists and defenders alike serves in this context to ignore or downplay all of the terrible ripple effects that this proposed ban will have. One can, and indeed must, argue this critical point without being cast as an indiscriminate apologist for American atrocities.
But there’s also a larger thing to note about the “distraction” argument: It almost always comes up around Trump’s direct attacks on the vulnerable. When the Muslim ban made its ugly appearance in the first weeks of the Trump administration, the savvy observers clamored to declare it a “distraction.” These, mind you, were some of the very liberals Assange claims to be nothing like. Trump’s attack on the non-white cast of Hamilton likewise was waved away as a distraction—a claim hard to square alongside the vicious and exterminationist anti-immigrant rhetoric he unleashed in Ohio this week. So were his tweeted attacks on people like union leaders, which directly sparked a wave of threats and abuse from Trump’s troll army.
What is actually happening, regardless of Trump’s own intentions or highly limited ability to plan, is the DDoSing of democracy.
All of which is to say that these provocations and bigoted outbursts are not distractions. They are, instead the content of Trump’s beliefs and praxis.
The man lacks subtlety and likely the capacity to think about creating opportunistic distractions via his Twitter-outrage. What he says and does obeys no logic or master plan—but these words and actions do have dire material impacts on the lives of ordinary people, most of whom happen to be non-white, or immigrants, or queer and trans.
But to deny a brilliant rhetorical strategy here doesn’t rule out the use of Trump’s multifront attacks on vulnerable citizens as a crucial tactic. What is actually happening, regardless of Trump’s own intentions or highly limited ability to plan, is the DDoSing of democracy. The idea is to simply barrage opposition forces with so many urgent issues to fight that they are overwhelmed. This tactic also directly abets the normalization of Trump’s extremist, trollish governance. Trump lacks the savvy to do any of this intentionally—but it’s nonetheless the net effect of his narcissistic, hateful, self-indulgent rule. Any trace of a method here—or lingering suggestion that his heinous advisors are calling the shots—stems from the obvious political utility of Trump-sanctioned hate: as rallying cries to his base to target the most vulnerable. We become, in this construction of authoritarian rule, the thin end of a wedge that people like Steve Bannon hope to drive right into the heart of the principles of equality underlying the democratic ideal. This can be done through policy, of course—but in our age of crowdsourcing and networked movements, it’s far easier to incite people to act extrajudicially. Trump’s Muslim Ban worked less as a legal document and more as blanket permission to CBP officials to indulge their implicit biases; same with his guidance to ICE on immigration enforcement. Why wait on a law when you can just dogwhistle to your most violent supporters who’ll do the work for you while matters grind on through the courts?
This is what’s happening here, in all likelihood: Trump is making us an “issue” for the MAGA crowd. In targeting us, we’ve become the red meat he’s throwing to his base.
On top of it all, now he may be able to rule by tweet.[*] Don’t say trans people didn’t warn you.
[*] Update: Since the time of writing the DoD has stated that it won’t implement a ban on the basis of the tweets.