For a day, there was a trans ban in the military. Last Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump banned transgender people from military service, apparently making policy on Twitter. By Thursday, the Pentagon had announced that it would not, despite the three dashed-off Tweets from the commander-in-chief, change its policy affecting the approximately 15,000 transgender people serving on active duty in the American armed forces (according to the Williams Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles), and was still awaiting further guidance from the White House. The fate of newly enlisted trans service members is unclear, though if the ban proceeds as the Tweets indicated, the American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to fight it, adding to its considerable list of legal battles with the Trump administration.
To some, including those in the military and Congress, this series of impetuous keystrokes—launched just as the Senate raised the curtain on its still-unfolding Affordable Care Act spectacle—was a distraction. Trump, some said, was breaking out the old culture war playbook. The president knew he could get away with discarding trans people, and that his base would applaud him for it, so he did. That assumes the president had an actual strategic plan behind his early-morning, cable-charged fiat. It also presumes a simple binary that divides the distractible voting public from those people whose bodies are used to do the distracting.
By scapegoating trans people and immigrants, Trump is telling the public who doesn't matter.
The night before launching his trans ban, the president was out in Ohio addressing supporters at a campaign-style rally. It was an opportunity to draw some love from a crowd in exchange for offering up violent fables of American destruction. Without citing any specific incident or names, Trump related a graphic anecdote about the murder of several young people: "They don’t want to use guns, because it's too fast and it's not painful enough. So they'll take a young, beautiful girl—16, 15, and others—and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we've been protecting for so long. Well, they're not being protected anymore, folks."
Trump was gearing up for a visit Friday to Long Island, where a community of recent immigrants from Central America is being targeted by MS-13, a gang with origins in El Salvador and Los Angeles. Such gangs have been a favored foil for the president; he uses them to marshal support for himself and for anti-immigrant enforcement. When Trump wheels out stories like this about protecting the young and the beautiful from "the animals," he's also telling his supporters who they are supposed to identify with, and who they are supposed to fear. As he sees it, the nation itself is just another body about to be cut open, unless the government finds, punishes, and expels the threat.
Here's the cruel reality: Threatening immigrants with surveillance, detention, and deportation is further endangering the gang's targets. "People can get deported, so they don't call the police," Walter Barrientos, Long Island coordinator with the immigrant rights' group Make the Road, told CNN. "So they (MS-13) feel more free. I think it's emboldening them, because this gives them the opportunity to tell immigrants: 'What are you gonna do? Are you going to report us? They're deporting other innocent people ... (so) they're going to associate you with us by you coming forward. So what are you going to do? Who's going to protect you?' And that's what really strikes many of us." When Trump showed up in Long Island Friday, Make the Road activists were there to acquaint him with this real danger.
Trump's play with both the gang speeches and the trans military ban is the same: to boost his own support, to identify who he deems undeserving and then turn them into targets. With the specter of immigrant gangs, he can make all immigrants seem unworthy, and offer unilateral immigration enforcement and bans as the fix. With trans service members, he can blame them for having expensive medical needs (they aren't, but that's not the point) as a way to cast all trans people as suspect.
Meanwhile Trump is feverishly trying to decimate all Americans' access to health care, including transgender Americans. This isn't a distraction, pitting a marginalized "identity" against a "real issue" in order to mislead voters. By scapegoating trans people and immigrants, Trump is telling the public who doesn't matter. That's what all culture wars are really about: the elimination of full citizenship, of full personhood, starting with the most vulnerable and excluded.
As it turned out, the Senate failed to deal a death blow to the ACA last week. That was thanks, in large part, to people who put their own bodies on the line to occupy Congressional offices, to risk getting zip-tied in their wheelchairs and jailed in conditions that jeopardized their own health. Long-standing groups like ADAPT led the way with civil disobedience, making the health-care repeal more impossible by the hour. It was these actions that made it very clear that identities and bodies are inseparable from the "real issues."
And there was this twist. Reportedly, House Republicans told the president they wouldn't get the money for his planned "transparent" border wall if they couldn't find a way to also block funds for service members seeking trans health care. With three Tweets, Trump found a way to weaponize the dignity of trans Americans in service of building a wall with his name on it, to make immigration to the United States more dangerous, even deadly. This was never a distraction. It was the point.