Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Who's Really Winning the Culture War?

As most of the political world continues to watch with fascination and impatience to see if the Senate can desperately pull something together on health care before the end of the week, President Trump unexpectedly diverted attention on Wednesday by suddenly announcing via Twitter that transgender people would be prohibited from serving in the military. Trump's decision seemed to take his own administration by as much surprise as anyone else; the White House was unprepared to supply answers to basic questions about how the new policy would be administered, and the Pentagon—which was apparently worried at first that Trump's tweetstorm might be revealing a hostile military action—tersely referred all inquiries back to the White House.

The impetus for Trump's announcement became clear as the day wore on: congressional conservatives, who had just lost a vote in the House of Representatives to legislatively prohibit service-members from receiving taxpayer-funded medical treatments related to gender identity, had appealed to Trump for support—but Trump instead decided on a much larger service ban without any consultation with Congress.

One might expect Democrats on Capitol Hill to receive the new policy with distaste—and they did—but the more interesting development was the critical response among many Republicans. Even older and socially conservative members of Congress like Orrin Hatch, Richard Shelby, and John McCain released statements that were at the least implicitly critical of Trump's actions.

For those Americans old enough to remember the national controversies that led to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s, it is remarkable that the political climate has shifted so dramatically that even Republican elected officials now seek to distance themselves from the traditional conservative position on LGBT rights. Last fall, an incumbent governor lost re-election in a southern state in part because he had supported an anti-transgender "bathroom bill," and there's every reason to expect that public opinion will continue to move in a liberal direction on this and similar issues.

It is often argued that Trump and his fellow Republicans have ascended to political power on the crest of a mass cultural backlash. While there is some truth to this, it's hard to see how Trump—or any president—would be able to slow, much less reverse, the rapid social change that we have experienced over the past generation. Trump is fond of promising that he will make people "say Merry Christmas again" and in other ways turn the clock back on liberal cultural trends, but as he can't even get his own party in Congress to support him on military personnel policy, such ambitious goals are probably beyond the powers of his office. One of the most disorienting aspects of our current historical moment is the frequent sense that partisan politics and the broader American society are not only out of sync but are actually moving in opposite directions.