On Thursday, when Donald Trump, in his GOP nomination acceptance speech, said that he would “protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” it wasn’t particularly surprising that he would make such an appeal. Yes, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence has a particularly distinguished history of attacking LGBTQ people. Yes, the party passed, with this convention, a brutally anti-LGBTQ platform. Yes, Trump, while claiming to protect LGBTQ people, has made targeting Latino and Muslim members of that same community a keystone of his campaign. And yes, the modern GOP has made attacking LGBTQ people one of its signature issues.
But the GOP’s attempted romance of the working class through the last several decades shows us that the party is perfectly fine with claiming support for a group while openly attacking it.
As has been detailed by the likes of Rick Perlstein and Jefferson Cowie, among others, the modern GOP largely came into its own by harnessing cultural resentments of white working class voters against what Nixon, Reagan, and friends derided as decadent elites and forces of lawlessness and societal disorder (in other words, people of color and LGBTQ people).
As Cowie details throughout Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, Nixon took steps to win the support of AFL-CIO President George Meany and won over the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, Peter J. Brennan.
Why did Nixon do this? How? By the late 1960s, signs indicated that white working-class voters were upset with political change in the United States. Brennan and Robert Moses, who oversaw many of the biggest construction projects in New York, bonded over their shared racism. The anti-war movement also visibly frustrated some among the white working class. Meany and Brennan outspokenly supported the U.S. war in Vietnam. In May 1970, building and construction trades workers attacked anti-war demonstrators in New York City in what became known as the Hard Hat Riot.
Given Nixon’s animosity toward the civil rights and anti-war movements, he looked to Meany and Brennan—and others among the white working class—as potential allies. The relationship between Nixon and Meany soured, but Brennan became his secretary of labor.
Nixon was the candidate of big business, though. He temporarily suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, a law that traditionally pushed (and still frequently pushes) upward pressure on construction wages for federal contracts. He also placed pro-business Justices William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell on the Supreme Court, the latter of whom, right before he joined the court, wrote a landmark memo outlining how corporate America should retake the offensive against forces—including organized labor—that Powell believed threatened free enterprise.
Nixon proved a new political reality, though: The GOP could speak to cultural animosities that attracted some in the working class while still working against the working class’s actual economic interest. Following that pattern, Reagan continued the GOP effort to garner blue-collar white votes. In the 1984 campaign, the New York Times reported on Reagan’s re-election strategy:
The Reagan campaign has been buoyed by a new poll by its Presidential poll taker, Richard Wirthlin, showing Mr. Reagan with a lead of 14 percentage points over Mr. Mondale among blue-collar workers, a category that is heavily unionized and predominantly Democratic.
The President’s campaign aides say their principal strategy in holding that lead will be to bypass union leaders, most of whom are solidly in the Mondale camp, and appeal directly to rank- and-file workers, stressing three poll- tested themes: economic recovery, the rebuilding of American military strength and “family” values.
In his first term, Reagan fired thousands of unionized air traffic controllers, leading a major counterattack against organized labor. Throughout his presidency, Reagan appointed members of the National Labor Relations Board—the federal body that resolves disputes between labor and management—who were decidedly pro-business, and the board repeatedly decided against unions. The habit of mixing anti-union policy with white-working-class appeal continued with the Bushes. I would expect it to continue in a Trump presidency.
Returning to LGBTQ people and the GOP, there’s a similar dynamic between what Nixon and Reagan attempted (and achieved) with the white working class and what Trump may be attempting with the LGBTQ community. The working class is, and was, a multiracial entity. Nixon and Reagan explicitly played to the resentments and fears of the white working class. Trump claims to support LGBTQ people, but openly attacks Muslims and Latinos. He is attempting to play to the resentments and fears of the white LGBT community (if we take the Q in LGBTQ to mean queer, and thus defiantly against oppression, Q definitionally can’t fit into Trump’s vision). Just as Nixon and Reagan and their GOP heirs sought white support from the working class who could serve the ends of GOP policy, Trump has his Peter Thiel and Caitlyn Jenner, who serve as the white LGBT support for Trump’s racist ends.
The Log Cabin Republicans, the traditional standard-bearers of the LGBT right, have been arguing for decades now that one’s sexual orientation and gender identity doesn’t prescribe party affiliation. (And golly were they excited about Trump’s shout-out.) An LGBT person could, in the Log Cabin formulation, still support the rollback of the social safety net and attendant demonization of people on welfare, torture (let’s not forget Dick Cheney’s LGBT-friendly attitude), and other GOP policies. Lisa Duggan’s 2004 book, The Twilight of Equality?, is but one example of writers taking the Log Cabin Republicans and their ilk to task for this kind of politics. The new development is that the GOP presidential candidate is taking members of the LGBT right up on their plea to be openly acknowledged as members of the GOP coalition.
Given the wealth of people like Thiel, there’s some campaign cash to be wrung from LGBT right-wingers. There are some—probably not many—votes to be cast. Let’s also note how quickly the GOP, despite their once-hardened free-trader internationalist positions, fell in line behind a mercantilist isolationist. Couldn’t similarly once-hardline anti-LGBTQ Republicans throw their feelings aside and enable the party to follow Trump’s entreaties to the LGBT right?
Since it’s pretty clear to me that the answer to that last question is “yes,” it doesn’t seem at all weird that Trump, despite all the anti-LGBTQ fervor from the GOP, said what he said last Thursday. The GOP has already test-driven a method for dividing a segment of white support from a much larger, more complex, more diverse group, while still publicly opposing the wellbeing of those it wants to attract. Why wouldn’t Trump look at the example of what Nixon, Reagan, and Bush did with the white working class and try a new variation with right-leaning elements of the LGBT community?
Author’s note: While I have previously written from the perspective of organizations I am or was affiliated with, this piece represents my personal opinion and not those of organizations I am or was affiliated with.