The Trump White House has a new enemy.
Not the Russians who interfered in the 2016 election, not the North Koreans who threaten peace and stability in Asia, but transgender people serving in the military.
Although exact figures do not exist, it is estimated that there are around 15,000 transgender people in the US military, making it the largest single employer of such individuals.
While transgender rights directly affect only 0.6 per cent of Americans, the issue of how to treat people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth has become a key battleground in the so-called “culture war”, a rallying cry for conservatives and progressives alike and a focal point of the discrimination debate.
But whatever your personal views, there is something deeply contemptible about Trump, who infamously dodged the draft, denigrating thousands of tremendously brave individuals who risk their lives for their country.
Various national armed services immediately responded. Israel’s former Defense Forces commander said it was “something to be proud of” that “we don’t waste time on questions like this”. Canada’s military announced “we welcome Canadians of all sexual orientations and gender identities”.
And British commanders rushed to lend their support, in particular vice admiral Jonathan Woodcock, who tweeted: “so proud of our transgender personnel. They bring diversity to our Royal Navy and I will always support their desire to serve their country”.
The fact that transgender individuals are good enough for America’s closest allies refutes Trump’s assertion that the US armed forces “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender [sic] in the military would entail”. So do the reports that the Pentagon was caught completely off-guard by the policy turnaround, and did not call for it.
Chaos and gridlock
This proclamation is, like so many of Trump’s most provocative tweets, a distraction from the critical issues facing his administration.
On Monday, the IMF downgraded its growth forecast for the US economy, on the basis of Trump’s failure six months into his presidency to make progress on any of his promised economic policies – from infrastructure spending to tax cuts to regulation reforms.
Far from working with Congress to put his plans into action, Trump has spent 41 out of the 189 days of his presidency on the golf course (nearly 22 per cent) and held six campaign-style rallies, the most recent of which (to the Boy Scouts of America) was especially farcical.
Meanwhile, the US healthcare system hangs perilously in the balance, after several knife-edge votes in the Senate this week on a bill to start repealing Obamacare without any replacement lined up. Some of the proposed plans have not been properly costed, while the latest is estimated to increase the number of uninsured Americans by 16m.
There’s also a stalled bill on upholding current sanctions on Russia, which has become yet another congressional battlefield and reopened questions about the Republicans’ dismal handling of the cyber security threats from Moscow.
And that’s without mentioning the ongoing investigations into secret meetings held between key Russian officials and members of Trump’s own campaign and family.
Time for a new scapegoat
It is against this backdrop of gridlock, scandal and failure that Trump once more took to Twitter.
Although sudden, this announcement is anything but unexpected. Trump himself may have declared “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs” while on the campaign trail, but his vice president has been waging this particular crusade for years. Mike Pence has said gay couples are a sign of “societal collapse”, tried to legalise anti-LGBT discrimination in Indiana while governor, and once advocated diverting HIV funding to debunked and damaging “conversion therapy” programmes.
Moreover, the attack on transgender Americans who have done nothing but attempt to serve their country is reminiscent of Trump’s provocative outbursts on “Muslim bans” and his attempts to penalise travellers for the crime of coming from the wrong country. It fires up his base and temporarily appeases Republicans who are growing steadily more dismayed at the bleak state of his policy agenda.
Scapegoating minorities is a time-honoured tradition for populist leaders and regimes in trouble. Trump won power by demonising Muslims and Mexicans, and is now turning on the LGBT community to cling onto it. The evidence and expert opinion around transgender people in the military doesn’t matter any more than statistics on the likelihood of a traveller from Yemen being a terrorist.
All that matters is distracting attention from an imploding administration that is lurching from crisis to crisis, at the expense of the American economy, stable government, and some of the country’s bravest individuals.