By Brett Yates
On July 21, from the stage at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel proclaimed before a crowd of fellow Donald Trump supporters that he is “proud to be gay”—an unprecedented event at a Republican National Convention. Later that night, Trump himself vowed to protect “our LGBTQ community,” a resolution that his audience met with hearty applause.
All in all, the evening struck many observers as a turning point—or the beginning of a turning point—for the Republicans, who’ve long fought against gay rights and continue to do so. But how do Thiel and Trump reconcile their respective levels of support for gay Americans with the platform of their party? A closer look at the language of the relevant sections of Thiel’s and Trump’s speeches may be useful.
Remembering America’s (supposedly) better days, Peter Thiel reminisced, “When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?”
He continued: “Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American. I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform, but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.”
On the surface this is mostly reasonable (until the final three words, anyway), but it’s worth noting that Thiel’s reference to his identity as a gay man is carefully contained within a firm rejection of identity politics. In his speech, Thiel’s voice rose with each successive identification, with each identification less particular: “most of all,” he is an American, just like the rest of us—our interests are all the same.
Thiel condemns recent discriminatory legislation against transgendered people, but he deliberately avoids laying the blame for this horror upon anyone in particular. He mocks the “fake culture wars” that have led the Republican Party astray—and indeed they are fake, but Thiel fails to note that the fakeness exists only on one end: the pandering conservative lawmakers who lead the regressive charge know as well as Thiel does that the problems of our country have nothing to do with bathrooms—the fight is a ruse to win over evangelical voters—but for the people on the other side of the battle, who lose not only their rights but their safety and peace of mind as a consequence of the transphobic and homophobic hysteria fomented by these politicians, the culture wars are extremely real.
Thiel acknowledges that he “doesn’t agree with every plank in our party’s platform;” however, the word that follows this phrase, linking it to the next, in which he mentions his impatience with the “culture wars,” is “but,” not “and”—suggesting that the culpability for the culture wars belongs at least in part to its victims, who, by choosing to engage in combat with the party that seeks to make them second-class citizens, are as guilty as their foes are in ignoring the “real” (economic) issues of our nation.
Like Thiel, we should all be able to see past trivial social issues and (by voting for Trump) come together to work toward the capitalist technocratic utopia he imagines—of course, this may be easier to do as a wealthy gay man in San Francisco than as a transgendered man in North Carolina.
Thiel, who has stated in the past that democracy in the United States was doomed when women were granted the right to vote, says he identifies most of all as an American, yet he once funded a doomed secessionist plan to create a lawless independent island nation based on free-market principles. His primary identity, above all else, is not that of a gay man, a Republican, or an American, but that of billionaire who doesn’t believe in paying taxes.
Meanwhile, Trump’s speech brought up June’s tragic nightclub shooting: “Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist,” Trump said. “This time, the terrorist targeted our LGBTQ community. No good. And we’re going to stop it. As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
Again, the bets are hedged: the paragraph condemning homophobia is allowed to exist within the context of a Donald Trump speech only because it endorses xenophobia as a counterbalance. The Republicans’ zeal for oppressing homosexuals is not quite as powerful as their hatred of foreign enemies, even when the ideology of the enemy is not so different from their own except in the methods of its implementation: the official party platform drafted during the RNC insisted, predictably, that “man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights;” that the Bible should be taught in public schools; that the Supreme Court’s gay marriage legalization must be overturned; that gay couples should not have children; and that we must protect the rights of heterosexual parents who may wish to subject their gay children to conversion therapy and the rights of states to restrict transgendered restroom access.
Don’t worry, though: Trump is going to protect the LGBTQ community from ISIS. They’re the only real threat.