In early 2016, when the controversy over North Carolina's transgender bathroom law was dominating the headlines, Donald Trump broke with others in his party, such as Sen. Ted Cruz. He suggested this particular culture war wasn't worth fighting.
“North Carolina did something that was very strong. And they're paying a big price. There's a lot of problems,” Trump said. He added: “Leave it the way it is. North Carolina, what they're going through with all the business that's leaving, all of the strife — and this is on both sides. Leave it the way it is.”
That Trump looks a lot different than the one we saw Wednesday. He announced on Twitter that he would ban transgender people from serving “in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
This is something even the Obama administration wrestled with, and the Pentagon rescinded its ban on transgender service members only about a year ago. But Trump's decision is a bold one for a few reasons: 1) “In any capacity” sounds like an extremely broad ban, and 2) Trump's choice of words — “tremendous medical costs” and “disruption” — are likely to outrage the LGBT community. That's a community that had hoped Trump, whatever his other policies, would be something of an ally, or at least not an adversary.
It's not totally clear that Trump is preparing to go down the culture-warrior road here, but for an embattled president who seems to love controversy and is increasingly just trying to maintain his base, it would seem an attractive and logical move. And that's a prospect that GOP leaders should be very concerned about.
I think Commentary's Noah Rothman put it well here, suggesting that the culture wars could be a kind of emergency fallback for Trump, who faces a broadening Russia investigation and a record-low approval rating for a new president:
There are few better ways to rally the socially conservative troops than to warn about things like the dangers of transgender people serving alongside U.S. troops or using the wrong bathrooms. A bathroom law debate in Houston in 2015 included some of the most brutal and suggestive campaign ads you'll ever see, with plenty of innuendo about sex offenders entering bathrooms with children.
But while local and state Republicans have waged bathroom-bill fights, the national GOP has largely steered clear of them. And as the country has moved sharply in favor of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, the national GOP has largely moved on from these issues. Rather than taking progressive positions, it has simply ignored them. More than a decade after “values voters” were supposed to have delivered George W. Bush his reelection win, the party has recognized that the country has moved past it on these issues.
And that's because it has seen the polls and it saw what happened in North Carolina. Even as Trump was carrying the state, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who defended the bathroom law, lost reelection. He was one of the very few big-name Republicans who actually underperformed Trump, and there are plenty who tied McCrory's loss directly to that bathroom bill.
But Trump's decision is already reigniting the culture wars, to some degree. An anonymous Trump administration official offered this hugely cynical quote to Axios's Jonathan Swan on Wednesday morning:
"This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of this issue. How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?"
In response to that quote, another White House official distanced the decision from that kind of political calculation. “When I read that, I was like, what's wrong with whoever you are?” the official told The Washington Post's Philip Rucker. “This was not a political decision. It was a military readiness and military resource decision.”
But then the official added: “It will be fun to watch some of them [Democrats] have to defend this, but that was never an impetus.”
Even that quote should terrify the GOP. The idea that anybody in the White House sees political gain from this decision — either directly or indirectly — suggests the culture wars are on the table.
Update: Shortly after this posted, Trump tweeted something else that suggests he might be wading into the culture wars.