In the course of his campaign so far, Donald Trump has had harsh words for Mexicans and Muslims, the people of Iowa, African Americans, refugees, the parents of a dead Army captain, women, a disabled reporter and the pope. He has fashioned his political incorrectness into a personal virtue, portraying himself as a straight-talker incapable of pretense. Supporters praise this “brute honesty,” while critics accuse Trump of amplifying and taking advantage of intolerant tendencies within the GOP base.
Throughout all of this, though, Trump has refrained from launching barbs at one particular group: gay Americans.
It would be a stretch to call Trump a gay-friendly candidate — he still opposes same-sex marriage — but he supports other LGBT rights and has publicly declared himself a “real friend” to the community. In April, he broke with his GOP rivals by speaking out against North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law. (He later backed off.) And last month in Cleveland, Trump brought in Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who became the first openly gay speaker to affirm his sexual orientation onstage at a Republican National Convention.
“I am proud to be gay,” Thiel said that night, to cheers. “I am proud to be a Republican.”
Thiel, a staunch Libertarian, went on to admonish the GOP for wasting time debating “who gets to use which bathroom.” These “fake culture wars,” he said, “only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.”
Many have commented on Trump’s reluctance to engage with the concerns of social conservatives. He'd rather talk about immigrants or terrorism than Planned Parenthood or gay marriage, in part because he has a record of permissive views on abortion and gay rights. Though he has tried to walk back some of his statements recently, his liberal reputation on social issues endures. Many thought it would prove a fatal weakness with the evangelical wing of the GOP. Yet, when his rivals tried to attack this flank during primary season, none of their arguments seemed to stick.
Some interpret Trump’s success as a sign that the traditional culture wars have reached their conclusion. On LGBT issues, at least, it seems the end may really be in sight. In recent months, Trump has essentially been offering a blueprint for how the GOP could eventually woo gay Americans — which is useful, because a startling new poll shows that Republicans may have to adapt much faster than they thought.
We have long known that gay rights are more of a generational issue than a partisan one. A 2014 poll showed that majority — 61 percent — of Republican millennials support same-sex marriage.
But last week, a report from the Black Youth Project and the AP-NORC Center turned up a surprising finding. Not only do millennials overwhelmingly favor LGBT rights, but they have dramatically increased their support just in the past two years.
In a 2014 poll, 69 percent of whites aged 18-30 agreed that gays and lesbians should be allowed to adopt children. In the most recent poll, 84 percent of them favored gay adoption — a bump of 15 points. Likewise, just in the past two years, the fraction of white millennials who support equal LGBT employment rights increased from 84 percent to 92 percent.
It’s worth pointing out the gains among young whites because they are the most likely to vote Republican. The same survey has shown that white adults under 30 are split down the middle in terms of party affiliation. About 44 percent say they lean Democratic, while 42 percent say they lean Republican. Asked about the presidential race, 25 percent supported Hillary Clinton and 27 percent supported Trump. (The rest were undecided, said they wouldn’t vote or wanted to vote for someone else.)
On the adoption issue, white millennials lead their peers. Compared to the 84 percent of young whites who support gay adoption, only 75 percent of young Latinos and 69 percent of young African Americans agree. But on other issues, the groups are more or less aligned. Well over 80 percent of millennials want equal employment rights for LGBT people and more resources for HIV prevention. Three-quarters support initiatives to train the police about transgender issues. And about 70 percent want government funding for LGBT youth services.
These trends stand in stark contrast to the Republican Party platform, which continues to champion “traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman.” To be fair, the Democratic Party platform technically did not support same-sex marriage until 2012; but the party has opposed discrimination against sexual orientation since 1980.
Yet the latest Republican platform, freshly ratified in Cleveland last month, omits any mention of LGBT people. Its section on tolerance condemns discrimination by “race, sex, religion, creed, disability,” — even “national origin” — but remains silent on discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender Americans. Despite another round of lobbying efforts this year from LGBT Republicans, the party did not budge on this stance.
At the state level, meanwhile, the culture wars have never been more raucous. Recent legislative fights over religious freedom, the rights of Christian bakeries and transgender people in public bathrooms have created the impression that hot-button social issues still command the political discourse around the nation. LGBT activists characterize these trends in state lawmaking as part of the conservative backlash to the Supreme Court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage.
But Trump has given us a hint of what that future party might look like. In the wake of the shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub, where a man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people, Trump connected his sympathy for the LGBT community with his suspicion of immigrants and Islam.
“Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she supports immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country and who suppress women, gays and anyone else who doesn’t share their views or values,” he said in June.
This argument should have been recognizable to anyone familiar with the politics in Europe, where far-right nationalist parties have tried to find common ground with LGBT people by portraying Muslim immigrants as intolerant and homophobic. Last year in Sweden, for instance, a populist extremist party with ties to neo-Nazis organized a gay pride march through a Muslim neighborhood in Stockholm to protest the country's "Islamization."
The name for this sort of xenophobic alliance is homonationalism, a term coined nearly a decade ago by gender studies professor Jasbir Puar, who predicted the convergence of LGBT politics, national identity and Islamophobia.
Trump alluded to this idea again last month in Cleveland, where he apparently became the first Republican presidential nominee to reference gay people in his acceptance speech. “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” he said at the GOP convention.
The crowd roared, and Trump seemed surprised. "As a Republican, I'm so happy to hear you cheering for what I just said," he said.
About a week later in Stockholm, Sweden's far-right party returned to hold another gay pride demonstration in Järva, a neighborhood composed mostly of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. The leader of the parade, Jan Sjunnesson, set up a microphone in the town square. “It should be possible to be a blond, blue-eyed Swedish gay individual in Sweden,” he said, according to VICE Sweden.
Sjunnesson wore white slacks, a bulletproof vest, and a jaunty TRUMP 2016 hat.
"Gays for Trump," he told the reporter.