When a president from your party replaces a president of the other party, your relationship to the news suddenly changes. Instead of turning on the TV or checking social media with the thought, “Oh god, what did he do now?” you find yourself pleased or even cheering, over and over again, as the new president rolls out a wave of policy changes that warm your heart.
And of course, if you’re in the other party, you’re plunged into a nightmare with one blow after another to your agenda and your worldview raining down on you. Which is what Republicans are experiencing right now.
One reaction to that fact is to be solicitous of their hurt feelings, working to understand what’s making them mad and seeing if there’s anything that can be done about it. And while many Democrats would say, “To hell with that,” there’s another way to treat the anger many Republicans will feel about the practical and symbolic losses they’re just now starting to experience.
Let’s examine a couple of early moves President Biden is taking. We’ll start with Monday’s news that he’s lifting the ban Donald Trump imposed on transgender people serving in the military.
As on a number of issues, here conservatives often use practical arguments when the real source of their position is moral. In this case, they say that allowing transgender troops will hurt “readiness,” when there’s absolutely no evidence it does. As the experience of the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the ban on gay service members showed (and before that the end of racial segregation), while plenty of people in uniform have unwelcoming views, as a whole the institution is quite good at adapting to that kind of change without harm to its ability to function.
No, the real problem many social conservatives have is that they have a strict and hidebound perspective on matters of gender and sexuality, and to them the idea that people can even be transgender just seems wrong. So they tend to oppose any expansion of rights for trans people, because it will lead to greater acceptance and a society that continues to move away from their view of who people ought to be and how things ought to work.
And when the president takes that step with the stroke of a pen, it’s a vivid demonstration that they have had their power diminished — they’ve just lost political power, which compounds their loss of cultural power and makes them feel more and more like victims. A week ago they had a president they saw as a champion of their worldview, and now it’s all gone.
So liberals can say to them: We hear you. We understand why this is upsetting to you. We’re not trying to disrespect you. But we’re doing it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.
While the transgender military question is extremely practical and real for trans people in the military (and those who might like to join) it’s also deeply symbolic for other people. Now let’s consider an issue that’s almost totally symbolic.
Back in 2016, when Barack Obama was president, the Treasury Department announced that the $20 bill would be redesigned to feature Harriet Tubman, the former enslaved person who led others to freedom. In order to avoid offending people too much, President Andrew Jackson, who currently occupies the front of the $20, would not be banished completely but would have his image placed on the back of the bill, rather smaller in size.
To many, this was an important step: Jackson was a notorious racist, a slaver who as president was responsible, among other things, for the Trail of Tears, in which thousands of Native Americans died as they were forcibly pushed west. Tubman, on the other hand, is one of the greatest heroes America has produced.
Trump put up a giant painting of Jackson in the Oval Office (Biden has already removed it) and halted the project to redesign the $20 bill. On Monday, Biden’s press secretary said that the administration is looking at ways to speed up this redesign, because of the importance of ensuring that our money reflects “the history and diversity of our country.”
Many conservatives will find the new Tubman bill distressing, even if they could barely tell you the first thing about Jackson. Does that make them racist? The real answer is, it doesn’t matter. What’s in individual hearts is not really important.
A good portion of the people who voted for Trump when he promised to “Make America Great Again” did so because he was appealing to their sense of loss, the idea that America’s present is different from the past of their childhoods, a past to which they wanted to return. It was about race, and language, and resistance to change, and yes, even about economic anxiety.
They’re now very unhappy, and they’re going to keep feeling these symbolic blows as the news tells them that they’re not in charge and that America is moving in a direction they don’t like. It’s going to make them mad. But the right thing for Democrats to tell them is: We understand your feelings. We get why you don’t like this. But we’re doing it anyway. You’ll get used to it.