Sometimes Republican culture-war posturing is just silly, like when they pretend to be terribly outraged about some new faux-controversy involving Dr. Seuss or Mr. Potato Head. But at other times it becomes something truly loathsome, leaving real victims in its wake. That’s the case with the right’s latest crusade, against transgender young people.

On Tuesday, the Arkansas legislature overrode Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto of a bill that would outlaw gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender minors, including not just surgery but even hormone treatments. So if you’re a transgender kid in Arkansas getting such treatments now, they have to stop or your doctor could get thrown in jail.

And Arkansas is just the beginning.

Before you decide Hutchinson is a hero of compassion and equality, keep in mind that he’s an active participant in the GOP’s anti-trans crusade; he just thought this bill went a little far. He recently signed a bill meant to keep transgender girls from playing school sports, though there has literally not been a single known case of a trans girl in Arkansas joining a school sports team. But the specter was apparently so terrifying that Hutchinson and Republicans had to pass legislation to say to any such girl, “Don’t even think about it.”

And yes, Arkansas may rank 47th out of 50 states in child poverty, but this is what the Republican legislature is spending its time on, since tens of thousands of children living in deprivation and hunger are apparently far less of a problem to them than the fact that some trans kid, with the cooperation of their parents and their doctor, might be getting the treatment so many trans people describe as lifesaving.

In 27 states so far, Republican legislators have filed bills to restrict the rights of trans kids, either to play sports or to get medical treatment or both. Many are similar to the Arkansas bill.

But some go even further. A bill filed in North Carolina would require that any government agent — including teachers or any other public school officials — “immediately notify, in writing, each of the minor’s parents, guardians, or custodians” if a minor exhibited “gender nonconformity.”

Is that boy’s hair getting a little too long? How are that girl’s jeans cut? If that bill became law, the school would have to write a letter home warning that the child is not displaying the proper gender conformity.

This is a party that says it believes in “freedom.”

In the endless cycle of right-wing extremism, the legislators are being spurred on by conservative media, both encouraged to wage war on trans kids and punishing them if they don’t. On Fox News, where trans panic has been going full steam since President Biden took office, Tucker Carlson savaged Hutchinson on Tuesday evening with a spew of misinformation, including implying that trans kids’ emotional struggles are caused by the treatment some receive, such as puberty blockers.

If your memory stretches all the way back to 2004, this has a familiar ring. That year too it was “the family” Republicans said they were desperate to protect, as they put constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on one state ballot after another. If gay people were allowed to marry, they warned, American society would soon collapse.

You may have noticed that despite the fact that the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states in 2015, our society is still standing; these days Republicans would rather not talk about their long, failed crusade against marriage equality. But they got the temporary political boost they wanted out of it, and now they’re drawing from the same playbook.

Just as then, there’s a constituency for their new war on trans kids. Social change is happening rapidly, and for many people it can be disorienting. They’re suddenly confronted with questions they never contemplated and demands that they use unfamiliar or confusing language. Their view of how the world works is being challenged as people who used to be silent enough for them to ignore are now asking for some basic consideration.

Then in the midst of that uncertainty they’re preyed upon by politicians looking for political advantage and media figures looking for ratings and advertising dollars. “You fear change, don’t you?” they’re told. “Doesn’t it seem like the world is passing you by? Now take that uncertainty and fear, and squeeze it between your fists until it turns into hate.”

Nobody knows better than a contemporary conservative how good that can feel to their audiences. It banishes all that uncertainty. It clarifies everything. Instead of being left behind by history, you’re cast as a hero, noble and principled and brave, fighting to save all that is good and right.

Most despicable of all, Republicans claim to be helping trans kids by targeting and stigmatizing and victimizing them. Kids who are so vulnerable, their lives made so difficult not just by their struggles with their own bodies but by the way the people and institutions around them can make everything worse.

So with a popular Democratic president signing popular legislation, Republicans look to reinforce their position by going back to their bottomless well of cruelty. It isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.

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