March 10, 2023
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles said that “for the good of society…transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely—the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.” He worded his statement in such a way that it would inevitably create outrage that he could then angrily refute by insisting that “eradicating transgenderism” was not the same thing as eradicating transgender people. This sort of word game is a well-known right-wing tactic for garnering media attention.
Make no mistake: this attack on transgender people represents a deadly attack on the fundamental principle of American democracy, the idea that all people are created equal.
CPAC and its representatives have become increasingly close to Hungarian president Victor Orbán as he has asserted autocratic power in his own country. Orbán has explicitly rejected the liberal democracy that his country used to enjoy, saying that its emphasis on multiculturalism weakens national cultures while its insistence on human equality undermines traditional society by recognizing that women and LGBTQ people have the same rights as straight white men. The age of liberal democracy is over, he says, and a new age has begun.
In place of equality, Orbán advocates what he calls “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy.” “Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal,” he said in July 2018; “it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues—say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.”
Orbán has focused on LBGTQ rights as a danger to “Western civilization.” Arguing the need to protect children, his party has made it impossible for transgender people to change their gender identification on legal documents and made it illegal to share with minors any content that can be interpreted as promoting an LBGTQ lifestyle. After Orbán put allies in charge of Hungarian universities, his government banned public funding for gender studies courses. According to his chief of staff: “The Hungarian government is of the clear view that people are born either men or women.”
As the opening speaker at CPAC in Texas last August, Orbán called for the establishment of a global right wing to continue to work together to destroy liberal democracy and establish Christian democracy.
The American right wing has heard the call, openly embracing Orbán’s principles. Vox senior correspondent Zack Beauchamp, who is a crackerjack analyst of right-wing political ideology both in the U.S. and abroad, noted in 2021 the rise of right-wing ideologues who saw themselves as the vanguard of a “post-liberal order.”
Beauchamp explained that these ideologues reject American democracy. They argue that “religious liberty, limited government, ‘the inviolability of private institutions (e.g., corporations),’ academic freedom, constitutional originalism, free markets, and free speech”—all central tenets of democracy—have created “liberal totalitarianism” that has destroyed “all institutions that were originally responsible for fostering human virtue: family, ennobling friendship, community, university, polity, church.”
They see the government institutions that defend these democratic tenets as part of a totalitarian system designed to destroy national virtue. If this were truly the case (it is not), it would be an act of heroism to try to destroy those systems altogether. Right-wing attacks on the FBI, the Department of Justice, and even the government itself over the arrest of January 6th rioters who they insist were peaceful tourists shore up the idea that the FBI and DOJ are part of a government determined to crush Trump supporters. That ideology invites those who believe it to continue to attack our government.
Knowles’s statement last week that transgenderism must be eradicated from public life was not simply an attack on transgender individuals, although it was certainly that. Tapping into the anti-LGBTQ sentiment that Orbán and those like him have used to win voters, the statement was a crucial salvo in the attempt to destroy American democracy and replace it with Christian nationalism.
But there is a very simple answer to the radical right’s attack on LGBTQ people that also answers their rejection of democracy. It is an answer that history has proved again and again.
Once you give up the principle of equality, you have given up the whole game. You have admitted the principle that people are unequal, and that some people are better than others. Once you have replaced the principle of equality with the idea that humans are unequal, you have stamped your approval on the idea of rulers and subjects. At that point, all you can do is to hope that no one in power decides that you belong in the lesser group.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, then a candidate for the Senate, warned that arguments limiting American equality to white men and excluding black Americans were the same arguments “that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world…. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent.”
Either people—men, in his day—were equal, or they were not. Lincoln went on: “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it…where will it stop?”