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I grew up seeing the Confederate flag a lot, absorbing the conflicts between nation and state, discrimination and liberty that it represents. After September 11, 2001, gas stations next to the highway in north Georgia where I grew up began selling little copies of the stars and bars as a reminder of Americanness — whatever that was. The motto “The South will rise again” was a popular slogan among some of my classmates, yet the same people who valorized secessionism were fierce national patriots with “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers — a contradiction so normalized that it came to make sense in an odd intuitive way. Fifteen years later, President Trump’s administration, using the motto “America First” to appeal again to an ambiguous sense of America, is dissolving federal protections and regulations in the name of individual liberty. We’re witnessing a curious coupling of fervent nationalism and a turn towards individualistic states’ rights initiatives, and it has unique repercussions for queer people.
Queer people are disproportionately impacted by the dissolution of federal regulations, many of which were implemented in the Obama era specifically to protect low-income people, people with chronic illness, people of color, and people whose gender identity and/or sexual orientation has been used against them as a barrier to employment. The Trump administration has eliminated protections on transgender students’ bathroom rights, lifted federal Internet privacy standards, and has begun the process of dismantling environmental protection guidelines governing clean air and water. Native American sovereignty, already constantly undermined under previous administrations, has been further subverted in favor of corporate greed as progress continues on the Keystone XL pipeline. One way we might unravel these dizzying changes is by looking to history — the still-ubiquitous Confederate flag and the very real presence of the KKK in our mainstream political landscape nearly demands it. The history of anti-Black racism in the United States from the 19th century to the present reveals ongoing intersections of nationalism and individualism that shape American politics.
Maybe the reason Donald Trump wants to pretend nobody has studied the Civil War is because his administration knows even a cursory look at history will expose their tricks.
In the 1860s, the Confederate States of America formed as a states’ rights-oriented backlash against social and economic directives from the federal government, including a primary conflict over the rights and personhood of Black people in America — slavery. The Southern states’ backlash against the federal government was not simply a backlash against government itself, it was a struggle against a government that attempted to legislate the end of a particular form of economic exploitation. Those who benefited, economically and socially, from the exploitation of Black people wanted to maintain their privilege and resented any changes that diminished their power. Their rights (read: privileges) were more important to preserve than the rights (read: personhood) of Black Americans. Even after the country was reunified at the end of the war, most former slaveholding states used state-level politics to continue exploiting and disenfranchising Black Americans. Following the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, individual former Confederate states passed Jim Crow laws that legislated segregation until 1965. Furthermore, in Northern states, patterns of housing and workplace discrimination prevented Black Americans from experiencing equal treatment even under laws that purported to offer it.
Today’s broad spectrum of efforts to discriminate against women, queer and trans people, people of color, immigrants, and disabled people closely maps onto the patterns of legislative and everyday discrimination established by Southern and Northern politicians alike in their efforts to discriminate against Black people ever since the Civil War. Lack of employment and housing protections (or refusal to defend them), religious freedom bills, and demonizing over-policed, under-funded communities are all strategies taken from the playbook of post-Reconstruction politics. Maybe the reason Donald Trump wants to pretend nobody has studied the Civil War is because his administration knows even a cursory look at history will expose their tricks.
Dismissing queer activism as a demand for “special rights” is not a new idea, and it’s inextricably tied to the history of anti-Black racism and states’ rights initiatives in the United States.
Part of the reason the Trump administration has been able to drive an ongoing preoccupation with “rights” among white, cisgender, heterosexual Americans is because they pull successful 20th-century rhetoric about discrimination and apply it to the present day. Any infringement on privilege is seen as a slight, a loss, a diminishment of selfhood that must be fought by any means. As recently as the 1940s, Dixiecrats (also known as the States’ Rights Democratic Party) espoused the rights of White Americans to choose not to associate with Black people. It’s worth noting that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is not committed to defending existing LGBT legal protections, and prominent anti-queer activist Anita Bryant were both born and raised in the South at the same time that this states’ rights rhetoric was being deployed to exclude Black Americans from full civil liberties. Dismissing queer activism as a demand for “special rights” is not a new idea, and it’s inextricably tied to the history of anti-Black racism and states’ rights initiatives in the United States.
By proposing to “Make America Great Again” and simultaneously dismissing issues such as abortion access and nondiscrimination legislation as “states’ rights,” the federal government is promoting a return to the locally-ordained discrimination that we’ve seen for generations, newly rebranded as a nationalist, patriotic initiative.
However, it’s the renewed nationalist tone and scope of today’s structural inequality that distinguishes it from the past century or so. The Trump administration is dissolving federal protections and agencies left and right (RIP, EPA). Still, this does not mark a dissolution of power itself, but merely a restructuring that seeks to perpetuate existing norms of inequality for as long as possible. Nationalism and the motto “America First” shore up white supremacy and allow the President to claim massive amounts of executive power without any of the accompanying responsibility to protect vulnerable citizens. By proposing to “Make America Great Again” and simultaneously dismissing issues such as abortion access and nondiscrimination legislation as “states’ rights,” the federal government is promoting a return to the locally-ordained discrimination that we’ve seen for generations, newly rebranded as a nationalist, patriotic initiative. Loyalty to state-level discrimination can now be construed as loyalty to the nation, under the premise that social issues can be best “left to the states.”
This trend towards nationalism, strong presidential leadership, and individualism is not only an American phenomenon, however. President Erdogan’s recent victory in Turkey, the vote for Brexit, and Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the first round of the French election reveal a strong reactionary tendency among socially conservative voters after years of globalization and liberalization in the United States and Europe. Rather than indicting the cultural and economic exploitation from Western powers that has led to outsourcing, mass immigration, and ongoing police violence, far-right politicians have enjoyed great success by indicting the immigrants, foreign workers, and people of color originally targeted by the states which now seek to further exclude them. By mobilizing the populations whose privileged quality of life is built on the exploitation and exclusion of people of color, disabled people, queer people, and trans people, Trump and other far-right populist movements have re-ignited the rage of a populace that has benefited from this exploitation for countless generations. In a very real way, the gains of queer, trans, POC Americans does threaten the quality of life for people whose sense of selfhood is actually a sense of power and subjugation. When your sense of self is built on your lived experience of privilege, it’s easy to feel like there’s a finite amount of dignity to go around, and Trump and other far-right populists have capitalized on this. In far-right populism, the success of the nation is predicated on its ownership by and operation in service of “us” and not “them,” and this ownership and operation is enforced through a dizzying and often contradictory combination of states’ rights rhetoric and large-scale executive power overreach.
By remanding the majority of civil rights and humanitarian issues to the states, the federal government has effectively absconded any responsibility it previously had to advocate for the people of the United States as a whole.
In an effort to regain the privilege of White Heterosexual America, to bar queer and trans people and people of color from getting any “special rights,” the federal government is casting itself increasingly as an apparatus of law enforcement even as federal regulation and checks and balances shrivel away. Both domestically and internationally, President Trump wants to be the man with the biggest gun, from immigration enforcement, border patrols, and police presence at demonstrations to violent intervention in Syria and other nations. By remanding the majority of civil rights and humanitarian issues to the states, the federal government has effectively absconded any responsibility it previously had to advocate for the people of the United States as a whole. However, it simultaneously takes up the project of policing everybody, U.S. citizen or not. Increasing federal power and decreasing federal responsibility leaves many vulnerable people unsure where to turn.
Access to healthcare is one key issue impacted by changes at the federal level. Without federal funding for and protection of the services provided by Planned Parenthood, from birth control, hormones, and STI screenings to abortion, many queer and trans people will be left without vital healthcare services. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed and decisions about health insurance programs are left to the states, queer and trans Americans will face massive disparities in coverage for mental health care services, gender affirming surgery and hormones, and treatment for chronic illnesses. The federal government’s proposal to improve Americans’ well-being by failing to provide for basic healthcare needs is a dangerous outcome of the intersection between nationalism and states’ rights. At another intersection between federal and local powers, the Justice Department’s ongoing refusal to prosecute police officers who murder Black people perpetuates violent over-policing of Black communities. The militarization of local police forces without sufficient oversight disproportionately impacts Black communities, but all our communities, domestic and international, are endangered by President Trump’s fascination with militarized apparatuses of law enforcement.
We know, of course, that the system of federal protections that we’re losing was already far from perfect. We know because of the corporate and federal violence at Standing Rock, we know because of Black lives lost to police violence, we know because of sexual and gender-based violence condoned by a state that does not believe the voices of women. We know because for all that we wanted a woman president, we were afraid U.S. imperialism would advance under a President Hillary Clinton as well, and that state-sanctioned violence would continue to destabilize and exploit the Middle East and the whole world no matter who we voted for. The federal government’s efforts to take up the burden of advancing civil rights gave us Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage, and Title IX, but they also failed to address the ongoing epidemic of violence against trans women of color or truly provide healthcare for all people. We need to do better, and maybe our current crisis gives us the opportunity to work within our communities to create systems that actually do the work of reining in corporate greed, saving Black lives, preventing sexual violence. However, our increasingly militarized yet indifferent federal government is challenging for local activism to overcome.
Some state governments, such as California’s, have begun to claim states’ rights rhetoric as a tool for the left. They propose fighting this fight at the state level, supporting sanctuary cities and state-level health care programs and climate regulations. However, it’s hard to know if state-level replacements can really do the work that our communities need to thrive. No amount of clean energy in California is going to help a trans woman who can’t access medical care in Mississippi. Furthermore, it’s hard to confront the vicious cycle of U.S. military intervention abroad from a local level when the federal government claims increasing executive power. We’re left without good answers, but with the conviction that we need to keep a close watch on the actions of the U.S. government, both domestically and abroad. Shocking as the past six months have been, we can empower ourselves to understand the present moment by contextualizing it and unraveling the historical trends that have shaped modern nationalist sentiment. And if the South does rise again, maybe it’ll be radical queers who form a new government this time.