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MAGA sinks GOP trolling to genocidal lows

There are two intended audiences for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the semi-annual right-wing conference that has made itself the center of the MAGA movement: the people in the crowd and the liberals watching from afar. Now more than ever, the latter audience is more important.

Sure, speakers at CPAC want to make the crowd cheer. But more crucially, they want the liberals watching from afar to get outraged because that’s where the real money is. Competition is heavy to garner attention by saying the vilest thing on stage. The winner of the Biggest Trigger of Liberals trophy gets awarded with a fawning reception — complete with clicks, donations and website purchases — from the MAGA crowd. Donald Trump tried, of course, to win the Biggest Troll award this year with his violently fascistic speech. But truth told, the shitbag crown this year went to a D-list right-wing celebrity named Michael Knowles, a Daily Wire contributor whose car crash of a haircut seems designed to reassure the audience he never lets a queer person touch him. 

“For the good of society, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” Knowles declared during his speech over the weekend, echoing language he’s long espoused on his platform.

The semantic squabbling was a huge success for Michael Knowles.

As many people were quick to point out, the rhetoric was clearly genocidal. But Knowles, seizing the CPAC limelight, threw a disingenuous tantrum, insisting that he never specifically mentioned killing people because his goal could theoretically be achieved by simply forcing everyone who identifies as trans to live as their birth-assigned gender.

“I don’t know how you could have a genocide of transgender people because genocide refers to genes,” Knowles went on to argue, which, as many noted, is a definition of genocide that would exclude the Holocaust. 

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The semantic squabbling was a huge success for Knowles, and not just because it boosted his profile and online engagement. By making the fight over whether or not he was “really” calling for violence, Knowles pushed the idea that anything short of murder to stop people from being trans is acceptable.

But this rhetoric goes even further. Knowles is also, despite protestations to the contrary, normalizing violence. Under his proposed ban, trans people won’t just cease to be trans. There’s no other way to scrub them from “public life entirely” without violent force.  

In response to the Knowles speech, liberals on Twitter started circulating a photo of him hanging out with a MAGA-themed drag queen in 2019, which was before Republicans decided LGBTQ people were going to be the main villains in their fundraising/attention-gathering apparatus. 

At CPAC, for instance, the easiest applause line was going hard after the right of trans people to exist. Unsurprisingly, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia made anti-trans hysterics the center of her speech. 

Drag shows have been mainstream for a long time — “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is in its 15th season! — but conservatives are acting like drag is a recent invention.

Greene, as usual, is lying.

Gender-affirming care for minors doesn’t involve genital surgeries. Instead, it’s a rigorous and slow-moving process that involves years of therapy and sometimes hormonal treatments to slow down puberty, giving a minor lots of time to know for sure before they make any permanent changes in adulthood. But, of course, as Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, admitted in his CPAC talk, all this talk about “kids” is a pretext for the right’s long-term goal of ending rights and medical care for trans people entirely. In his nearly two-hour speech, Trump also promised a flat-out ban on gender-affirming care for all trans people, of any age. 

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CPAC was once again a dark reminder of how much, for these right-wing pundits, fame and money are a driving motive for spewing such hateful rhetoric. As Will Sommer, author of “Trust the Plan: The Rise of Qanon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America,” told Terry Gross on NPR last week, the “amount of money involved” in pandering to the MAGA movement is stunning. What matters to the right-wing figureheads is not what they think is true, so much as what they think best sells to the MAGA crowd. 

While Republicans love to play semantic games around this issue, the reality is “constraint” means violence.

Ultimately, what Knowles “really” thinks is not relevant. The bigger issue is that the ecosystem of right-wing trolling has created a competition of hate on the right, as they try to one-up each other with shocking bigotry. As the photo of Knowles shows, just a few years ago, MAGA Republicans didn’t talk much about trans people or drag at all. Now every day it’s a race to see who can top the last provocation. Slurring LGBTQ people as “groomers” used to get the MAGA juices flowing, but now they need the hit to be stronger. Openly eliminationist rhetoric was inevitable in this descent.  

As CNN reported last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., appointed a man to his newly created Disney oversight board who has openly denied that gay people existed in the not-so-distant past. The board itself is part of DeSantis’s larger war on free speech, as it exists to intimidate Disney executives out of being supportive of LGBTQ rights. His appointee, Ron Peri, was recorded on a Zoom call last year calling gay people “evil” and asking, “Why are there homosexuals today?” He went on to theorize that homosexuality is caused by estrogen in drinking water from birth control pills, tacking an attack on women’s rights to his rant about gay people. 

Of course, gay people have always been around. The only reason for Peri to say otherwise is to imply that the goal of “no gay people” is achievable. In reality, of course, what Peri’s calling for is forcing gay people to live in the closet, which he tips his hat to by euphemistically talking about how the “removal of constraint” is what causes homosexuality.

While Republicans love to play semantic games around this issue, the reality is “constraint” means violence. That was true in 1969, when customers at the Stonewall Inn got fed up with being targeted for arrest for simply being themselves in public. It was true in Nazi Germany, when burning books about LGBTQ issues was a precursor to sending gay people to concentration camps. It’s true in countries around the world that still have “constraints” on gay people that can only be kept in place through arrest and physical violence against those who reject said constraints. You cannot tell people they can’t be gay or trans without enforcing that command through violence. 

This isn’t even a hypothetical discussion.

Just a few months ago, there was a mass shooting at Club Q, a gay club in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that was hosting a drag show. It was just the most shocking example of what has been an overall rise in murders of trans and gender non-conforming people in the wake of Republicans putting a target on the backs of LGBTQ people. Groups like the Proud Boys increasingly target drag shows and Pride parades for intimidating demonstrations, some of which have turned violent. They’re being encouraged in all this by Republican politicians, who respond to this escalating hysteria by introducing bills, such as a law just passed in Tennessee, which bans “male or female impersonators” and is clearly a pretext for legally harassing LGBTQ people. 

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There’s a deep cynicism to the newfound Republican hyper-focus on LGBTQ people. Drag shows have been mainstream for a long time — “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is in its 15th season! — but conservatives are acting like drag is a recent invention. I have no doubt these Republicans are sincere in their bigotry. Still, the renewed interest in going after queer people, after chilling out for a few years after they lost the same-sex marriage debate, stems in large part from this desire to keep the MAGA base riled up and hooked in. The leaders want money and attention, and targeting LGBTQ people is currently the best way to get it. 

The opportunistic air to all this doesn’t change the fact that it’s real people who are the targets. This is all ultimately about stripping people of their rights and justifying violence against them. The attacks on LGBTQ people are happening in a larger context of Republicans getting more comfortable generally with political violence. As David Siders and Meridith McGraw at Politico reported Monday, Republicans have stopped seeing the events of January 6 as a political liability for Trump. Now, Republican leaders “feel pressure from corners of the base to talk about Jan. 6 in positive terms — and rally to the defense of people arrested following the riot.” Which is to say, being supportive of domestic terrorism is becoming the mainstream view of the GOP. 

January 6 was a targeted attempt to overthrow the U.S. government, but the form most domestic terrorism takes is hate crimes. That’s why these hair-splitting semantic debates over whether or not it’s genocidal to say “transgenderism must be eradicated” should be regarded as nothing more than gaslighting. It’s genocidal on its surface, as there’s no way to eradicate “transgenderism” without targeting actual trans people. But it’s true in an even broader sense: Even Republicans who avoid the word “eradicate” but still use words like “groomer” know what they’re doing. They’re speaking to an increasingly unhinged MAGA base that has embraced violence as a means to get their way.

Dehumanizing people always runs the risk of violence, but in this particular situation, it’s guaranteeing it. 

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