“For one thing, just look at his VP running mate,” Ben Carson told me with a smile this week at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland.
He was responding to my query regarding how Donald Trump has reassured social conservatives. Carson, now a prominent player in Trump’s campaign, was absolutely right: Indiana governor Mike Pence is of course among the most extreme governors in the country on abortion and LGBT rights. And we’ve seen reports that in fact Donald Trump, if elected, will hand the actual running of the country to his vice president, making him the most powerful vice president in history.
But Trump can count on much of the media falling for stock phrases, engaging in superficial coverage and often running with a false narrative that the Trump campaign hands to journalists on Trump and LGBT issues rather than doing the most basic reporting and presenting an accurate story. Throughout the campaign, Trump has often been treated to a different standard than other political candidates, and that’s been true on some issues more than others as the media prioritize what to focus on.
So, from the stage last night in Cleveland, Donald Trump said, “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology, believe me,” in the context of his fear-mongering about foreign terrorism and how the country is supposedly in chaos and government is supposedly inadequately responding to the threat. And ABC News, in coverage similar to other news organizations, focused on the “historic” use of the term “LGBTQ” by a GOP presidential candidate without including the context of the “historic,” extreme anti-LGBT GOP platform, and Trump’s own extreme positions, including promising religious conservatives – on the Christian Broadcasting Network, on Fox News, in a town hall with Pat Robertson ― that he would overturn the historic Obergefell ruling, which he’d called “shocking.”
CNN this morning characterized the comments in the speech as an example of Trump “embracing” the LGBT community. The report did acknowledge the anti-LGBT platform, but only to note that it is – supposedly – in sharp “contrast” to Trump’s own positions on LGBT rights. But it is not: The platform and Trump both are opposed to marriage equality and both promote the autonomy of states to pass heinous laws regulating what restrooms transgender people use. This same platform includes Trump’s trade policies and his plan to build a wall on the border, so his campaign did have an active involvement in crafting -– and certainly allowing social conservatives to craft ― the most anti-LGBT platform in history.
On the floor of the convention last night, I asked Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council about both Trump’s positions on LGBT rights and the platform, which he is very actively involved in hammering out every four years. Perkins was among hundreds of anti-LGBT activists who met with Trump in May. And last night, from the stage, Perkins finally endorsed Trump and told Christian conservatives to vote for him.
“He has said that these issues should be dealt with at the state level and he has not been for the government forcing it on people,” Perkins told me of LGBT rights. “And thats kind of the way things work out: we allow the people to work through these issues.”
We’re in a different time, when LGBT rights have become more accepted by more Americans after enormous progress. So people like Perkins understand that they have to make some accommodations in how they speak about the issues, a relatively minor concession. In return for his endorsement, surely Perkins was assured certain things would and wouldn’t be done, and that perhaps new language and tone might have to be incorporated even if it doesn’t amount to anything. In fact, when Trump said in June that he was the best candidate for “LGBT” people after the attack on the queer nightclub Pulse in Orlando, which killed 49 people, most of the them queer people or color, Perkins publicly agreed with Trump, using the term “LGBT” himself:
“What he is saying is no American, regardless of political ideology or your life choices, should be living under threat of terrorist attack in the streets of the United States of America. So yes, LGBT, Catholic, Protestant, I don’t care, atheist ― as one who wore the uniform of a United States Marine and as a police officer, no American, no American should live in fear and that’s exactly what Donald Trump is saying.”
It’s one thing of course to pledge to protect LGBT people from terrorist violence perceived to be from ISIS, which threatens all Americans. But it’s quite another thing to protect our rights from being thwarted by Christian conservatives like Perkins and the Family Research Council, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and whose rhetoric has certainly been used by those who have perpetrated violence against LGBT people in the name of extremist Christian ideology.
“We dealt with it in the platform ― overwhelmingly the party stated where it stands on that issue,” Perkins told me in our discussion on the floor of the convention about the issue of gay marriage, which was condemned in the platform, as it has been for roughly two decades. “I’m comfortable with where the party is. There was a study done a couple of years ago on the party platform, looking at 30 years of the party platform, and Congress voted 89 percent of the time with the party platform when it came to policy issues. So the platform is an important document that lays out the principles, priorities of the party. “
Perkins added that he is “very happy” with the platform ― and he’s clearly happy with, and reassured by, Donald Trump on LGBT issues.
Yet, in much of the media coverage, none of this is part of the reporting on, and part of the context of, Donald Trump’s vacuous, meaningless – and ultimately dangerous ― use of the term “LGBTQ” at the convention last night. The narrative handed to the media by the Trump campaign for months has been completely bought by many journalists.
Back in May, I wrote about the bizarre portrayal of Trump by The New York Times –- political reporter Maggie Haberman, in particular ― as “More Accepting on Gay Issues” as the headline noted, something that, “Sets Him Apart” from other Republicans. This was based on superficial things like Trump having congratulated Elton John on his civil union in 2005, while the issue of marriage equality –- the major LGBT rights issue of our time – and Trump’s opposition to it, was downplayed, portrayed as a kind of side issue. (His support of the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow for discrimination against LGBT poeple and is being debated in Congress right now, wasn’t even raised at all.) It’s a narrative the Trump campaign, with the help of the desperate Log Cabin Republicans, had been feeding journalists, trying to play both sides.
Last week, shortly after the pick of Mike Pence leaked, and after many gay pundits rightly wrote about Pence’s record to remind everyone of his extremism, I had a Twitter exchange with New York Times political reporter Alexander Burns. It was fascinating and telling. Burns viewed the choice of Pence as something that would now possibly trigger media discussion of LGBT issues in the campaign. And he seemed to defend the lack of focus on Trump’s anti-LGBT promises and statements previously because Trump has not made these anti-gay pledges loudly – particularly in speeches – and thus they had not become a “flash point.” Here’s one of his tweets:
I was baffled because I thought one of the jobs of journalists is to tell us what the candidate is promising to constituencies under the radar or in private meetings. Certainly the Times does this with regard to Trump on other issues. But LGBT issues don’t seem worthy of this deeper reporting and analysis.
Similarly, last night CNN was reporting, just before the convention speech of conservative gay billionaire and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, that Thiel was going to state he is “proudly gay” and “admonish the GOP on LGBT rights.” This sounded pretty strong, and again was a narrative fed to CNN by the Trump campaign. When I spoke to Tony Perkins on the floor, Thiel had not yet come out to speak and I asked about CNN’s claim that Thiel would “admonish” the GOP.
Perkins smiled and said he’d wait and see what Thiel said, and that he expected it would stay “respectful” and wouldn’t “attack core issues and values.” And in the end, Thiel hardly “admonished,” let alone tepidly criticized, the GOP, stating that he didn’t “pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform,” and then, instead of asserting how wrong-headed and discriminatory the language in the platform is, he meekly asked, regarding “who gets to use” which bathroom, “Who cares?” (To which the first delegate I asked, Judy Nichols from Nederland, Texas, who probably represented most of the delegates, answered, “I do!”)
And yet, the Trump campaign had used CNN to claim that Thiel would somehow heavily criticize the GOP on LGBT issues, making it appear as if his choice by the Trump campaign represented Trump ― who publicly agreed with conservatives that North Carolina should be able to regulate transgender people and rest rooms ― bucking GOP orthodoxy on LGBT rights. As we now move into the general election, the media must be challenged on this shallow, irresponsible reporting on Trump and LGBT rights. It allows Trump to write his own narrative instead of being exposed as a dangerous fraud who is making promises to the LGBT community’s staunchest enemies.