Many media reports claimed Donald Trump affirmed support for LGBTQ equality in his “60 Minutes” interview the other night. There were headlines that claimed he is now an “ally” of LGBTQ people and others that blared Trump said he is “fine” with same-sex marriage and changed a prior position.
He in fact did nothing of the kind. Let’s clear up some of the confusion and misinformation about what Donald Trump said to Leslie Stahl about his position on marriage equality and the Supreme Court’s historic Obergefell decision, which brought marriage equality to the entire nation. Before we get into what else was said in the interview, however, let’s focus in on the key question and the key answer:
Stahl: …Do you support marriage equality?
Trump: “It’s irrelevant…”
So, in answer to a direct question, Donald Trump didn’t say he supports marriage equality – which he has opposed consistently in interviews since 2000 – but actually said his position is “irrelevant.” That’s not a change in the slightest. What followed in fact indicated that his position is as opposed as ever, but that he believes his position supposedly doesn’t matter any longer. Now, let’s pull out to the larger dialogue:
Lesley Stahl: One of the groups that’s expressing fear are the LGBTQ group. You―
Donald Trump: And yet I mentioned them at the Republican National Convention. And―
Lesley Stahl: You did.
Donald Trump: Everybody said, “That was so great.” I have been, you know, I’ve been a supporter.
Lesley Stahl: Well, I guess the issue for them is marriage equality. Do you support marriage equality?
Donald Trump: It― it’s irrelevant because it was already settled. It’s law. It was settled in the Supreme Court. I mean it’s done.
Lesley Stahl: So even if you appoint a judge that―
Donald Trump: It’s done. It― you have― these cases have gone to the Supreme Court. They’ve been settled. And, I’m fine with that.
To understand this exchange and what Trump said, one has to first have a clear understanding of how Trump treated the LGBTQ issue throughout the campaign.
One of the many failings of much of the media in covering his campaign has been their constantly anticipating Trump would become a conventional candidate – “the pivot” ― but more importantly, that, like other candidates, consistency, style and patterns mattered.
Thus, when Trump didn’t attack LGBTQ people publicly, as he did Mexicans or Muslims, or didn’t make his opposition to marriage equality and overturning Obergefell central to his campaign in highly public forums, it was believed by the press that he either didn’t care about the issue much or was a supporter of LGBTQ rights. That belief was solidified by his using the term “LGBTQ” and, in the context of pitting LGBTQ people against Muslims, saying at the very visible forum of the Republican National Convention (RNC), that he would protect LGBTQ people for a “hateful foreign ideology.”
But any inference that Trump publicly supported domestic policies to protect LGBT people and would support equality measures was absolutely false and one among many wrong assumptions in the media. It continues to be an under-reported story of the campaign, but Trump wanted to appear queer-friendly in larger media ― for reasons I’ll explain ― while dog-whistling or speaking under the radar to anti-LGBTQ evangelical leaders, knowing he needed the evangelical vote.
“Trump doesn’t get to decide what is settled law; the justices he puts on the court do.”
Via their own media and forums, under the radar, Trump told white evangelicals ― who turned out voters to elect him in large percentages, whether the exit polls are off a bit or not ― that he would appoint judges who would overturn Obergefell, which he called a “shocking” ruling. He said he would sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which would affect marriage equality, as I pointed out a few days ago in detail, helping to make it into a kind of second-class marriage and allow for discrimination against LGBT people based on religious beliefs. And he chose the anti-LGBTQ Mike Pence as his running mate, something the religious right applauded and has now put him in charge of the transition team, where the horrifically anti-LGBTQ former secretary of state of Ohio, Ken Blackwell, has been put in charge of domestic policy. That could mean the end of LGBTQ-focused anti-bullying programs in schools and blocking money for LGBTQ health and advocacy groups.
So why does Trump engage in window dressing on this issue, having the gay libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel speak at the RNC (even as religious conservatives were hammering out the most anti-LGBTQ RNC platform in history in the basement of the convention center)? And why is Trump again using Thiel as window dressing, putting him on the transition team? Why did Trump use “LGBTQ” at the convention? Why was his first statement to Stahl in the “60 Minutes” interview, after she said LGBTQ people were concerned about his presidency: “And yet I mentioned them at the Republican National Convention. …Everybody said, ‘That was so great.’ I have been, you know, I’ve been a supporter”?
That statement from Trump to Stahl actually betrays the strategy and reason why Trump treated the issue the way he did throughout the campaign. His first response to her question about LGBTQ people being concerned was, “and yet I mentioned them” and “everybody… thought it was great.”
The statement shows that Trump’s treatment of the LGBTQ issue throughout the campaign is in fact a measure of our success. LGBTQ rights moved at a fast pace in recent years, and public opinion shifted dramatically even as a base within the GOP remains staunchly opposed. Throughout the campaign, Trump was smart enough to know that. He knew that having a Republican presidential candidate merely “mentioning” LGBTQ people would satisfy “everybody” ― and by everybody he means the majority of people in the U.S. who now support marriage equality and broader rights for LGBTQ people and, most importantly, including moderate Republicans, independents and suburban women.
Much like his often offensive attempts to court African-Americans were meant less so to get the African-American vote and more so to make white moderates feel comfortable voting for him despite what they might have perceived as a racist sensibility, his approach to LGBTQ issues was meant for a larger audience and not for queer people ― and it still is. But it’s also different from his approach to minorities of color, and certainly to the issue of abortion, for other reasons. LGBTQ people are in every family, including the most conservative, and attacking them loudly in public forums just won’t cut it in the way it did with Mexicans and Muslims among the GOP base.
And abortion is an issue the country still remains deeply divided on, while support for marriage equality has shifted quickly. Even millennial evangelicals are now more likely to support marriage equality and LGBTQ rights – but a majority still oppose abortion. Many women themselves are part of the evangelical groups and other hard-right groups trying to ban abortion. But there are few LGBTQ people fighting against marriage equality or LGBTQ rights. It’s an issue Trump had to play deftly, and much differently, from other social issues. He did it brilliantly, playing the media entirely.
And he continues to do so. Saying to Stahl that the Supreme Court has “settled” marriage equality, and that it is the law, is ludicrous considering the 20 right-wing extremists he’s listed as possible Supreme Court justices, including William H. Pryor, who believes that gay sex should be illegal.
Trump doesn’t get to decide what is settled law; the justices he puts on the court do. And in the same interview, he claimed those justices he chose should and would overturn Roe v. Wade ― somehow not “settled” law while marriage equality somehow is “settled” law.
Stahl allowed him to do this, and much of the media bought it ― as they did throughout the campaign. Trump will continue to try to appear pro-LGBTQ, even as Mike Pence stacks the federal government with homophobes, and as Trump puts people in his administration like staunch anti-LGBTQ Sen. Jeff Sessions, floated as a possible attorney general and thus entrusted with enforcing civil rights laws. And it’s something we’re going to have to push back against again and again.