July 26, 2017, was a personal anniversary for me: one year earlier I had written a piece in which I argued for setting aside the idea of a Trump-Russia conspiracy (yes, this idea was with us a year ago) for the much more important task of imagining what a Trump presidency might bring. I wrote that Trump would unleash a war at home and while it was difficult to predict the target, “my money is actually on the LGBT community because its acceptance is the most clear and drastic social change in America of the last decade, so an antigay campaign would capture the desire to return to a time in which Trump’s constituency felt comfortable.” This was a thought exercise; even as I made an argument that I believed to be logical, I could not believe my own words. On Wednesday of this week, one year to the day since I made that prediction, President Trump announced, by tweet, that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the US military—a policy reversal that would directly and immediately affect thousands of people.
Many commentators immediately branded this move a distraction, an attempt to draw attention away from the Russian-conspiracy story, the health care battle, or anything else they deem more important than the president’s declaration that a group of Americans are second-class citizens. This is not only a grievous insult to transgender people but a basic failure to understand the emotional logic of Trumpism. This is a logic that Trump shares with most modern-day strongmen, and it was this logic that made his attack on LGBT rights so predictable, even while he was literally draping a rainbow flag over his body last year.
Trump got elected on the promise of a return to an imaginary past—a time we don’t remember because it never actually was, but one when America was a kind of great that Trump has promised to restore. Trumps shares this brand of nostalgia with Vladimir Putin, who has spent the last five years talking about Russian “traditional values,” with Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who has warned LGBT people against becoming “provocative,” and with any number of European populists who promise a return to a mythical “traditional” past.