Watching President Trump attempt to navigate complex political issues reminds me of a crying child wobbling on the pony of a merry-go-round. His parents keep yelling at him to hold on to the pole. But the child is too scared, or too defiant, to listen. He just wants off.
Time and time again, Trump has made life difficult for himself. In short-circuiting a Pentagon process to decide how to integrate transgender troops, he has increased the chances that he will not get his way, assuming, indeed, that he wants to rid the military of every serving transgender person and prevent anyone who identifies as trans from serving in the future.
If he did bring clown genius powers of persuasion to the presidential campaign — and I'm not so convinced of that — the man has either lost his touch, or his ability to mold minds has collapsed under the weight of the stresses of the presidency.
He spectacularly misread the politics of his decision.
Yes, it's true that many evangelical Christians remain implacably opposed to transgender rights. A larger number of Americans might feel viscerally uncomfortable with transgender people. Soldiers are skeptical. A few "Christian leaders" at the top of the D.C. conservative lobbyist food pyramid need a solid win against cultural degenerates to convince their own flock that they remain relevant.
But within moments of Trump's tweets, three conservative Christian senators — Orrin Hatch of Utah, Richard Shelby of Alabama, and Joni Ernst of Iowa — said that Trump was wrong. All of them, in fact, said he was wrong in much the same way: "You ought to treat everyone fairly and give everyone a chance to serve," said Shelby. "Transgender people are people and deserve the best we can do for them," said Hatch. Ernst, a decorated veteran, asked a spokesperson to put it this way: "Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity."
Why? Keeping people who are already doing something from doing something because of who they are strikes us as a government-inflicted blow against their liberty, in much the same way as forcing someone to do something against their will does. If you think that bakers ought to have the right to refuse service to gay couples, you might find common cause with those who don't want to tear transgender people away from their commitment to the military.
Josh Barro has written that, broadly speaking, inclusion is popular; forcing change on people is not. In this he is channeling a vein of criticism aimed at Democrats, who underestimate the disruptive effects of inclusion-by-fiat, or the revulsion that campus deplatforming and speech policing evokes among people who aren't on college campuses. There is something to this, I suspect, but I also think that gender and sexuality are special cases. Americans do not seem to care in the main about the prospective mass deportation of immigrants, and more than 60 million of them voted for a man who explicitly promised to exclude people from the country because they were Muslim.
Even if candidate Trump's hyperbolic promises were attempts to pace his supporters and prepare them to accept much less when he became president, Americans seem enchanted by the politics of exclusion. Immigration politics is as wedded to policy as one can get, and while Americans say they support a pathway to citizenship and fair treatment, Republicans win on the issue because conservative anti-amnesty voters care more about the subject than everyone else. Want to know who's winning the culture war? Look at the polling, sure, but look at which side cares more. They're more motivated in every respect. And Americans, including the white voters who switched from Obama to Trump, don't seem to care much about transgender people. They don't think about them. They aren't threatened by them. So it may strike them as odd that the president has taken such a strident stance.
Even if Trump read the temper of the times correctly, his own actions still throw up an obstacle to their enactment. One reason why openly gay soldiers and sailors and airmen found a military culture that was quick to accept them is because President Obama held fast — often to the annoyance of gay rights activists — to a long deliberative process that allowed each objection to be raised and answered, and gave most stakeholders a voice. I don't know what Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wants in his heart, but his decision to delay implementation of transgender integration demonstrated a faith in that process. (My personal sympathies are obvious, and fortunately, there is some evidence that the real world comports with my sensibilities.)
A few minutes after Trump tweeted, a White House official sent a preening justification to Axios' Jonathan Swan: "This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue. How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?"
Wrong. Rust belt voters don't care. Blue-collar voters aren't as maliciously ignorant as this official seems to think. And Debbie Stabenow has nothing to defend.