Since January, opening email yields at least one urgent call to action from any number of progressive groups. As a journalist who’s spent the better part of a decade reporting on the LGBT community, I’m no stranger to the motivational value of panicked predictions of impending legislative disasters. That kind of all-hands-on-deck organizing has long proven crucial to forming a unified front of resistance, and indeed worked well to build broad coalitions of opposition to blatant anti-LGBT laws like North Carolina’s House Bill 2, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and any number of ill-fated attempts to block the forward march of marriage equality.
But my professional pedigree also breeds skepticism. And although it’s long been clear that the current administration is hell-bent on turning back the clock on basic civil rights for anyone who’s not a straight white evangelical Christian man, I often wonder whether the near-constant panic that circulates among today’s progressive groups doesn’t sometimes cross a line into a kind of performative anxiety that ceases to be productive.
So on the heels of Jeff Sessions’s latest administrative love letter to white conservative Christians—in the form of two DOJ memos instructing government employees in the art of appropriate deference to “religious freedom” claims—I sought out experts in law, history, and civil service to help me understand whether things are really as dire as they seem. While I usually embark on reporting projects without a pre-determined outcome, I’ll admit that I expected measured responses from my sources, and assumed they would assuage some of the fear and doomsday predictions that currently cloud my feed.
I was wrong. Across the board, experts I spoke with who’ve studied history, dedicated their lives to advancing civil rights, and worked across several administrations pursuing greater equity, said that the threat level currently facing American democracy and the progressive movement is indeed dire, if not wholly unprecedented. And while most of these experts expressed hope in the resilience of the American experiment, they were also careful not to understate the damage that has already been done to longstanding socio-political norms, and the very real assaults being waged against the same diverse communities that many hoped were a sign of the progressive, multicultural America of tomorrow.
“It’s not the first time we’ve been down this road,” said Mary Frances Berry, a legal scholar and historian currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, who served as chairperson of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission across four administrations. Berry pointed to the Reagan administration as the closest historical approximation of the Trump administration, particularly given the installation of civil rights opponents to lead the Department of Justice, and the elevation of corporate executives to oversee agencies that regulate their own industries. “In every one of those cases, people at first despaired, and were sad, and mourned,” she continued, referring to Reagan-era resistance. “But then they organized, and they were able to win some victories.”
Berry, who attended a segregated high school when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, was the most optimistic of the experts I spoke with. She sees the current historical moment as part of a longstanding pattern of the expansion of civil rights being met with forceful pushback from powerful people and institutions. She chuckled when relating stories about her scheduled speeches in the months after the 2016 election, recounting that no one wanted to hear her speak, but instead seemed content to just sit in a room together and cry.
But slowly, “people got up off their do-nothing stools, as my mother would have said, and started organizing.” Berry pointed to the numerous failed efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, raucous town hall meetings with members of Congress, and even the administration’s own back-and-forth on some key legislative priorities as evidence of successfully organized resistance.
And despite the overwhelming sense of constant calamity that Trump’s tweets tend to elicit, Berry sees room for progress. Because the administration’s assault on civil rights has largely been an attempted death by a thousand (regulatory) paper cuts, “what you have to do is oppose them by a thousand cuts,” Berry explained. “Make sure that you have plenty of people that comment during the public comment period; overwhelm [the relevant agencies] with comments. Then insist that, procedurally, they review them, which takes a long time. You just keep pushing the envelope… at the same time that you use the media and public pressure to call attention to things—that’s part of the strategy. In other words, you use everything you can use.”
There’s no question that Trump has thus far leaned heavily on executive action to advance his policy goals—which is not uncommon for presidents faced with a divided (or, in this case, deeply dysfunctional) Congress. And while Trump has signed more executive orders to date than any president since Harry Truman, the actual policy impact of those orders varies widely. Legal guidance and memos from the Departments of Justice, Education, or Defense—and the rescinding of such guidance issued under Obama—have a similar ability to elicit panic among progressive communities. But those too are constrained by regulatory, constitutional, and jurisprudential parameters. But that doesn’t mean progressives can rest on their laurels and place unlimited faith in the institutions that are supposed to serve as checks and balances.
Vanita Gupta, the former acting assistant attorney general who led the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights from 2014 until this past January, stressed that agency guidance—like the DOJ’s religious freedom memos issued earlier this month—cannot unilaterally change existing law, only clarify it. “The guidances don’t articulate new law,” Gupta explained. But such guidance is intended to inform policy-making, and does generally reflect the legal judgment of the DOJ—which is why the latest religious freedom memos give Gupta pause.
Calling that guidance “fairly dangerous,” Gupta pointed to the fact that the latest DOJ memo “creates funding priorities that can result in a resetting of priorities about who’s getting money, what programs are not getting funded anymore, [and, for example,] whether an LGBTQ social security recipient is going to be able to access their benefit, if the clerk at hand has got an anti-LGBTQ belief based on their religion. And so that can have very dire consequences on real people’s lives.”
(Just days after Gupta made these remarks to RD, Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to answer Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin’s question about whether the “religious freedom” guidance his office authored would permit precisely the scenario Gupta articulated. A spokesperson at Sen. Durbin’s office told me on that the Senator plans to send a letter to the DOJ reiterating these questions, in hopes of receiving a timely answer from the nation’s top law-enforcement agency about the scope of the guidance it just issued.)
Gupta acknowledged that “it’s hard to not be alarmed” by the actions this administration continues to take, particularly by the DOJ’s commitment to “dismantling some of the protections” Obama’s DOJ implemented. “We have to be spurred to action, we have to be vigilant,” Gupta said. “Across the board, [this administration] has been putting forth a very narrow and small vision of who belongs in this country, and who should be an American. And we have to push back on that with the greatest of force.”
“I don’t think that Jeff Sessions and his agenda is going to fool anyone or stop that momentum,” Gupta concluded, speaking broadly about the grassroots sea change that has occurred in American culture on some LGBT issues, like marriage equality. “But I do think that it is sending a very dangerous message: that the federal government is no longer standing behind vulnerable communities, and communities that need protection by our civil rights laws, because of tremendous discrimination that still exists in this country.”
While LGBT Americans are by no means the only community in the crosshairs, the administration’s uncharacteristic focus on rolling back legal and legislative protections for LGBT people does set the Trump-Pence White House apart from even its most politically regressive predecessors.
Faced with that kind of targeted aggression, LGBT and progressive communities aren’t engaged in a moral panic, but rather responding appropriately to an accurate assessment of what’s at stake, said Gillian A. Frank, a history scholar and visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Studies on Religion, who co-hosts the “Sexing History” podcast.
“I think that what we’re seeing is the Trump administration’s assault on democratic institutions, but also on institutional protections for GLBTQ people,” said Frank. “Trump is not novel nor is he a break from the anti-gay animus of the Republican party, but I think there’s an escalation and an accentuation of that animus, along with an active attempt to court elements of the religious right who do wish gay people harm.”
Indeed, as I wrote back in May, Trump and his allies have demonstrated a deep commitment to erasing LGBT people in every aspect of public life: from the military, to the National Park Service, to educational institutions, to equal access to public accommodations and employment protections for gay and trans people. Along with xenophobic scapegoating and reticence to condemn white supremacy, stalwart opposition to basic dignity for LGBT Americans has been one of the administration’s most consistent positions.
It’s that far-reaching dedication to the erosion of progress made over the past several decades that each of the experts saw as a reasonable cause for concern.
“These are not overreactions,” said Frank of the general all-hands-on-deck approach to organizing resistance to Trump’s agenda. “These are apt assessments that people’s lives are literally on the line.”
“Look, this administration has had a deeply anti-LGBTQ agenda, and it will harm and hurt real people’s lives,” said Vanita Gupta. “And yet, at the same time, the momentum and the culture change that’s happened in this country, through the LGBTQ movement, through the marriage movement and the like, I think is unstoppable.”
Frank agreed: “One of the ways in which anti-gay conservative groups have been successful in the past has been through dominating the public conversation. They’ve been able to demonize queer people and perpetuate myths that LGBTQ people are sick, that they’re dangerous, that they’re pathological. And I think that what the past decades have shown us is the gains that LGBTQ communities have made in challenging those stereotypes and the institutions that perpetuate them.”
Social media—that same beast that enables presidential proclamation via Twitter—has been crucial in building broad, intersectional coalitions that Frank says are “historically unprecedented.” The immediacy of social media, combined with its unparalleled ability to facilitate real-time organizing, has allowed those being targeted by regressive policies to respond directly to those attacks, refusing to let demonizing rhetoric go unchallenged.
“What is different in the recent past is queer visibility, and [the community’s] ability to counter right-wing demonization,” Frank concluded. “I think that remains hugely important to answer these narratives. And I think different communities are going to do that in different ways.”
Mary Frances Berry noted that while modern technology and social media can be used to “keep us under surveillance… it can also be used to mobilize people.”
“So if you remember the past and what happened in the past, and you remember that it is possible to change these things, then I think that you wouldn’t have such despair,” Berry continued. “That’s the bottom line. So there’s no reason for people to throw up both hands every time Trump does something.”
Ultimately, what each of the experts I spoke to articulated was a tacit embrace of panic—not only as an organizing tool, but as a reasonable, rational response to the tangible threats made against freedoms many believed to be fundamental and against progress many hoped was cemented. Crucially, though, each person also drew an implicit line between panic and despair—the former functions as motivation and an often effective call to action, while the latter makes action feel impossible, or worse, useless. Despite grave assessments of the state of American democracy, each of the experts also expressed hope, and a belief that individual citizens, united in a struggle against oppressive political forces, can change the course of history.