In a series of tweets Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump dictated a new policy for the US military: transgender people will not be allowed to serve. Reaction was swift, emphatic and hotly divided. Many citizens, celebrities and service members were dismayed and expressed support for trans troops. But on the far right, especially at outlets like Breitbart, the ban was enthusiastically applauded. While the ban seemed arbitrary and capricious, the divisive reaction to it may have been precisely the point.
Officially, Trump’s stated reason for the ban is the “tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” Congressional Republicans had insisted, as a condition for funding Trump’s border wall, that the government not pay the medical costs associated with trans service members’ sexual reassignment. Trump’s declaration of an outright ban reportedly surprised them, as well as top military brass. But cost can’t have been Trump’s driving concern.
According to a RAND Corporation study, trans people in the military “have minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.” Meanwhile overall defense spending is nearly as high as it’s ever been, and Trump has repeatedly boasted that he will increase it. This ban isn’t a serious cost-saving measure, nor is it necessary to gain concessions from congressional Republicans. It hurts people, not corporations, so it’s in line with GOP philosophy, and it throws a juicy hunk of red meat to Trump’s rabidly transphobic, proudly deplorable base.
Prior to the announcement, and aside from healthcare, the biggest news of the week was Trump’s feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions is a racist good ol’ boy who’s widely viewed as a pillar of Trump’s nationalistic, anti-immigrant platform. Trump’s highly publicized criticism of him was not going over well in far-right media. The trans ban, as well as the Justice Department’s attempt to rescind protections for LGBTQ workers, may stabilize Trump’s ship with the alt-right.
For much of Trump’s presidency, he has purposely been as divisive as possible. Even a recent speech to the Boy Scouts was tainted by his toxic ravings. In that speech, as throughout his life, he emphasized loyalty. He has demanded loyalty from the media, legislators, law enforcement, and the courts. His ban on trans service members is old-school bigotry for the home team, but it is also a way for him to test those loyalties.
So far, not so good. The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement that the Pentagon would not enact Trump’s trans ban until it received official word from the White House. It’s relatively minor, but we are witnessing active discord between the White House and the Department of Defense. The White House has sent the Pentagon no actual plan, and the Pentagon has said the president’s tweets do not dictate policy.
Trump is extremely distrustful of the very government he now runs. Apparently not fully trusting of the Secret Service, Trump retained the use of a private security detail well after his election. He doesn’t even trust several of his own appointees. Perhaps his biggest fear is of the deep state, a network of tenured bureaucrats and national security personnel that Trump and his far-right base believe seeks to undermine him.
In Trump’s ideal world, the military and intelligence services would be loyal only to him. Despite his own history of dodging service and his disrespectful remarks about prisoners of war, support for Trump in the armed forces is slightly higher than in the general population. On the other hand, some 70 percent of LGBTQ Americans supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump likely calculated that it won’t cost him any more political points to target trans people.
One thing is for certain: the ban has nothing to do with cost or military performance. By doubling down on hate and bigotry, Trump can test his limits. It’s a feeler for how obedient the military will be to its cartoonish commander-in-chief. And while his presidency is besieged by political failure, broken promises, and the Russia investigation, it’s also a way to shore up the loyalty of his most despicable supporters – who may soon be all that Trump has left.