Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media
On Wednesday, a man who never served in his country's armed forces attacked the soldiers who sacrifice on its behalf. A man who bragged of assaulting women declared the gender identity of patriotic citizens to be "disruptive." A man who swore to serve the United States endangered its security by stating he would strip the rights of citizens who have fought long and hard not only to defend their countrymen, but to be afforded basic dignity and respect.
President Donald Trump's announcement that he is banning transgender Americans from serving in the military has been dismissed by some as a distraction, but an attack on civil rights is never a distraction: it's a serious offence, and a familiar one.
Like all autocrats, Mr. Trump targets vulnerable minorities, presenting them not as victims but as a threat to the majority – despite the fact that in this case, transgender soldiers are willing to lay their lives on the line to protect that majority's safety. By announcing his policy on Twitter without consulting the Pentagon, Mr. Trump showed yet again his complete disregard for process, protocol and serving the public.
When the Commander-in-Chief tweets about the military, one does not get to dismiss it as trolling. When the President threatens innocent citizens, one does not get to see it as a stunt. The pain it causes is real, and so are the political repercussions.
It is a sign of how dangerously out of control the Trump administration is that the Pentagon, when watching his first tweet roll out, initially thought the President of the United States might be announcing an attack on North Korea and anxiously waited for nine minutes before learning he was attacking citizens instead. There are many reasons that Mr. Trump should be removed from power – violation of the emoluments clause, suspected collusion with a hostile state – but his ability to destabilize the world in 140-character increments ranks high.
As Trump lackeys such as Julian Assange told the world to ignore the tweets, Democrats, Republicans, military officials and citizens sprang into action to defend transgender servicemen and servicewomen. Senators ranging from liberal Kamala Harris to conservative Orrin Hatch denounced the decision, while health-care experts dismissed Mr. Trump's fatuous claim that transgender military members created excessive medical costs, some noting that the military spends 10 times more on erectile-dysfunction medications than it does on trans health care.
By launching a casually vitriolic attack on both a vulnerable minority and on the military, Mr. Trump misread the room, angering all but a fraction of his base. That his words are rightly condemned does not, however, give us the luxury to dismiss them. The declared ban on transgender service members was followed by a Justice Department statement that LGBT citizens should not be protected from work-force discrimination. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions had met throughout the year with anti-LGBT groups so extreme that they do not believe LGBT people should exist.
Mr. Trump's words are not merely hateful rhetoric. They are part of a cruel, discriminatory and potentially lethal philosophy supported by an administration with the power to transform rhetoric into policy.
Transgender citizens who serve in the military do not get to choose their battles. Citizens who seek to ensure all Americans have civil rights should not choose their battles either, but recognize that an attack on one group is part of an attack on all. Martin Niemoeller's famous poem First they came … was shown in action over a mere 12-hour period: First they came for the transgender military members, then for the rest of LGBT Americans.
Since January, the Trump administration – the likes of Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon – has targeted Muslims, Latino immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups. Broader initiatives such as TrumpCare – which will not only deprive millions of access to medical care but likely destabilize the U.S. economy – hurt the whole population, including the white conservatives to whom Mr. Trump caters. His attack on transgender service members is also in line with Mr. Trump's prior attacks on the military, including his slander of a Gold Star family and the service of Senator John McCain.
In other words, no one is safe from this administration. Mr. Trump is following the standard procedure of an autocracy by focusing heavily on a minuscule and maligned group. That transgender Americans are targeted matters in itself, but it is also indicative of broader persecutory ambitions. If Americans want to stop it, we need to do what transgender soldiers have done: stand up and protect our countrymen – in this case, sadly, from their President.