Trans activist and author: In a fascist America, LGBTQ folk will be "systematically targeted"

Brynn Tannehill says MAGA victory will endanger all Americans, eventually — but people like her will be first

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 28, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump supporters demonstrating against the election results march to the Supreme Court to protest against the Court's decision not to overturn the election, on December 12, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Thousands of protesters who refuse to accept that President-elect Joe Biden won the election are rallying ahead of the electoral college vote to make Trump’s 306-to-232 loss official. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump supporters demonstrating against the election results march to the Supreme Court to protest against the Court's decision not to overturn the election, on December 12, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Thousands of protesters who refuse to accept that President-elect Joe Biden won the election are rallying ahead of the electoral college vote to make Trump’s 306-to-232 loss official. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Violence is central to fascism. It forms its origin myths and is one of the primary ways that fascism asserts itself. The power to engage in acts of violence against designated enemies with near-total impunity is one of the main reasons people join fascist movements. As history makes obvious, once fascists take control of a society they maintain and expand their power through violence.

In an era when the Republican Party, the "conservative" movement and the larger white right have de facto embraced fascism, political violence is a constant threat — and the "culture war" may no longer be largely rhetorical or categorical. Indeed, the struggle over cultural issues are a principal battlefield in the current struggle for American democracy.

There are still too many liberals and progressives who perceive the culture war and its focus on reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality, the role of religion in public life and "identity politics" as somehow being a distraction from "real politics" (largely meaning economic issues). So we repeatedly hear the claim that if the "white working class" understood its real economic interests, it would not support Donald Trump or the Republicans or white supremacy in general. This argument is reductive to the point of being functionally false.

By comparison, Republicans and the right wing at large correctly grasped years ago that culture-war issues are inseparable from "real politics." Indeed, they are fundamental to politics, if we understand that term to mean obtaining and keeping power, authority and resources as a means to assert one's will over others and society more generally. This disconnect is one of the primary reasons why the Democrats and "the left" respond so weakly to Republican culture-war attacks across a range of issues.

What was formerly implied or dog-whistled by the Republicans' culture-war rhetoric — that there are un-American or anti-American enemies in our society who must be purged, oppressed, regulated or perhaps eliminated, as a threat to "real Americans" and "traditional values" — has become far more explicit. Now that the fascist wing of the Republican Party has become its mainstream, the desire for violence is right at the surface. We would be wise to take it seriously.

Brynn Tannehill is an author, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former naval aviator and a senior defense analyst. She is also a leading trans activist. Her essays and other writing have been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, the New Republic, DAME magazine, the Advocate and HuffPost. Her books include "American Fascism: How the GOP Is Subverting Democracy" and "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trans (But Were Afraid to Ask)."

In this conversation, Tannehill reflects on the experience of repeatedly warning the American people about the existential dangers embodied by Donald Trump and the Republican fascist movement, and consistently being ignored. It is now inarguable, she says, that today's Republican Party and the larger conservative moment no longer care about democracy or the American people at large. They only care about winning and keeping unlimited power. Too many Americans, including most of the political class and the news media, remain in denial about that fact.

Tannehill argues that the escalating culture war against LGBTQ people — and trans people in particular — along with others deemed to be the enemy, will almost certainly result in escalating violence, such as a terrorist attack targeting a hospital or other health care provider.

Trump's recent rally in Youngstown, Ohio, she says, offers further proof that the MAGA movement has fully merged with the QAnon conspiracy theory and Christian nationalism in an explosive mix that channels much of the language, symbolism, energy and logic of old-school European fascism and Nazism.

The moral panic directed against the LGBTQ community, Tannehill argues, is just a preview of the kind of violence and oppression that will be visited upon other groups in America — including, ultimately, white people in "Middle America" who believe themselves immune — if the Republican fascists and their allies solidify control over American society.

How are you feeling, given the country's democracy crisis and the unrelenting rise of fascism? How are you making sense of all this?

I am experiencing a deep sense of unease. We're watching America's institutional guardrails being pushed to their limits. We are seeing the effects of what happens when one side can capture the referees. We are seeing this with how the right wing and the Republicans and Ron DeSantis are discriminating against trans people in Florida. We're seeing it with Trump and Judge Aileen Cannon, with the espionage investigation. Masha Gessen warned us, in their famous essay "Autocracy: Rules for Survival," that your institutions will not save you. Eventually the democratic and other societal institutions that you assume will protect you will be corrupted and collapse. 

You tried to warn the American people about what would happen if Trump and the Republicans took control. You have continued to issue such warnings, and few people listened. Even now, too many are in denial about the growing and severe danger. How are you managing that?

It's not sour grapes, or that feeling of "I told you so." But there is definitely a sense that this disaster with Trump and the Republican fascists and the larger movement was fairly predictable. One of the predictions I'm making now is that the Republicans will probably overturn the results of the Arizona vote in the presidential election in 2024. If a Democrat happens to win in 2024, the Republicans are going to do everything to stop the votes from being counted and to otherwise nullify the real election results. This is going to cause a constitutional crisis.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

With a Supreme Court dominated by Trump appointees and other "conservatives," they will follow through on what the Republican elections deniers with their Big Lie want. What the Supreme Court says is constitutional is deemed to be so. At the end, it doesn't really matter what the American people want or think. The Republican fascists have captured many of the country's key institutions and are working to make that power absolute.

There are these hope-peddlers who keep telling the American people that everything will be fine in the end, that Trump is definitely going to jail, that "the walls are closing in" and he is done for. It never happens. I am interested in the psychology at work. How do you think they maintain that narrative? 

Those pundits and other political types who are saying that everything's going to be fine usually aren't Black people, gays and lesbians, queer people or disabled people. It's the people who are going to catch hell that know it is not going to somehow be OK. Most of the people who are peddling that "hopium" are white, straight cisgender men who would consider themselves to be centrists or maybe center-left. They keep seeing what they believe are signs of hope and things looking up. There is a selective reading of polling data and other evidence to reach the conclusion that the American people really don't support the Republicans, the Trumpists, the religious right and all their extremism. 

Those pundits who tell you that everything's going to be fine usually aren't Black people, gays and lesbians, queer people or disabled people.

What they fail to understand is that the Republican Party long ago ceased to care what the American public thinks. They're going to seize power, and they are going to use it to benefit their base and give their base what they want. The base of the Republican Party is extreme. They are bug-nuts crazy. The Republican base wants to completely ban abortion. They want to ban gays from the military and end gay marriage rights. The Republican base wants to have the power to nullify elections if they don't like the results. The Republican base truly wants Donald Trump to be their God King.

One of the dominant media narratives about the Trumpists and Republican fascists is that violence may be coming or is "on the horizon." Again, that's not true. The violence is here. Jan. 6 was just the beginning.

The right-wing propagandists and the others who are inciting violence will of course say that they are not responsible for it, or that it is all a hoax. That is the model of stochastic terrorism they are using. Incite the violence, then claim plausible deniability. The next massacre is imminent. Tucker Carlson and other right-wing personalities and leaders across cable news and now online are targeting hospitals and other places that provide care to trans youth. They are lying about trans youth.  

For example, there's the ridiculous lie that children are being mutilated. It's outright fear-mongering and hatred. The right-wing propagandists and hate-talkers are becoming ever more brazen about directly targeting specific people for violence. Eventually someone is going to walk into one of these hospitals or gender clinics, and they're just going to start killing people. They're going to kill as many people as quickly as they can. One of these terrorists is going to specifically target parents and medical providers. It is almost inevitable.

What did you see at Trump's rally in Youngstown?

Trump was targeting the usual right-wing "enemies" with moral panic and fear-mongering — and of course he was using the QAnon conspiracy theory. QAnon is a cult. Using conspiracy theories to obtain and keep power is Fascism 101. The Nazis used the lie that Germany had been stabbed in the back [at the end of World War I]. For Republicans. It's now the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats and their voters. One aspect of Trump's speech in Youngstown — and this is language and a theme that Trump and his people have been using for some time — is the emphasis on "one nation and one people" and the flag and God. That is very close to what became the slogan used by the Nazis: "One people, one nation, one leader."

What about the QAnon music and the raised one-finger salute?

One important aspect of Trump's speech in Youngstown was the emphasis on "one nation and one people" and the flag and God. That is very close to the slogan used by the Nazis: "One people, one nation, one leader."

It clearly echoes the Nazi salute. That may or may not be coincidental. Historians and other experts have repeatedly highlighted that fascism takes on the characteristics of the nation in which it springs forth. As such, American fascism would have distinctly American characteristics. Sinclair Lewis noted that American fascism would be biblical and Southern. What happened in Youngstown, and with today's Republicans and the MAGA movement more generally, is an example of the way American fascism is overlapping with white evangelical culture. American fascism is wrapping itself in white Christian fundamentalism, and more specifically evangelical fundamentalism. That is what we saw in Youngstown.

What is the role of violence in the Republican fascists' political imagination and actual plan?

There will be violence if Trump is indicted. Someone has arrested their God King. This possibility was always there on the right. Trumpism and this disaster were decades in the making. The Tea Party was the immediate precursor. Trump and his followers with their cult psychology is the Frankenstein monster that the GOP establishment created and then lost control of. Given how the Republicans are rigging the country's electoral system, they really don't have to worry about stopping that monster. They don't care about democracy or consequences. All they care about is giving the base and the most extreme elements of the Republican Party and conservative movement what they want.

Tucker Carlson has literally been telling "neighborhood dads" to attack teachers if they dare to do their jobs by educating children about gender identity or human sexuality. What are the elements of the propaganda model that the right-wing opinion leaders are using?

This is what is known as the "firehose of falsehoods" model. It just needs to be high volume, repetitious and simple. What is being spread doesn't even need to be particularly consistent. It only needs to be loosely associated with reality, if at all. You can just make up whatever you want people to believe, as long as it confirms their pre-existing beliefs. The targeting of gays and lesbians and trans people by the right wing is very similar to how the Nazis targeted Jewish people and other groups.

It's my firm belief that given unlimited power and a political system that has descended into a single-party state, without limits from the Constitution and where the Supreme Court is a rubber stamp, trans people and other members of the LGBTQ community will be systematically targeted for violence and destruction here in America by the Republicans and neofascists.

Given unlimited power and a single-party state, trans people and other members of the LGBTQ community will be systematically targeted by Republicans for violence and destruction.

The Republicans and their allies have successfully branded trans people as a threat to women, children, humanity, Western civilization and the survival of the nation. They are groomers and pedophiles. They will do unspeakable things to children. When people ask how far the GOP would go, given zero constraints and nothing to hold them back and beholden only to their own base — that's something I don't like to think about.

The way that the news media and political class usually speak about and conceptualize the "culture wars" minimizes the real danger and violence. That language is imprecise. In many ways, it minimizes the violence and harm being done by the policies the right is advancing and enacting. How would you intervene?

It's not really much of a culture war, in the sense that the Democrats are not particularly interested in fighting back against it. The Christian right, in particular, is winning. They have a huge numerical and resource advantage against the people they are targeting, specifically the LGBTQ community. They genuinely believe that gays and lesbians and trans people are a threat to their God and society.

Florida is the frontline laboratory for the Republican fascist war on democracy, freedom and civil rights. What do you see taking place there? 

No place in the United States is going to be safe for trans people or anyone else once Republicans control all three branches of the federal government. Republicans will override state laws and use federal power to target trans people and others they want to punish, including women who want to exercise their reproductive freedom and rights. Blue states are going to have to make a decision. Do they remain loyal to a federal government controlled by Republicans? The same Republicans who have stolen elections and seized illegitimate control of the country?  Or do they protect the citizens of their state from a rapacious federal government? Do we as a country and a people accept a slide into becoming one fascist nation under a white evangelical God? Or do we fracture apart?

Blue states will have to make a decision: Do they remain loyal to a federal government controlled by Republicans — the same Republicans who have stolen elections and seized illegitimate control of the country?

This kind of creeping fascism, illiberalism and corruption impacts everyone eventually. It will come after those people who believe they are immune. Let's say that you're a middle-aged white guy and your daughter has an ectopic pregnancy. She is bleeding out — she dies in screaming agony because she couldn't get authorization to terminate the pregnancy in time from the hospital lawyers and the resident Catholic priest. Maybe you are a small business owner, and you need a license. OK, there had better be a couple of $100 bills underneath the application that you submit. When you look at places that have fallen to "competitive authoritarianism," such as Hungary and Russia, corruption and graft are rampant. That's just the way things are done.

What is your rebuttal to someone who says, "I'm not gay or queer or trans. I have nothing against them, but I don't really care either way about their issues." Or someone who sees what DeSantis did in sending refugees to Massachusetts and says, "Who cares? They shouldn't have come here anyway." What do you tell such people?

Everybody who watches a zombie movie assumes that they're going to be part of the resistance and not part of the shambling, undead brain-eating horde. All these people assume that under a fascist system they are going to be among the winners. There are many more losers in a fascist system than winners. The winners make sure that their people get taken care of first, and if you're not near the front of the line for the goodies you aren't going to get them. The vast majority of Americans are not going to be rewarded by fascism.

There are also people on both sides of the political divide who will say that you are being an "alarmist" or "divisive," and that none of these horrible things could possibly happen in America. What would you tell them?

It's not meant to be divisive. It's meant as a warning. Fascism is highly predictable. It is like a killer asteroid that is heading straight for the Earth. The only people it's not blindingly obvious to are the ones who are deliberately keeping their eyes shut.

Is Donald Trump done for? Is he going to jail? What do you think happens next?

I think that more investigations are coming. An indictment is coming, and it is going to cause a lot of tumult. Donald Trump is seriously wounded politically. I believe Ron DeSantis is going to be the Republican nominee in 2024. Trump's embrace of the QAnon craziness shores up his base, but it doesn't help him with what's left of the less crazy segments of the Republican Party. The model going forward is Trumpism without Trump. Justice takes a long time. I do not believe that Trump is going to be tried and convicted for some time, if ever. Trump may mount a third-party run or tell his base not to vote because the Republican nomination was rigged against him.

In the end, the Republicans and the other neofascists want to win by any means. They want it much more than the Democrats want to stop them. Yes, the right wing is delusional and out of touch with reality. But in a different way the Democrats are also delusional, because so many of their leaders and voters don't want to accept that today's Republican Party is intent on ending American democracy. Once the Republicans have full control of the government and power across the country, they will use it in unimaginable ways. The Democrats refuse to accept that fact. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega