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The ‘Trump Pride’ rally won’t win over LGBTQ voters. So why hold it?

Welcome to “homonationalism,” or justifying anti-immigrant policies by arguing that immigrants threaten gay rights.

Over the past week, Tiffany Trump has been roundly mocked on social media, after speaking at a “Trump Pride” rally in Tampa, along with Richard Grenell, President Trump’s former ambassador to Germany. The rally was part of the campaign’s outreach to LGBTQ voters, attempting to portray the president and the Republican Party as committed allies. Tiffany Trump dismissed criticism of her father’s policies toward LGBTQ communities as “fabricated lies.” Grenell, who is gay, repeated his claim that Donald Trump is “the most pro-gay” American president in history. But those claims clashed with the reality of the Trump administration’s record on LGBTQ rights.

Some on social media called the video “cringeworthy.” LGBTQ advocates widely attacked the claim that Trump was pro-gay. For instance, Equality Florida’s director Nadine Smith said in a statement, “Donald Trump is the worst president the LGBTQ community has ever seen.”

In the United States, as elsewhere, LGBTQ voters primarily support left-leaning parties. So why hold such an event at all? Because it’s not really aimed at LGBTQ people — but at persuading other voters that the Trump administration is actually pro-gay.

Trump’s record on LGBTQ rights

According to GLAAD’s Trump Accountability Project, the Trump-Pence administration has rolled back more than 180 protections for LGBTQ communities. These include expanding employers’ religious exemptions to anti-LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws; appointing judges and Supreme Court justices who have in the past ruled on the side of limiting marriage equality and LGBTQ rights generally; and voting against a United Nations resolution to condemn the use of the death penalty for homosexuality.

At the rally, the Trump campaign logo had the word “PRIDE” where “Pence” usually goes. Vice President Pence has worked against LGBTQ rights since his time as an Indiana governor. He became the first vice president to address the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council and has supported religious freedom bills that human rights groups warn would enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

As Tiffany Trump spoke about pride, she notably omitted mentioning the “T” (for “transgender”). That’s particularly telling. Since 2017, her father’s administration has withdrawn regulatory protections for transgender children to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity in schools; fought any effort to extend federal employment protections to cover transgender people; banned them from serving in the military; rescinded any protections from harassment in prisons; and threatened to withhold funding to schools allowing transgender girls to participate in girls’ sports.

The pope said he supports civil unions. American Catholics will approve.

Advocates have even criticized Grenell’s initiative to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide, which so far has had no results, as a way to deflect attention from the administration’s record at home.

LGBTQ people vote in significant numbers — but left of center, worldwide

In 2019, the Williams Institute found that people who identify themselves as LGBT constitute 4.5 percent of the U.S. population. At least 9 million LGBTQ American adults are registered to vote. In an NBC exit poll for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary on Super Tuesday, almost 1 in 10 voters identified as LGBTQ.

No wonder, then, the Trump campaign and far-right parties in many countries have wooed LGBTQ voters, incorporating some “gay rights” language into their campaigns and platforms.

This rhetoric is often delivered alongside nativist and xenophobic messaging. For example, the Trump campaign has attacked immigrants, especially Muslims, as threatening the liberal protections enjoyed by the LGBTQ community — much as far-right parties have done in European countries such as France, the Netherlands and Germany

However, the vast majority of LGBTQ voters continue to reliably support left-leaning parties. In the United States, 78 percent reported voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, while only 14 percent said they backed President Trump. And in the 2018 midterm elections, 82 percent of LGBTQ voters said they chose Democratic candidates.

That’s likely to continue. This past spring, political scientists Gabriele Magni and Andrew Reynolds polled 590 likely LGBTQ voters in eight swing states as well as California, New York, Texas and Indiana. The survey was administered online by the research firm Dynata to a sample of respondents representative of voters nationwide. Asked who they’d vote for in the November election, 72 percent chose the Democratic candidate, while 15 percent chose Trump. In September, a GLAAD poll of LGBTQ adults similarly found that 76 percent supported Joe Biden and 17 percent Trump.

LGBTQ voters in other industrialized democracies also skew toward left-of-center parties. In a recent British study, 77 percent backed one of the U.K.’s left-leaning parties that has a track record of supporting LGBTQ rights. In Germany and Austria, upward of 90 percent of the LGBTQ electorate reported voting for left-of-center parties in recent elections.

Scandal hurts gay candidates more than straight ones — but in a roundabout way.

Who is invited into Trump’s pride coalition?

So why, then, do far-right parties court LGBTQ voters who, in the aggregate, are less likely to support them? Part of the answer comes from what scholars refer to as “homonationalism,” or the strategic leveraging of rhetorical support for LGBT people to justify anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies. Some gay populists argue that these groups are culturally and inherently hostile to rights for lesbians, gay men, transgender people, and women.

One of us, Zein Murib, recently published a study arguing that events like the Trump Pride rally are targeting not LGBTQ people but voters who say they care about democratic values such as equality. Trump’s rhetoric aims to reassure them, much as his claim that he is the “least racist” person aims to reassure White voters.

Tiffany Trump’s October Pride rally speech mentioned “equality” several times — but didn’t use words “gay” or “lesbian” once. Draping the Trump administration in the rainbow flag may be symbolic at best.

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Phillip M. Ayoub (@Phillip_Ayoub) is associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College.

Gabriele Magni (@gabmagni) is assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University.

Zein Murib (@zeinmurib) is assistant professor of political science at Fordham University.

Stuart Turnbull-Dugarte (@turnbulldugarte) is lecturer in political science at Southampton University.