Claire Potter

Here's what the campaign against a trans Olympic athlete is really about

New Zealander Laurel Hubbard, the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Olympic games, did not come close to winning her weightlifting event in Tokyo. But that makes no difference to the right-wing pundits who want to feed the American culture war.

Fewer than 5 percent of the population identifies as transgender. So why has the right become so focused on excluding women and girls like Hubbard from sports? And what fears are they stoking?

Hubbard handled the attacks with grace. She held her hands up in a heart after her final lift, and insisted she never wanted so much attention. "I am aware that my participation has been controversial," she said after her event. She then thanked "the IOC for living up to the Olympic values and showing that sport is for all and that weightlifting can be done by all types of people."

Based on the principle that they are primarily about participation and international friendship, the Olympic Games were a perfect platform for making a statement about transgender inclusion. In the past, the Games have also challenged global racial stereotypes. Remember the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, when a bobsled team from tropical Jamaica first represented their nation in a sport that only requires athletic prowess and training, not native snow?

Hubbard's path to the Olympics was differently long and difficult. Competing as a young man in the 1990s, she was a junior champion dogged by gender dysphoria who retired in 2001. After transitioning in 2012, Hubbard returned to training, coming to the Tokyo Games as the seventh-ranked woman in the world in her weight class.

After Hubbard's selection to the New Zealand team in June, there were protests outside that nation's London embassy. A group called "Save Women's Sports Australasia" sent a letter to the New Zealand sports ministry warning that including "biological males in female sport" would end in the "exclusion of females" from all athletic competition.

Such concerns are at the root of an earlier, unresolved, controversy. Athletes identified female at birth, but with high natural testosterone levels, have been told to take hormone blockers by the International Olympic Committee. South African track star Caster Semenya and three others refused to compete in Tokyo under these conditions.

Conversely, Laurel Hubbard, who did comply with the IOC's directive, seems to confound the assertion that anyone with a male history is naturally dominant in a women's competition. Six female Olympians who are not transgender posted better results than Hubbard did prior to the Tokyo Games. And the record books show that in Tokyo, her first two lifts failed and Hubbard did not finish the competition.

Yet American far-right pundits saw her very presence as an opportunity to fire up enthusiasm for the more than 100 anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures, many designed to force children to conform socially to a sex that doesn't match their gender identity.

When Hubbard was named to the New Zealand Olympic team, Fox's Laura Ingraham pilloried her for "shamelessly taking a spot from a female competitor." Legendary anti-trans bigot Ben Shapiro repeatedly called Hubbard "a dude" and her participation "wildly unfair."

Hubbard's poor athletic performance stopped no one from insisting she cheated. Podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey went to Twitter jail under the "hateful conduct" rule for saying, "Laura Hubbard failing at the event doesn't make his inclusion fair. He's still a man and men shouldn't compete against women in weightlifting." And youth organizer Charlie Kirk, also a notorious anti-vaxxer, tweeted that Hubbard's inclusion was yet another sign that "science is harmful disinformation."

American critics of transgender inclusion insist that transgender women remain male, and will always dominate athletes sexed female at birth. But it's not true. Really, it's not true. In the United States, of the 20 states where athletes may now only compete in the gender assigned at birth, there has been no instance of any competitor sexed male at birth then becoming dominant in a women's sport. None.

This raises the question of whether the conflict over trans sports is really about athletics at all or whether it is simply another weapon in the arsenal of resentment and fear that conservatives use to mobilize their troops against the liberal establishment. Like the campaign against so-called "critical race theory," conservative demagogues distract their audiences from real problems—economic inequality, difficulty in accessing education and lack of affordable housing and medical care—by insisting that the system is rigged against them.

But athletics do play a special role. They signal that "woke liberals" have rigged the system, not just against conservatives, but their kids.

Yes, voters have always been easily activated by the manufactured threat that children will be harmed by LGBTQ people. But elite athletic competition is the province of the young and a route to success for the disenfranchised. Two-thirds of the almost 12,000 Olympians in Tokyo were in their 20s and have been training for this moment since they were children. The promise of Olympic gold can also be a narrow and selective path to college scholarships and professional and financial success. And for every athlete, there is at least one parent who invested time, hope, love and money in an Olympic dream.

Are right-wing pundits, and their counterparts in state legislatures, really afraid of Laurel Hubbard and others like her? No, not really, although they may believe that gender and sex are unchangeable. But encouraging voters to fear transgender women as a threat to the right to compete fairly is yet another big lie, one that steers conservative voters away from political realities and towards an alliance with the ideologues fighting an endless culture war.

Republicans put themselves in a box — after driving the nation into a ditch​

Why, at this time of desperate need, does the Republican leadership refuse to put its fingerprints on legislation that relieves the American people's suffering? Not one Republican in the entire US Congress voted for the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

If you scrolled through right-wing social media last weekend, you'd see the top news was not the increased pace of vaccination or the arrival of $1,400 stimmies. It was Joe Biden's triple-stumble on the staircase to Air Force One. A particularly creative meme tweeted out by Donald Trump, Jr. interspersed video of the former president hitting golf balls, which then appeared to hit Biden in the head and knock him down.

United behind obstructionism so extreme it overwhelmed the need to pass legislation when the GOP controlled both chambers of the Congress, Biden tripping and falling now counts as a Republican win. In fact, over the four years of the Trump administration, exactly one major piece of legislation was passed, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, a big unwrapped present to corporations, but not to the American people. Instead, congressional Republicans have unified behind the bizarre theory that Congress must deliver cultural criticism and mean jokes about their colleagues.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell once proudly called himself the "grim reaper" of Democratic legislation. In the last four years, however, he also kept bipartisan legislation—universal background checks for gun purchases, promoting net neutrality, and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act—off the Senate floor.

In fact, the GOP seems engaged in dismantling the government, a project the 2017 tax package enhanced. Even as the national debt spiraled upwards to $27 trillion by the end of 2020 (a number that will probably go higher when the Covid-19 pandemic is fully calculated), vital government responsibilities like public health, delivering the mail, and monitoring tax returns were starved of funding and personnel.

Yet congressional Republicans, still reeling from their 2020 election losses and in desperate need of a win, don't see helping their own constituents as a way back to power in 2022. In fact, they seem to be willing to absorb as many legislative losses as they need to, including voting unanimously against the nearly $2 trillion covid pandemic relief package that delivers tangible aid to their constituents. Why?

The most obvious answer is that the Republican Party has put itself in a box. It cannot embrace popular right-wing conspiracy theories that Biden is a tired, confused old man fronting for socialists (which seems to be their strategy for 2022) while simultaneously doing business with him. Instead, the Party of No portrays itself as taking a principled stand against obvious—and, importantly, hidden—government interference. As Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) told Fox News, Biden was being deliberately "boring" in his policy approach in order to "hide his radical policy agenda."

Cruz and others also insist, against all evidence, that a nation that is governed least is governed best. Rand Paul has used his medical credentials (he's an ophthalmologist) to oppose government action against the coronavirus since last spring. Famous for misinformed public rants that portray federal health mandates as authoritarian, Paul bullied the covid-czar Anthony Fauci last week in a televised Senate hearing.

Not acknowledging the crisis helps the GOP to obscure its role, and the role of the Trump administration, in driving the nation into a ditch. More importantly, accepting the win of delivering services to their constituents with a bipartisan ARPA would have represented significant ideological backpedaling for a party that, since the Reagan administration, had refused the idea that government aid can ever be a hand up. But surely, you might ask, there is a less nakedly ideological explanation than this?

The answer is yes. With the national government now dominated by Democrats, the GOP is pushing meaningful legislation to Republican-dominated county governments, state legislatures and governor's mansions where they can win. There, a torrent of legislation—from culture-war edicts on school curricula to laws expanding gun ownership, and restricting reproductive and voting rights—is flourishing. When challenged, those laws will go to a US Supreme Court built by Mitch McConnell.

There are Republicans willing to take credit for government spending for which they never voted. "Independent restaurant owners have won $28.6 billion of relief," Senator Roger Wicker tweeted to Mississippi constituents on March 10. But that is also an important clue. Republicans know that even without their support that Democrats will help their constituents, indirectly deflecting voter discontent. Fed and housed by the government while at the same time fired up by GOP accomplishments at the local level, Republicans hope these same voters will return them to power in 2022.

Behind the right wing's nefarious obsession with calling Joe Biden 'senile'

If you haven't heard anyone tell you, with complete confidence, that President Joe Biden is senile and has had numerous strokes, it says something about you.

You have no right-wing friends.

The charge that Democratic leadership was too old has been a coordinated right-wing media strategy since early 2020. In January, pundit Laura Ingraham implied that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had "dementia"; on May 7, Dinesh D'Souza began referring to Biden as senile. As the election grew near, he called him a "senile dotard."

Deliberate falsehoods and wisecracks about Biden's mental state (Tucker Carlson referring to him as "President Houseplant") are not really about age. They imply that Biden, a liberal, is a figurehead being controlled by his party's left wing. This narrative is foundational to the evolving conspiracy theories, and doubts about democracy, that activate far-right partisans today. Biden, they believe, is fronting for the deep state.

Age was worth discussing last year. It featured five of the 10 oldest candidates in American history, four of them Democrats. There were widespread doubts that, at almost 78, Biden could withstand the rigors of a national campaign, or the work of the presidency. Those doubts have proved to be unwarranted. Yet the Republican right remains unshaken. Partisans still comb every second of video for evidence of Biden's decline.

Deliberate falsehoods and wisecracks imply that Biden, a liberal, is a figurehead controlled by his party's left wing.

Donald Trump set things in motion with a nickname: "Sleepy Joe." Invoking the image of an old man nodding off, he implied that Biden's occasional verbal stumbles, many related to a congenital stutter, were signs of decline. "Sleepy Joe doesn't know where he is or what he's doing," he tweeted on March 2, 2020. Three weeks before Election Day, he said Biden was afflicted with "obvious & rapidly getting worse 'dementia.'"

In this narrative, aneurysm repairs that Biden underwent in the late 1980s were "strokes." As Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted, even "two explosions in his brain" did not explain why Biden "can't remember where he is most days." Fox News political analyst Brit Hume imagined a larger deception. Hume "didn't have any doubt that Biden's senile," but warned that such people are adept at concealing their condition.

Such comments lead us to another theory. Portrayals of Biden as senile allowed right-wing conspiracy theories that the election had been "stolen" to thrive. On November 6, the late Rush Limbaugh expressed disbelief that Americans elected "the most socialist, leftist, senile man ever." A columnist for alt-right Taki's Magazine imagined that "when the reality of a dementia patient in the White House becomes more than just a joke" Democrats "push him aside" in favor of a true socialist—like Kamala Harris.

Biden's competence and likability have awakened a desire among some ordinary Republicans for a functioning government. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, assertions that he is fronting for socialists may be a tactical diversion on the part of right-wing operatives. As one partisan fantasized this week, dangerous "leftists" like White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Pelosi (who is, oddly, no longer senile) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are actually in control of Biden. They "are telling him what to do," this Trump supporter insisted. "The old senile man has no other choice."

The idea that Biden is an empty suit also helps the QAnon conspiracy theory hang together as a social movement, even though none of what the mythical "Q" has promised actually occurred. As QAnon defectors explained to CNN earlier this month, friends and family members believe that what appears to be Biden is either an occasionally malfunctioning robot with humanoid skin, or that the president is an actor on a White House movie-set. Either way, the "deep state" has taken control.

As Democrats and Republicans benefit from the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Plan Act, Biden's effectiveness will become harder to dispute. Unless, of course, Americans can be persuaded that, one way or another, Biden isn't even there, that good government is an elaborate deception perpetrated on the American people, and that we are all now living under socialism.

Which makes the image of Joe Biden as a senile old man crucial to keeping alive, not just for right-wing conspiracy theories, but for the Republican party's hope that it can return to power in 2022.

Here's what makes the GOP so afraid of impeachment

As the United States Senate convenes Tuesday to begin trying Donald Trump for the second time, the vast majority of Republicans will not defend the disgraced president's attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Instead, as they did last time, they will charge that Democrats are "trying to achieve regime change through impeachment."

But is that true? And is regime change always undemocratic?

Progressives usually say yes. As foreign policy, regime change represents a forced political transformation, often by assassination, supporting a belligerent faction, or covert intervention in civil society. Regime change was a critical Cold War strategy by which the United States, the Soviet Union, and eventually China, created spheres of influence without risking direct warfare between nuclear superpowers. Reflecting on this, and the tinkering with other nations' governments that the US has engaged in since 1989, has led one scholar to conclude that regime change "rarely succeeds."

Arguably, Trump's second impeachment is an intriguing parallel. It seeks to purge a despotic figure, one that his own party is unwilling to disavow, from political life. Although he is out of office, a former president usually continues to wield power as the de facto leader of the party. A successful impeachment would decapitate the GOP politically, leave the party rudderless, and cripple its fundraising capacity for 2022.

Regime change also implies an attack on a nation's laws and constitutional government. Indeed, Republicans who support Trump have seized on the fact that the Constitution is silent on the question of impeaching a president after he leaves office: in the words of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Senate trial is "blatantly unconstitutional."

But let's think about regime change another way: what if we're seeing not an effort to topple another group, but a Democratic party renewing its commitment to justice?

More positively, regime change can refer to an institutional transformation that alters the political system. Democrats have much to account for in the compromises they made with conservative economic and governance theories in the 20th century. With the rest of what Occupy Wall Street famously called the 99 percent, Trump's white populist base was impoverished by these decisions, his donors enriched by them.

When, in his 1996 State of the Union, Bill Clinton announced that "the era of big government is over," he was announcing the triumph of a Democratic party consensus that had adapted to Reaganism. Now the party of a "new, smaller government" that would "work in an old-fashioned American way," Clinton Democrats embraced what became known as "neoliberalism": cutting taxes, eliminating social programs, encouraging self-reliance, getting tough on crime, and reducing regulations.

Many of these policies had a particularly devastating effect on Black communities that organized around making Barack Obama, a community organizer, the first Black president. Their success was a stunning form of regime change: electing a Black president of a historically white supremacist nation, but also one who promised to steer Democrats back to progressive, New Deal, and proudly "big," governance. Urging him forward as vice president was one of the Senate's staunchest liberals, Joe Biden.

Now, Biden seeks to complete a regime change within the Democratic party that, backed by a Democratic Congress, could create an ideological change in the political system that Republicans dread. While the president's inaugural address is remembered for its call to national unity, he also argued for the New Deal liberalism, refreshed and improved, that Clinton displaced. It is a vision of government doing big things: curing disease, fighting extremism, rebuilding the middle class, and delivering racial justice.

Is this regime change? You bet it is, and part of what that requires is demonstrating forcefully that the old bipartisan consensus, the one that brought Donald Trump to power, was a corrupt one. Successful or not, putting that information out in public is the most important job that impeachment does. Which is why Republicans fear it.


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