Another Monday, another bad Supreme Court decision, and I suddenly remembered what it was like starting grade school amid the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the heyday of the Warren Court. It was so natural to think the arc of the moral universe would keep bending toward justice. I never dreamed America’s future would be like this. Did you?

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‘Strongman’ Mastriano’s anti-LGBTQ+ crusade is a threat to Pennsylvania’s youth

Minutes after claiming his antiestablishment landslide win in Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial primary Tuesday night, state Sen. Doug Mastriano could have gone a lot of ways in his victory speech. One can even imagine a more conventional candidate for a more conventional era talking about stuff that matters most to Pennsylvania, like collapsing bridges or lowering the insanely high tuition at public universities.

That’s not what rocks the world of a “strongman” wannabe like Mastriano. Onstage before a small but enthusiastic group of his most zealous supporters in Chambersburg, the 58-year-old retired Army colonel instead openly mocked the nation’s most prominent transgender woman public official, Dr. Rachel Levine — even though it’s now been about 16 months since the former Pa. secretary of health left for the Biden administration.

Mastriano said the COVID-19 pandemic — when Levine was initially guiding policy for the Wolf administration — was “a dark time and Levine, you know … follow the science,” as the GOP nominee rubbed his hand across his face in a seemingly dismissive gesture. “Only a Democrat could get away with failed policies and their darling would be promoted to admiral,” continued Mastriano, who has blamed the former state official for nursing home deaths in the early days of the pandemic.

He added, with a disdainful chuckle, “Woman of the year,” as the victory party attendees laughed at Levine.

Of the surface, issues around transgender rights seem a way for Mastriano — who has denied the well-established realities of climate change, vaccines, and the effectiveness of wearing masks — to needle his liberal enemies about the only science that the modern extremist right seems to believe in, which is gender-assignment-at-birth.

“Like the media and the left did over all the years and said follow the science, we’re going to exactly do that and follow the science, so that means only biological females can play on biologically female teams,” Mastriano told his victory crowd — in one of only a handful of policy specifics. He soon added another: “On Day One (of a Mastriano administration), you can only use the bathroom that your biology and anatomy says. This is how low we’ve gone.” He then repeated a debunked lie that an alleged 2021 student rape in a high school in Loudoun County, Virginia was the result of liberal transgender policies.

But Mastriano’s “this-is-how-low-we’ve gone” riff against the transgender community and LGBTQ+ rights also must be viewed as more than the sum of its parts — as central to his authoritarian worldview that sexual permissiveness is destroying the United States from within and must be cleansed with a form of Christian dominion.

In the weekend after his primary win, the Washington Post unearthed a bizarre 2001 master’s thesis penned by Mastriano, which described a near-future scenario in which the military was called upon to save America from a left-wing “Hitlerian putsch” inspired partially by “political correctness.” The future gubernatorial candidate’s idea of a 21st century dystopia was one where “[t]he U.S. population lacked a common moral foundation and did whatever each ‘felt’ was right.” He added a few pages later: “The assault started with the insertion of homosexuality into the military.”

Two decades later, Mastriano sits one final leap away from leading the state where American democracy was hatched — and where dissenters mounted one of the first gay rights protests in 1965 — and thus having the power to enact laws that would make life harder for several thousand transgender people here, but that’s not all. The potential rise of Mastriano to the governor’s mansion would have a harsh, chilling effect more broadly on an estimated more than 400,000 members of the state’s LBGTQ+ community and their families, in a time where a climate of fear and repression is already spreading in classrooms, libraries, and elsewhere.

Mara Keisling, the Scranton native and Penn State grad who went on to become one of America’s leading advocates for her transgender community, told me Monday that Mastriano “ought to be ashamed” for trying to use Levine’s identity to win votes from his right-wing audience. But Keisling also hopes that the majority of Pennsylvanians will be revulsed by the Republican’s anti-LGBTQ+ rants. “Nobody wants their children made fun of for cheap political points,” she insisted.

Yet the harsh conservative “culture war” specifically targeting the LGBTQ+ community has already been riling parts of Pennsylvania even as Mastriano began his political climb. Look no farther than the sprawling, politically-fractured Central Bucks School District in the suburbs north of Philadelphia, where the current school year has already seen a series of bitter fights over complaints of “sexualized” books in the school library, puberty classes, the display of pro-LGBTQ+ flags and stickers, and even whether gay themes should bar Rent as a school musical.

But those disputes may seem quaint by January if Mastriano is elected and follows in the footsteps of Texas Republicans who’ve sought to ban gender-affirming care for trans kids, forcing some families to pack up and leave the Lone Star State. Could it happen here? Mastriano’s open hostility toward his own state’s LGBTQ+ community is a piece of his broader agenda that includes disdain for counting all the votes while supporting extreme control of women’s reproductive rights — an autocratic worldview that has some calling the Pennsylvanian an “American Orban,” after Hungary’s president.

Experts on the new global authoritarianism, like Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the New York University historian who authored Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, have written that whipping up anti-LBGTQ+ hatred has long been central to this movement.

“Wherever strongmen rule, gays pay the price,” Ben-Ghiat wrote in an April essay. “Silencing and punishing those who engage in ‘nontraditional sexual relations,’ as a 2013 Putin law terms them, has been central to authoritarian claims of defending the country and upholding ‘tradition.’ Authoritarian biopolitics is not just about encouraging the right elements of the population to procreate — fear-mongering about declining White Christian birthrates recurs from the Fascists to Orban and Tucker Carlson — but also about removing the wrong elements from the public sphere, by silencing them, locking them up, or worse.”

It’s horrifying to read about antigay repression in some faraway place like Victor Orban’s Hungary, where a series of laws have banned discussions of sexuality and gender in schools and college and where transgender people lack legal recognition. But Mastriano’s Orbanism would bring a different form of climate change — political and sexual repression — right to the front door of Independence Hall.

What makes it even worse is that Pennsylvania — alone among the seaboard of supposedly urbane East Coast states from Maine to Virginia — has repeatedly failed to pass comprehensive gay-rights legislation. That’s a moral hole that a Gov. Mastriano could drive a tank through.

Pennsylvania’s history of failure on LGBTQ+ rights isn’t just an insult to the spirit of heroes like Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings who started that 1965 protest but also to the Founders who created a framework for gay civil rights. It’s also a slap in the face of democracy, since polls show that more than 80% of Americans support the kind of LGBTQ+ rights bill that state lawmakers here won’t pass.

Now Mastriano and a band of religious zealots seek to take Pennsylvania to an unthinkably dark place, where so many families would wonder if they are even welcome here. No wonder he doesn’t want to count all the votes.

Yo, do this

  • Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and the viral video of that killing that moved millions of people around the world to march in protest. Now Washington Post reporters Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa are out with the most essential new book of 2022, titled simply His Name Is George Floyd. Their tome makes the compelling argument that you can understand the weight of systemic racism in the United States not only by the nine minutes of police brutality that killed Floyd, but by the 46 years of segregated schools and public housing and a racist criminal justice system that led him to that Minneapolis street corner.

  • Also in the spirit of George Floyd, I want to recommend a form of media I’ve never touted here before: A “tweetstorm” on Twitter. When the Wall Street Journal marveled in a glowing feature about the Dallas-area’s Highland Park school district’s ability to produce star (white) athletes like Clayton Kershaw and Matthew Stafford, media critic and former Texan Joshua Benton from Harvard’s Neiman Lab wrote a scathing rebuttal. He showed how the district’s “success” came on the back of aggressive and shockingly successful efforts to keep any and all Black students from enrolling, lasting decades after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case supposedly integrated U.S. public schools. The tweets are a must-read primer on how racism functions in America.

Ask me anything

Question: What is the best strategy to defeat authoritarians in the midterm elections? — Via Holly Branham (@BranhamHolly) on Twitter

Answer: Holly, it seems like some of the best political minds of our generation are frantically trying to solve this problem between now and November — most sharing my fear that midterm voters will be more eager to punish “the bums” in power over high burrito prices in 2022 than worry that the new bums won’t count their votes in 2024. The best new research suggests that a) the Democrats would be smarter to spend their political dollars on brand-building rather than traditional candidate-centered ads that are ineffective and b) voters do care about “saving democracy,” but mainly if it’s cast as guaranteeing fair future elections, not re-litigating 2020. Ultimately, though, midterm elections are won on who bothers to show up, and Democrats have a lot of work to do with young voters … and precious little time.

Backstory on a nation of frightened deer in the headlights

Historians will look back on the 2020s and ask who was more to blame: the half of the America who doubled down on corruption amid their immoral last stand for patriarchy and white supremacy, or the half who watched these crimes occur, frozen like deer in the headlights? I’ve written before about two issues. The first, the growing legitimacy crisis at the U.S. Supreme Court — where Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Ginni urged on the Jan. 6 coup attempt on Capitol Hill and the events leading up to it, and her husband then ruled on cases stemming from that insurrection. And the second: the $2 billion, gobsmacking Saudi-tied corruption of presidential aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Since then, stunning new details have emerged in both affairs — resulting in stunning indifference from Democrats, prosecutors, and the press.

We now know that Ginni Thomas was up to her eyeballs in conspiracies to deny President Biden’s 2020 election victory and keep President Donald Trump in the White House. The latest is a bombshell Washington Post report that the justice’s wife sent emails to Arizona state lawmakers urging them to send Trump electors to Washington even after Biden received more votes in the state. That’s arguably worse than Kushner’s using of government resources and his office — in the final weeks of his father-in-law’s presidency, as reported by the New York Times — to build relationships with his future investors from the Persian Gulf.

But what these stories shared in the end was a) a lack of pickup or sustained interest from the media and b) a lack of Democrats on the Capitol steps howling for Justice Thomas’ impeachment or a criminal probe of Kushner. Even though that’s exactly what the GOP would have done if the parties were reversed. Wayne Gretzky said you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Democrats, shoot the puck already!

Recommended Inquirer reading

  • The main item in today’s newsletter looking in depth at Doug Mastriano’s agenda probably wasn’t a surprise if you read my Sunday column, in which I argued that there’s no bigger story in America right now than the threat to democracy posed by Mastriano’s gubernatorial nomination. I outlined the danger of his views on issues from abortion to counting all the votes, and promised to stay on this case from now through Nov. 3. Over the weekend, I also took a deep dive into Elon Musk’s meltdown on Twitter, why billionaires are embracing the far right at its lowest moment, and why the spectacle is all the more reason to tax the super-wealthy to aid America’s middle class.

  • I mentioned recently that my good friend Abraham Gutman was leaving his post as an editorial writer to cover the mental health beat for the Inquirer. Now he’s on the job, and last week he produced a much-needed look at coping with the stress and anxiety that the Buffalo mass shooting has produced for African Americans everywhere, including here in Philadelphia. In the wake of the pandemic, in an era disrupted by new ways of communicating and badly fractured by broken politics, mental health is arguably the nation’s most important story right now, but many news organizations lack the resources to cover it. Support this work, and support the role of journalism in a healthy community. Subscribe to The Inquirer today.