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Caitlyn Jenner comes out, and Republicans fear the culture war is lost

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- In the four days since Bruce Jenner came out as a woman named Caitlyn, many Americans have celebrated her transformation as a courageous and, even, heroic act.

But among the social conservatives who are a major force within the Republican Party, there is a far darker view. To them, the widespread acceptance of Jenner’s evolution from an Olympic gold medalist whose masculinity was enshrined on a Wheaties box to a shapely woman posing suggestively on the cover of Vanity Fair was a reminder that they are losing the culture wars.

Across social media, blogs and talk radio this week, conservatives painted an apocalyptic view of America. They said they felt frustrated and increasingly isolated by the country’s sudden acceptance and even embrace of transgender people. They see it as immoral and foreign. They drew comparisons to two darkly futuristic novels, George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

“People feel like they’re under siege and that the terms of the debate are now you either applaud it or you’re a bigot,” said William Bennett, education secretary in the Reagan administration. “It’s like American culture is being dragged kicking and screaming not only toward acceptance but approval.”

Jenner’s watershed moment -- which coincides with the Supreme Court preparing to rule on whether to allow same-sex marriage nationwide -- leaves the GOP and its stable of presidential candidates grappling with how to represent conservatives who don’t wish to accept Jenner and more moderate voters who have already done so.

The GOP’s struggle with the issue was evident by the fact that -- although President Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democrats uniformly praised Jenner’s bravery -- no major Republican candidate had anything to say about her this week. Even Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has made a point of reaching out to people who are normally resistant to his party, declined to comment.

For the ones who have spoken previously, the results were awkward.

After Rick Santorum said of Jenner last month, “If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” conservative movement activists grew irate. So the former Pennsylvania senator softened what he said.

“It was an attempt to deflect and focus on the principle of loving everyone,” Santorum said in an interview with Breitbart News Network, a conservative website. In a Facebook post, he wrote that he “meant to express empathy not a change in public policy.”

The Internet lit up this week with scorn for Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher, over a revived video of a February speech in which he said: “I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in P.E.”

The response to both comments -- one supportive, one an attempt at humor -- show how perilous such sensitive issues can be for Republicans.

“My advice: stay the hell away from it,” longtime GOP strategist Ed Rollins said. “You can wish him or her well, but if you’re not careful, you can end up insulting a large portion of the population. Huckabee’s humor, for example, wasn’t seen as funny.”

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, argued that the electorate has evolved so quickly on gay rights in particular that Republicans risk sounding out of touch whenever they talk about these issues.

“Republican reticence and at times intolerance on LGBT issues is a problem for them because they have become a litmus test for young people,” Pfeiffer said. “Even if they’re conservative on other issues, if you break with them on gay or transgender rights, you look like a candidate of the past.”

The Jenner episode is the latest national debate that has proved treacherous for the GOP, a party especially wary of being seen as intolerant or insensitive going into a big, national election. This spring, religious liberties laws pushed by Republican governors in Indiana and Arkansas sparked impassioned discussions over the treatment of gays.

Jenner has said she is a Republican, although her spokesman, Alan Nierob, declined to comment Thursday when asked whether she plans to get involved in the 2016 campaign or endorse a candidate.

Regardless, prominent voices on the right say the GOP should disavow her.

“When did this get legs? When did this start being taken seriously?” talk radio host Rush Limbaugh asked his millions of listeners on Tuesday’s program. “We should not be lionizing this. We should not be encouraging this.”

If Republicans don’t speak out against Jenner, “you might as well just forfeit the 2016 election now,” Steve Deace, a syndicated talk radio host based in Iowa, said in an interview.

“If we’re not going to defend as a party basic principles of male and female, that life is sacred because it comes from God, then you’re going to lose the vast majority of people who’ve joined that party,” Deace said.

As Limbaugh put it, the public embrace of Jenner’s gender identity makes those who believe in traditional values and gender roles seem like the outcasts. “Conservative and Republicans are the new weirdos, the new kooks, and that is part of the political objective here in normalizing all of this really marginal behavior,” he said.

ESPN’s announcement Monday that it would honor Jenner at this year’s ESPYS with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award further enraged conservatives. Online, there was fury that Jenner beat out Noah Galloway, a veteran who lost limbs in Iraq and now competes as a distance runner. In Twitter posts and on message boards, conservatives railed against the cable sports network for seeming to value a transgender celebrity over a military veteran.

A Facebook post by Terry Coffey of Salem, Oregon, which went viral and was shared by more than 750,000 people, captured the sentiment: “Just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!” It included a black-and-white photo depicting two servicemen in combat.

Yet the chatter was speculative. ESPN never announced finalists, and it’s unclear whether Galloway was ever considered for the award. The notion that Galloway lost out to Jenner was floated by a Boston sports columnist irritated by ESPN’s choice.

The cultural dichotomy between the GOP’s conservative base and the rest of the country was underscored Thursday when former Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign near Dallas. Numerous people on Twitter, including several journalists, wondered who the burly men to his right and left were.

To conservative activists, the men needed no introductions -- and, in that moment, came to symbolize the cultural rift between them and what they view as coastal elitism. The burly men in question were Marcus Luttrell, the former Navy SEAL immortalized in the best-selling book and blockbuster film “Lone Survivor,” and his twin, Morgan, also a SEAL who served in Afghanistan.

As Jenner’s evolution unfolded this spring, legions of conservatives have taken to their social networks and right-leaning media to commiserate with the like-minded. They have trained their criticism on the media, sounding an alarm about the obsolescence of their values.

“The speed with which the West has embraced all things perverse makes Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Brave New World’ look almost quaint,” wrote conservative author George Neumayr at the American Spectator.

David French, a Harvard-educated Iraq war veteran, has been busy writing articles critical of Jenner. He said he was “repulsed” by the media celebration. “We have this pretty profound cultural divide that has only been reinforced this week,” he said in an interview.

The vitriol toward Jenner was fiercest on talk radio. Bryan Fischer, a firebrand who bashes minorities of all stripes -- Muslims and Mormons, blacks and gays -- said on his American Family Radio program Monday that he refuses to refer to Jenner as a woman.

“If you want one snapshot of just how corrupt -- how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt -- we have become,” Fischer said, “all you’ve got to do is take a look at the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.”