The Right Pushes Culture War to Mask Its Unpopular Agenda

In Who’s Afraid of Gender?, Judith Butler seeks to explain the global right’s obsession with gender. Their latest book, however, fails to see that the aim of conservative scapegoating is to legitimize an unpopular political program.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis's gender panic masks his own administration’s draconian reproductive health policies. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

An encounter with people unfamiliar but nevertheless hostile to their work motivated Judith Butler to write Who’s Afraid of Gender? The writer, who began their career working on the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, has, since the publication of Gender Trouble (1990), become synonymous with everything wrong and right about how we think about gender.

In 2017, Brazilian members of the Catholic authoritarian Tradition, Family, Property movement staged a protest against Butler, who was scheduled to speak at a conference in São Paulo on the threats democracies around the world face. Crowds of conservative Catholics burned the gender theorist in effigy and denounced their alleged attempts to destroy traditional gender roles. The political agenda that Butler endorsed, their opponents claimed, was not just immoral but pedophilic.

Five thousand miles north, the US Supreme Court had recently entertained arguments made by defenders of anti-trans school bathroom policies, who ironically cited Butler to support their case. In a legal brief filed by three conservative academics, Butler’s early philosophy on the sex-gender divide was twisted to imply that gender — unlike biological sex — is a “fluid concept,” one which is “fuzzy and mercurial” and without a “truly objective meaning.” Ergo, sex is a more appropriate basis for deciding who may enter a male or female restroom.

To make matters more complicated, just a few months ago, Fox News accused Butler and their supporters of something even more nefarious than telling people where to urinate. The aim of “transgenderism” was, pundits argued, nothing short of “changing reality.” As a seeming indictment, the right-wing news outlet quoted Butler’s own admission that such a future might well be “very frightening” to those having to live through it.

What should be made of all these different Butlers? There is Judith Butler the threat to children, Judith Butler the enforcer of the sex-gender divide, and then finally Judith Butler the godlike creature capable of changing the structure of reality itself.

In Who’s Afraid of Gender?, Butler directs their attention at critics with the aim of trying to “fathom how one’s arguments become distorted phantasms.” This is hardly a solipsistic endeavor given the wide-ranging influence Butler’s work has had since they published Gender Trouble over three decades ago. Who’s Afraid of Gender? traverses the global scene of what they term an “anti-gender” movement, seeking to understand the backlash to the ideas they helped rise to prominence.

Butler succeeds in showing that in the minds of reactionaries, the prevalence of less rigid notions of gender is not a sign of progress but rather a symptom of some broader systemic rot. Where Butler falters, though, is in their efforts to clearly define the cause of this right-wing scapegoating of queer and trans people. What motivates these efforts is less an irrational hatred of the other or a misdirected anxiety about social changes, and more the recognition that manufacturing a “culture war” is one of the few ways in which conservatives can mobilize support behind their larger antidemocratic agenda.

Anti-Gender Phantasms

The lens through which Butler seeks to understand the anti-gender movement is psychological. The psychoanalytic theory of Jean Laplanche — an interpreter of Sigmund Freud and disciple of Jacques Lacan, the fiendishly complex writer who sought to reemphasize the role of desire and the unconscious in his therapeutic practice — provides the analytic framework for much of Butler’s thinking. What interests Butler is what they (somewhat grandiloquently) call the “intensifying phantasmatic force of gender” that stirs outsize anxieties about trans children and storytelling drag queens.

Anti-gender fears emerge, Butler argues, from a mix of two interrelated phenomena. First, there are those unconscious anxieties that many individuals feel toward the loss of traditional gendered power relations and intimate arrangements of social life. Oftentimes this loss is more than a simple nostalgic longing but rather extends from a real sense of imperilment. For instance, the collectivist nature of the nuclear family — for all its oppressive and violent shortcomings — has regularly served as a life raft amid economic devastation and the destruction of welfare states worldwide. One need not adopt social critic Christopher Lasch’s undue romantic attachments to the family in order to see how it can function as a “haven in a heartless world” of revanchist class forces.

Second, rallying fears of an impending queer-gender planet often displaces more urgent worries about global “ecological and economic destruction.” Beyond the realm of rhetoric and the psychological, however, Butler does not do much to expound exactly how this displacement occurs and to whose benefit. For much of the book, Butler focuses on the Vatican’s role in conjuring phantasms — a strange choice for comprehending why anti-gender forces would like to shift our attention away from climate change and economic exploitation. Pope Benedict XVI and current Pope Francis together have spent the past two decades warning against the totalitarian threat of “gender ideology,” Butler is quick to remind us. It might be news to Francis’s liberal apologists that — despite the pontiff’s recent decision to afford priestly blessings to gay couples and his broader rhetorical challenges to unregulated market capitalism — he has been no great fan of gender egalitarianism.

In 2015, Francis warned that teaching gender theory in schools was akin to the indoctrination carried out by the Hitler Youth; moreover, the pope once compared the social corrosiveness of gender ideology to a nuclear war, a sentiment echoed in an official Vatican education document on trans advocates’ efforts to “annihilate the concept of nature.” And for all the Church’s talk of gender’s totalitarian impositions, Butler keenly observes, the Vatican has just as often blamed an excess of personal liberty and self-determination for today’s moral disarray. Such “self-emancipation from creation and the Creator,” Pope Benedict once wrote, denies the divine and biological law of male and female.

The Vatican’s enemy is not just the trans and genderqueer individuals, who have become an object of obsession for the Right, but the breakdown of traditional gender roles. The Holy Father and his lay expounders have also frequently engaged in a useful sleight of hand. The influential Catholic author Jorge Scala has warned that, as a consequence of heterosexual marriage’s dethroning from its once exalted moral authority, we now live in a nihilistic world where all depravity, including pederasty and child abuse, is permissible. It is no wonder that the Catholic Church might want to distance itself from its own child sex scandals by placing the blame on degenerate gender outlaws.

Moving from Rome, Butler finds similar acts of deflection in the United States. Ron DeSantis’s bellowing about the danger of “grooming” public school teachers and gender identity clinicians who allegedly “experiment” on the bodies of vulnerable children masks his own administration’s draconian reproductive health policies that present a real infringement on bodily autonomy. Since Who’s Afraid of Gender? went to press, Florida lawmakers have also proposed rolling back child labor protections, a bizarre move for those ostensibly concerned with precarious youth.

Such hypocrisies are evident in right-wing politicians’ claims that gender and critical race theory constitute undue attempts at indoctrinating the nation’s youth. These claims, of course, deflect from their own concurrent efforts to mandate whitewashed history lessons. (Conspicuously, Florida’s teachers have been offered public funding to enroll in civics training coursed developed and administered by Christian conservative nonprofits friendly to the DeSantis regime.)

An “Unwitting Alliance”

In one of the book’s longest chapters, Butler turns their attention to trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) to ask whether their “gender critical” feminism is critical at all. Butler is not the first to investigate the TERF opposition to trans rights, nor are they the first to query these gender critical feminists’ dalliances with institutionalized right-wing organizations. In 2019, the Advocate reported on a Heritage Foundation panel of lawyers and think tank leaders opposed to the pending Equality Act, which would have enshrined LGBTQ+ rights in US federal civil rights law. Among the usual Heritage talking heads like Ryan T. Anderson, author of the viciously transphobic When Harry Became Sally, sat a representative of the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), a legal organization committed to “abolishing” gender and its “hierarchical caste system that organizes male supremacy.”

Butler’s focus on TERF writers’ logical inconsistencies and their failure to live up to the feminist credo is an attempt at good faith criticism. However, it comes at the expense of understanding why so-called radical feminists — who are, to be clear, quite organizationally miniscule — have found themselves arguing against trans rights alongside conservatives. In accusing TERFs of forming an “unwitting alliance” with organizations like the Heritage Foundation, Butler misses just how utterly imbricated the two have been.

Take WoLF, for example, which has accepted grant money from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization that regularly uses its $100 million annual budget to litigate against LGBTQ+ rights before the Supreme Court. Since WoLF began its own legal work in 2016, the group has litigated almost solely against trans bathroom rights, trans sports participation, gender-affirming care for minors, trans-inclusive prison arrangements, drag queen story hours, trans employee’s Title VII rights against employment discrimination, and trans women who seek lodging in Christian-run homeless and abused women’s shelters. Rather than feminists who have strayed from the path of progress and gender equality, WoLF has always been an exclusively right-wing pressure group.

British TERFs, who are afforded an entire chapter in Butler’s book, are similarly criticized without any reference to the broader right-wing forces that quite literally orchestrate their anti-trans screeds. Kathleen Stock, for instance, is a columnist for UnHerd, an online magazine that touts itself as an unorthodox truth-teller in world saturated with narrowly “defensive liberal or angry reactionary” outlets. Notably, UnHerd owner Paul Marshall is the manager of one of the UK’s largest hedge funds, a Conservative Party donor, and a Brexit funder who contributed over £100,000 to the Vote Leave campaign.

Defenses of TERFs have also appeared in Compact magazine, a socially conservative outlet committed to “authentic freedom” (cue the Catholic Church here on gender ideology’s corrupted sense of liberty) and “social stability” (a clear dog whistle for “traditional” gender roles). Compact’s claim to social democratic politics and calls for a robustly nationalist industrial policy aside, the magazine’s allies and featured writers in Washington include Senators Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, both of whom have deep connections to the Koch network, the Federalist Society, and other decidedly anti-social-democratic “dark money” donors. In all, these linkages can better answer the question of who’s afraid of gender than Butler’s account of wayward and unwitting feminists.

The Ends of Scapegoating

No mere analytic misstep, Butler’s inability to see the economic dimension of today’s TERF advocates extends from a much deeper failure to reckon with the anti-gender movement’s sources of strength and its raison d’etre. While Butler occasionally drops a reference to “corporate power” or “neoliberalism,” the book underdelivers on its promise to reveal how such fearmongering has come to displace attention to matters of economic inequality and climate change.

To their credit, Butler adroitly exposes the contradictions and hypocrisies of anti-gender advocates; however, when it comes to defining their ultimate goals, the philosopher resorts to abstractions about inciting fascist passions as if that were the end, rather than simply a tactic, of right-wing reactionaries. So too are terms like “scapegoating” deployed without much explanation for cui bono from such ideological redirections (save for a few references to additional abstractions like “patriarchy” and “white supremacy”). At one point, Butler tells us that scapegoating trans women for gender-based violence in total results in “fascist forms of targeting.” The logic thus becomes tautological — trans women are made into objects of blame in order to blame them.

Toward the end of the book, Butler does make a few gestures toward a richer explanation. In a brief chapter, they recite insights from historical and anthropological work on gender dimorphism’s colonial origins to explain contemporary defenses of the sex binary. This ideal’s Christian colonial inheritance might explain Butler’s general preoccupation with the Catholic Church. This short literature review, however, cannot do the analytic heavy lifting necessary to connect the brutal colonial context to the global anti-gender movement today.

Butler might have benefited from reflecting on the late historian Arno Mayer’s inquiry into the character and ends of the Third Reich’s antisemitism. Like Butler, Mayer was attentive to a centuries-old tradition — European antisemitism. And yet Mayer delicately distinguished Judeophobic prejudices against middle-class Jewish merchants and lawyers in early twentieth-century Western Europe from moments of highly institutionalized antisemitism in Eastern European countries, which dealt violently with a population of lower-class Jewish migrants.

Still more, the Nazi Party and its conservative establishment coalitional partners invented the charge of Judeo-Bolshevism, a fascistic conspiracy that conflated their Jewish compatriots with communist opposition at home and abroad. As Mayer wrote in Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?, the “fascist vanguard used anti-Jewish appeals in preying not only on the resentments of the endangered lower middle classes caught in the maelstrom but also on the fears of superannuated elites in the upper classes desperate to maintain their overprivileged positions.” Throughout his analysis, Mayer traced the Germans’ strategic adoption of each new racialist rationalization for population-wide acts of brutality up to and including the genocidal final solution.

Contemporary anti-gender politics cannot be understood without a similarly materialist account of the ends of scapegoating. Take Texas politics for example. In 2021, the state’s Republicans led the charge against Roe v. Wade, infamously restricting reproductive rights a year before the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion in 2022. Since then, the state GOP has further curtailed abortion access within its borders while using its party platform to condemn homosexuality as an “abnormal lifestyle” and to call for a ban on gender-affirming health care. All the while, Texas has repeatedly insulated its fossil fuel industry from legal challenges and climate change mitigation efforts even as the state has begun to endure freak winter storms that cause region-wide blackouts and record-setting wildfires. In the face of such existential horrors, the anti-gender movement offers an analgesic, a comforting message that the powers that be are at least looking out for our children, if not our wallets or the environment.

Importantly, this kind of anti-gender politics has an improvisational dimension. As I have rehearsed in a few essays documenting the rapid rise of anti-trans politics in the United States, right-wing authoritarians have picked up and put down discriminatory legislation as it has suited their needs. Whether one seeks to explain DeSantis’s hiding behind an “anti-woke” curricula agenda as he ravages public school funding and razes teachers’ unions, or South Dakota governor Kristi Noem’s cowing before regional banks’ opposition to anti-trans athletics policies, a fundamental drive for upward redistribution remains.

Likewise, when fossil fuel billionaire and dark-money conservative donor Charles Koch finds scapegoating trans kids to be useful, he donates money to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has defended gender-affirming care bans for minors across the country. When Koch has wanted to clamp down on “culture war” campaigns as he (and many GOP leaders) did in response to unpopular immigration and rape-themed rhetoric among Tea Party candidates, the billionaire has directed his donations and advisement accordingly.

Thus, when Butler portrays anti-gender politics as constitutive of contemporary authoritarianism, they are only partially correct. It is true that Senator Hawley’s exaltations of masculine virtue conjure an image of an idealized past, its restoration appearing attainable only through fascistic struggle. It is also true, as Butler warns, that fascist would-be leaders can emerge from within decaying democratic societies. When the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni warns cis women that they risk having their “sexed identities” stripped away by marauding queer activists just before describing an “invasion” by North African migrants, she links the extermination of some groups to the flourishing of her preferred vision of the people.

The fundamental point that Butler misses, however, is that scapegoating of a social group, be they ethnic minorities, immigrants, or trans people, always serves to advance a specific political objective. In our era, that objective is the demise of social welfare, environmental protections, and labor rights as we know them. In this sense, we might instead profit from asking, who makes us afraid of gender and why?

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Joanna Wuest is an assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College and an incoming assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Stony Brook University (SUNY). She is the author of Born This Way: Science, Citizenship, and Inequality in the American LGBTQ+ Movement (University of Chicago Press, 2023).

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