Schilling’s Leviathan: An Analysis of Research by The American Principles Project

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?

Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?

⎯⎯Job 41:1-4, KJV. 

The American Principles Project (APP) was founded in 2009 as part of the Republican post-mortem response to the election of Barack Obama. It sustained itself for the next seven years as a medium-size organization for fairly uninteresting conservative policy development, defined by its early opposition to Common Core math curricula in public schools. According to its website, 2016 marked a shift in priorities for the organization. Its new cause was the defense of what it terms “the most important institution upholding human dignity in society: the family.” 

More concretely, this marked a reactionary set of organizing efforts which mirrored that of the group’s founding, part of the backlash and identity crises resulting from the landmark Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges that established marriage equality in the United States. In terms of policy, it meant an opposition to the Department of Education, advocacy for the censorship of online pornography, and above all else the shockingly transparent goal of the genocide of transgender people. 

I was first made aware of the APP through reporting surrounding the recent wave of anti-trans legislation which has crashed through many state houses amid fierce opposition. A look back through media coverage surrounding the APP, however, reveals a willingness on the part of American media to uncritically cover extremist groups. Despite prior reputation laundering, comments made by the APP’s president Terry Schilling to CNN reveal the true goals of this organization: “The movement to oppose (gender-affirming care) has never said, ‘we only care about children.’ We’ve said, ‘we want to protect children.’” In case his categorical opposition to trans healthcare had not been adequately conveyed, he continued, “And so that’s the thrust of the strategy – is we want to protect everyone from this stuff. But ultimately, we have to start with children because that’s where the vast majority of the American people are right now.” Revealed in this surprisingly open expression of goals is the truth most following reactionary discourse on this issue already knew: that any hint of moderation in legislation or messaging exists only to cater to public sentiment. It was this strangely direct statement that piqued my interest in what else the APP might have in store. 

My analysis focuses primarily on the recent document on the APP “Research” portion of their website. Titled “The Transgender Leviathan” and written by commentator Pedro Gonzalez, it comprises less than twenty five pages of actual content. From just their titles and introductions, the quality of material and intended audience of this work becomes clear. Despite the APP’s aspirations to be a site of policy innovation, the intended audience for these documents is explicitly not policy experts or even policymakers. From the introduction to the dramatically titled piece “Twenty Five Threats to the American Family:” 

Parents have enough to worry about between balancing their work/home relationships and their individual familial needs, which makes it difficult to find the time to identify the forces working against them let alone find a way to fight them. That’s why we’ve created our first annual report identifying the greatest threats to the American family.

It is clear, then, that this writing is meant for a lay audience; in particular, one unfamiliar with the issues being discussed. It’s difficult not to read such an introduction with a heavy dose of cynicism and concern for the potential effectiveness this sort of messaging might have on those lacking in political literacy. 

First, “The Transgender Leviathan” is an article demonstrating far more subtlety, skill and creativity in its title than it does in its actual body of text. The title is an artful compound of two dog whistles. The more overt of them is the invocation of Leviathan, which to an unassuming reader may connote only size and perhaps danger. To those who share the author’s rabid evangelicalism, it asserts a parallel between what it terms “transgenderism” and the biblical Leviathan, a serpent associated with the sin of Envy (the implicit argument here does not bear explication). 

The second reference here is to Janice Raymond’s 1979 book “The Transsexual Empire”, whose foundational status in the ideological and rhetorical formation of anti-trans movements have seen it frequently compared to the infamous pamphlet “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. This influence can even be seen within the article itself, which largely plagiarizes Raymond’s arguments. The actual body of “The Transgender Leviathan” is rather disappointing with regards to the development of new rhetoric, which is to say, the article does not do any such thing. The first portion of the piece is entitled “Patient Zero” and purports to provide a history of transgender medicine through a review of the research of psychologist and sexologist Dr. John Money. Of particular interest to the article is his infamous experiment attempting to alter the gender of a young boy afflicted by a botched circumcision. This limited history suggests that modern transgender care, besides simply inheriting the vocabulary of Money, is part of the same program of perverted social engineering. By placing the starting point of transgender care (the subject of which is literally referred to as “Patient Zero”) well into the twentieth century, the article accomplishes two goals. First, it suggests that a medicalized approach to gender variance is a much newer phenomenon than it truly is, and second, this false novelty obscures the erroneous association made between contemporary care and the dubious ethical standards of Money. 

Indeed, the next earliest specific date mentioned in the next portion of the article is 2007, as part of a description of shifting standards of care by various endocrine and pediatric associations. The real meat of the article begins in this chapter, with a series of sections entitled “Bad Medicine,” “Big Medicine,” and my personal favorite, “Coming For Your Kids.” It is this main thrust of the piece that had me combing through its notes section looking for an explicit nod to Raymond (none could be found). The premise is largely the same, even after so many decades: transgender care, whether it be hormones, surgeries or therapy, represents a significant enough market that medical companies and doctors intentionally over-prescribe them. Interest groups funded by this shadowy medical cabal, staffed by an equal mix of opportunists and true believers, back political candidates who will in turn support expanding access to treatment, utilize the education system to spread their “ideology.” 

It is not my aim here to refute this conspiracy theory, which in many ways is an impossible task. It does not operate in the world of reason but the hazy landscape of anxiety and disgust; it is a narrative constructed of vague connections between snippets (Money’s research, big pharma, activist groups) but no one aspect of it is critical. If, for example, you attempted to convince someone that there exists no methodological relationship between Money’s research and treatment today, could you change their mind? If they were confronted with the best meta-analyses on health outcomes, would that change their mind? In most cases, the answer is no, and it is the reason why documents like “The Transgender Leviathan,”  which call themselves “research,” feel no obligation to present coherent timelines or clear arguments. The point is the histrionic language, the baffling assertions, and narrative constructed along the way. A description of a TED Talk which argues for classifying pedophilia as a sexual orientation sits just between two references to pediatric endocrinology. Like a blade held against an eye before a thin cloud crosses the moon in “Un Chien Andalou,” the mind makes the connection even if no explicit argument is articulated. 

The final portion of “The Transgender Leviathan” is titled “The Way Forward,” complete with a visual of a group of (presumably cis) children joyously bounding over a sunny field. It is the rare attempt within the dozens of pages that make up this document to perform any real analysis, and it does so in the strangest possible way. No summary can do justice to the haphazard manner in which the opening paragraph of this portion attempts to resolve all of the contradictions it introduces: 

Many critics of transgender ideology associate its rise with postmodernism, a word that evokes bitter feelings. But perhaps it is possible to use postmodern social theory — specifically, the ideas of the French philosopher Michel Foucault — to better understand the moment. Foucault is considered one of the founders of queer theory. He was also a sexual deviant. But his conceptualization of power is nevertheless insightful and can be used constructively. Namely, it is his ideas of biopower and biopolitics which are most relevant. 

Those interested in the way a social conservative zealot might approach Foucault will be disappointed. There is very little engagement with his actual theory outside of doing a mediocre job of summarizing it and gesturing towards its relevance to this particular issue. The invocation of Foucault’s name, like the other philosophers name-dropped in the piece, is utilized exclusively to give the impression that serious analysis is going on. It is this impression, then, that legitimizes the vitriol which follows as a position arrived at through careful study rather than simply dogmatic fundamentalism. 

So what, then, is the path forward according to the APP? Here we see the payoff for the histrionics and hyperbole of the preceding portions. The conclusion they arrive at should horrify you, but it should not surprise you. After pages and pages of identifying “transgender ideology” as predatory, pedophilic, unscrupulous and demonic in the literal biblical sense, they draw the only possible conclusion that they could: “There must also be a push for creating liability for the entities promoting products and services associated with the “affirmative care” treatment. In a word, it must be impossible to conduct or advertise these procedures anywhere in America.”

To summarize, The Transgender Leviathan is neither rhetorically compelling nor innovative. I do not recommend you read it unless you share the masochistic urge that prompted this investigation. It is nonetheless a document that can tell us about the state of reactionary discourse. We can understand the tension in the piece dialectically, as a relationship between a need to legitimize arguments through a shallow pantomime of conducting research and formulating specific ideas, and the ultimate political goal of the APP, which is (hopefully clearly by now) a theocratic and authoritarian United States. The relative presence of these two forces within messaging can serve as a diagnostic for the state of politics in the nation. That is to say, the openness with which groups like the APP state their radical goals tells us how much power they think they have, and how much they think the average voter might agree to go along with them. For all our sakes, I’m left hoping they’re wrong.

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