ONE OF THE SURPRISES of the Trump campaign and presidency has been the presence of prominent and vocal gay male supporters, such as Peter Thiel and Milo Yiannopoulos. In Europe, however, gay men have played a role in populist far-right parties for years: Austria’s Jörg Haider, who died in a car crash after an evening at a homosexual bar in 2008, was constantly dogged by rumors about his sexuality; Holland’s Pym Fortuyn was openly gay; France’s Marine Le Pen’s lieutenant Florian Philippot is one of a number of gay men with high positions in her organization.
Perhaps because of the prominence of these men, European conservatives of all sexual orientations have developed a range of somewhat contradictory approaches to same-sex issues. These range from a “right-wing liberal” celebration of the liberty of gays in a pluralistic society to a darker proto-fascist view that harks back to the illiberal masculinist thinkers of early 20th-century Germany and Austria. Sorting through these ideas can help provide a framework for understanding the basis for some of the policy decisions about sexuality in the Trump administration.
Dutch politics provides the clearest example of a far-right celebration of Europe’s increasing tolerance of homosexuality. This acceptance of sexual minorities is seen as a triumph of liberal ideas from the Enlightenment, demonstrating the superiority of Western culture. In the Netherlands, Pym Fortuyn led a successful political movement that was distinguished in large part by its rejection of Islam on the basis of that religion’s treatment of women and homosexuals. Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002, but Geert Wilders—who describes himself as a “right-wing liberal”—has adopted and developed the view that traditional Islam is incompatible with the West because it is misogynist and homophobic. Other European far-right parties, such as Le Pen’s National Front in France, have taken similar stands.
Wilders and Le Pen proclaim their alignment with Trump on a wide variety of issues, including their right-wing liberal approach to sexuality. Trump reacted to the shooting in Orlando by tweeting that the Orlando shooting proved that he was “right on radical Islamic terrorism,” which shows that he agrees with Wilders and Le Pen that certain versions of Islam are not compatible with the West’s openness to sexual freedom.
This “right-wing liberal” approach toward homosexuality could be called “homonationalist,” because it turns gay rights into a matter of national pride and even chauvinism, often connected with Islamophobia. While there is reason to be proud of the progress made in gay rights in many Western countries, sometimes this progress can be used to deflect attention from other pressing social issues. Israel in particular has been accused of “pinkwashing” its treatment of Palestinians by touting its exemplary gay rights record, in comparison to the harsh ➙ treatment of gays in many of its neighboring countries. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has known Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally for many years, also played a role in convincing the Trump administration to reject its initial plan to roll back President Obama’s executive order protecting lgbtq federal workers, which suggests that some factions in the White House are comfortable with the kind of pro-gay and pro-Israel mentality that allows for homonationalist pinkwashing.
Nationalism also imbues a darker vision of homosexuality that informs the work of Trump’s team. At a conference held at the Vatican in the summer of 2014, Stephen Bannon, now Trump’s chief adviser, referred to Julius Evola, the Italian philosopher of fascism, who influenced Aleksandr Dugin, the stridently anti-liberal Russian philosopher said to be a favorite of Vladimir Putin. Evola was well-versed in the masculinist strand of the homosexual emancipation movement that flourished in German-speaking central Europe at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. He wrote the introduction to a 1956 Italian edition of Otto Weininger’s works and relied heavily on Hans Blüher’s theories of the erotics of male bonding in his own theorizing.
Otto Weininger’s 1903 dissertation, Sex and Character, glorified Aryan masculinity. The logic behind Weininger’s misogynist and anti-Semitic defense of men reached its seemingly inevitable conclusion when he—Jewish and homosexual himself—committed suicide at the age of 23, which further propelled his thought to the forefront of modernism throughout Europe. In 1917, Hans Blüher built upon many of Weininger’s ideas in his two-volume study, The Role of Erotics in Male Society, which claimed that male-male erotic desire was the glue that united men in patriarchal institutions from sports teams and fraternities to corporate boardrooms and government agencies.
Blüher was typical of this school in his endorsement of intergenerational male-male sexual relations, which he saw as reviving ancient Greek customs. This intimate transmission of tradition from older men to younger men can appeal to a conservative mindset, which explains Milo Yiannopoulos’ defense of sexual relations between men and boys as young as thirteen. While his comments proved too shocking for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—which ironically had invited him precisely because he was known to shock liberals with his intemperate statements—they actually fit into a pattern of conservative homosexual thought going back at least to the German masculinists of the early 20th century.
Blüher was active as an author and speaker in the far-right scene in Germany in the 1920s. His work resonated with conservative, reactionary, and even National Socialist figures such as Heinrich Himmler, as well as the Italian fascist Julius Evola. Bannon’s citation of Evola suggests that this profoundly illiberal strain of male homosexual thought, comfortable with a misogynist, racist, militarist, and authoritarian social order, continues to resonate at the highest levels of the Trump administration.
Just because Blüher’s ideas resonated with the National Socialists, it does not follow that Nazi Germany welcomed homosexuals. Blüher himself was forbidden from publishing after the Nazis came to power, and tens of thousands of other homosexuals were persecuted viciously. Nor has the chain of influence from Blüher to Evola to Dugin made Putin’s Russia a good place for homosexuals. Nonetheless, Blüher’s illiberal masculinist discourses celebrating male bonding within patriarchy have colored the attitude of far-right nationalist theorists.
One reason these theorists have not made their fascist and far-right governments more open to gay men is that these right-wing parties often must make political alliances with conservative religious forces, as Putin has done in Russia. Le Pen has agreed to roll back gay marriage, presumably for precisely this reason. Donald Trump has given Christian fundamentalists a powerful voice in the administration, most notably in the presence of Mike Pence as vice president. Presumably, the religious right will get its way on many issues having to do with sexuality in this White House—but not all.
Many, of course, assume that the Trump administration, with its penchant for “alternative facts,” is impervious to reason. It may seem ludicrous to imagine the White House hosting academic debates on attitudes toward sexuality. Nonetheless, it would be a serious error to disregard the intellectual underpinnings of the various responses to GLBT issues that the emanate from the White House. If one is to understand their actions, it’s important to know that—in addition to the religious conservative approach—two other, often contradictory, philosophical traditions guide their conservative policy to homosexuality: a right-wing liberal attitude that sees gay rights as a shining example of the march of progress in the West since the Enlightenment, and an illiberal masculinist worldview that sees male bonding as the essential glue in a patriarchal society.
Robert Deam Tobin, professor of comparative literature at Clark, is the author of Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex.