The Fox News ratings grab disguised as a Republican primary debate went basically as most expected: Donald Trump trolled America, Jeb Bush pretended he was running against Clinton already, Ben Carson got the race question. But there was one moment of genuine surprise: When asked about gay rights, Ohio Gov. John Kasich drew one of the biggest applause lines of the night with statements that sounded kind of, sort of like acceptance.
To be clear, he didn’t actually say he supported gay rights, despite overly generous press coverage suggesting otherwise. When Megyn Kelly asked how he would feel if his daughter were gay, Kasich made sure to reaffirm his opposition to gay marriage rights. But his answer modeled, in a way sure to be repeated by most Republicans to come, a way for Republicans to balance the base’s continuing hostility to gay rights with the increasing cultural consensus of thinking anti-gay bigotry is bigotry.
“Look, I’m an old-fashioned person here and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I’ve also said that the court has ruled … and I said we’ll accept it,” he started. Make no mistake, this was no affirmation of gay rights. However, compared to statements by fellow contender Rick Santorum—who tried to argue in the happy hour debate that legalizing gay marriage is somehow the equivalent to declaring that black people cannot be citizens—this sounded downright reasonable.
But it was his next statement, where he actually wound himself up into a self-righteous pose, that surprised:
And guess what? I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or I can’t love them. So if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them. Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.
As a political maneuver, it was brilliant, to the point where it suggested that one shouldn’t rule Kasich out as a contender for the nominee. It wasn’t just that he managed to distance himself from open bigotry without having to actually embrace gay rights. It’s that he provided his fellow conservatives with a model for how to do the same, by reframing his hostility to gay rights as merely a personal quirk, a result of being “old-fashioned” and “traditional.”
It’s exactly what most conservatives watching are looking for. Now, if they go off on an anti-gay rant at Thanksgiving, their relatives can excuse it by saying, “Well, you know Grandpa. He means well, but he’s just old-fashioned. It took us years to get him to stop calling the cable box ‘rabbit ears.’ You know how that generation is.”
Now wonder the crowd went nuts. This is what they’ve been looking for. Things have come a long way from 2012, where the crowd booed a gay soldier for asking if he should be able to keep his job, and went nuts for Rick Santorum’s rant where he said, “Sexual activity has no place in the military,” a comment that was notable both for reducing gay people to an “activity” and for ignoring, hilariously, that straight people in the military are allowed to have sex—to marry and have kids, even! It’s not the priesthood.
Now it’s wild, if self-congratulatory applause, for the idea that you should be able to attend a same-sex wedding and behave like an adult. That is progress, but it’s important to remember the historical context here. Historically, whenever certain kinds of bigotry become socially unacceptable, the conservative movement casts around for ways to reframe their views, so they can hold onto bigotries—and chip away at social progress—while maintaining the claim that they are not real bigots.
In 1981, Lee Atwater famously explained how this works in an interview by political scientist Alexander Lamis, who was asking Atwater about the infamous “Southern strategy” he developed to help Richard Nixon win white, Southern voters in the wake of civil rights.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The effectiveness of the Southern strategy can be felt today. You won’t find a single conservative pundit or politician who will express overt racism against African-Americans. However, you will find plenty of “law and order” posturing in defense of police who kill black civilians or in defense of cracking down hard on modern day civil rights protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri.
Maintaining the ability to deny bigotry while still undermining gay rights is a major challenge facing the GOP. Conservatives are trying out a lot of strategies, especially the “religious liberty” angle, wherein conservatives hope to make life harder for gay people by protecting the ability of businesses to discriminate against gay people, much as Barry Goldwater in the ‘60s tried to argue that private businesses should retain the right to discriminate against black people.
But what Kasich gave conservatives last night was the protective gear they need to declare their non-bigotry while not actually changing the political views. No doubt many in the audience relished the idea of being able to both be “against” gay rights while also getting congratulated for being big enough to let a same-sex couple feed and entertain you at their wedding. The only real question is whether or not his gambit will be used as cover to start chipping away at gay rights, the same way similar stories were used to chip away at women’s rights and black people’s civil rights.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right, and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.