It’s a quaint—if sobering—document. In 2013, five months after the 2012 presidential election failed to deliver a stinging rebuke to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, the Republican National Committee released a 100-odd-page postmortem that became known as the “RNC autopsy.” The memo insisted a rebrand was needed: It was past time for the Grand Old Party to become more “welcoming and inclusive” on issues like gay marriage and immigration.
The autopsy set off an internecine war within the conservative movement. One of the objectors was a nascent organization called the American Principles Project, or APP. The APP, with the help of a pollster named Kellyanne Conway, put together a rejoinder dubbed the “Autopsy of the Autopsy.”
“The Left punches on social issues, the Republican and conservative elites retreat and change the subject,” it read.
This assessment was echoed by a real estate mogul and reality TV star who had briefly reached second place in GOP 2012 primary polling, despite never formally entering the race. “@RNC report was written by the ruling class of consultants who blew the election,” tweeted Donald Trump in March of 2013. “Does @RNC have a death wish?”
A decade and one Trump presidency later, the APP has turned into an electoral juggernaut, pouring many millions of dollars into political races around the country on the theory that social conservatism, even at its most unhinged, is the key to unlocking electoral majorities for the GOP. Over the past five years, this strategy has made the APP one of the most vocal anti-trans organizations in the country.
“They have been legitimate pioneers in this field, doing yeoman’s work to normalize deranged anti-trans rhetoric across all of conservative politics,” the pseudonymous Substacker and elections analyst Ettingermentum wrote in August. Its actual electoral track record, however, is less than impressive. “Across the years of time and tens of millions of dollars it has committed to this scheme, I don’t think they’ve ever actually helped a single candidate they’ve put in an effort for,” Ettingermentum added. “These guys are the Michael Jordans of losing elections.”
Look no further than 2022. Heading into the midterms, the group had made its largest-ever electoral investment—over $15 million across 13 states—and was predicting a “Tea-Party-sized wave” for the GOP. “It’s become clear our campaigns have paid off,” APP president Terry Schilling wrote on the eve of the election. “Many GOP candidates on the ballot tonight—such as Blake Masters, Kari Lake, Tudor Dixon, and Yesli Vega, to name just a few—have smartly targeted their Democrat opponents over their radically unpopular cultural leftism…. We look forward to celebrating many pro-family victories.”
It was a premature victory lap: All four ended up losing, as the much-hyped “red wave” turned into a trickle. Dixon, who accused her opponent, incumbent Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, of having “embraced the trans-supremacist ideology,” was crushed by more than 10 points. And Masters, whose campaign signs promised he wouldn’t “ask your pronouns in the U.S. Senate,” lost in Arizona by 5. Undeterred, the APP put out yet another election postmortem, with a foreword penned by (who else?) the Arizona also-ran. “Dropping the culture war” and “social-issue silence” were what doomed Republicans, the report argued. “With partners like APP, and with lessons learned from 2022, I am incredibly optimistic about not just 2024, but also the future of our great country,” Masters cooed.
The APP undoubtedly owes its current place in U.S. politics to Trump’s success, which the group interpreted as proof positive that even its own 2013 autopsy recommendations were “slightly too conventional.” And yet in many ways the APP has eclipsed the former president, who barely uttered the word “transgender” while in office. The organization’s startling success in making transphobia the sine qua non of GOP politics in 2023, despite such a dismal electoral record, goes to show how much damage you can do in American politics, even when you can’t stop losing.
In some ways, you can draw a straight line from APP’s founding to its current obsession with LGBTQ children’s book characters and “groomers in schools.” One of the organization’s first actions was to call for the firing of an Obama education official who, an APP founder argued, wanted to “use our elementary schools to teach pro-sexual-liberationist, pro-homosexualist propaganda.” But in its early years, the organization largely trained its ire on a more sedate target: Common Core K-12 standards, which an APP fellow deemed evidence of “utopian grandiose planning for a managed global economy.”
The APP’s monomaniacal focus on gender began in 2019, when the organization launched its first anti-trans political campaign late in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race. Despite trans issues playing no part in the campaign to that point, the group released ads introducing a new attack line, accusing Democratic candidate Andy Beshear of wanting “boys to compete against girls in girls’ sports.” Beshear called the ad campaign “a shameful and false attack from a shady group that will lead to bullying of our kids”—and ended up winning by just over 5,000 votes.
It was around the time of the Kentucky race that the APP caught the eye of Gillian Branstetter, now a communications strategist at the ACLU. At first, the APP only really registered to her as an unimaginative acronym in an “alphabet soup” of anti-LGBTQ organizations. But over time, she said, the APP’s persistent messaging and activism has helped “sell a lot of politicians on a road map to eradicating trans people from public life, one that starts with sports and slowly marches through anything that happens to protect trans people for who we are.”
What has made APP’s messaging so attractive, Branstetter suggested, is that it offered an “escape hatch for elected officials facing political pressure on abortion.”
“My suspicion is that this overarching strategy was to drive up enough resentment and anger towards a marginalized group of people that it would give elected officials something to talk about that is not abortion at a time when they really needed one,” she told me.
No race has typified the hide-the-abortion-ball strategy more than the first election the APP jumped into following its 2022 midterm debacle: last spring’s campaign for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. As in past races, the APP unleashed a near-$800,000 ad buy full of transphobic misinformation, accusing liberal circuit court Judge Janet Protasiewicz of indulging the “woke left’s unending thirst to trans our children.” It barely registered. In April, Protasiewicz coasted to a landslide victory on her pro-choice bona fides, flipping the balance of Wisconsin’s highest court. The APP was undeterred: Over the last several months, the organization has continued to push transphobic policies as a thinly veiled effort to combat post-Dobbs Democratic gains.
Social issues aren’t the sole focus of the APP. The organization was an early adopter of the brand of right-wing populism personified by Donald Trump, acknowledging as far back as 2013 that the GOP’s embrace of big business was an albatross for many voters.
Still, much of its economic rhetoric is folded into its social agenda. For instance, it decries what it describes as the “transgender industry” and its goal of making “profits from confused children.” The APP’s recently published list of the “Top 25 Threats to the American Family,” moreover, includes Amazon, BlackRock, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alongside more familiar bugbears like Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and teachers unions.
But, as Branstetter pointed out, there’s often “a lopsidedness to what [the APP] calls the problems and what they call the solutions” when the group adopts a populist economic idiom. The “25 Threats” list of solutions—bans on trans athletes and critical race theory—would do practically nothing to check the power of large corporations.
For Branstetter, the pseudo-populist rhetoric is really a way of “flipping the power dynamic.”
“They know that they’re targeting a marginalized group,” she said. “By suggesting that you’re actually waging a class war when you do this, by suggesting trans people are the product of the corporate elite—antisemitic dog whistles and all—you make yourself look like the David against the Goliath rather than the bully running around and shoving kids’ faces in the dirt.”
The APP doesn’t simply want to helicopter into state and local political races and unleash a barrage of attack ads and text messages. It wants to turn aggrieved parents into an organized political constituency. “Seniors have the AARP, and gun owners have the NRA,” Schilling chirped in a June 2021 ad, as his son shoots him with a Nerf bullet (“Nice aim, Max!”). “But where do families turn when politicians are causing them problems? They turn to American Principles Project.”
The summer 2021 ad kicked off “a membership program called ‘Big Family,’” which, for $25 a year, promised “interactive ‘Family Meetings’ with Members of Congress, videos, legislative action alerts, reports, op-eds, TV hits,” and more. At the time, the organization said it hoped to recruit one million members in five years, with the goal of building an “activist army” that would, Schilling vowed, “kick the shit out of people when they hurt the family.”
Has any of this come to pass? The APP’s Twitter account bio still calls on followers to “join the BIG FAMILY today,” but links to a web page that is no longer active. A link to the program buried at the bottom of the organization’s homepage also leads nowhere. And there’s barely a whisper about the program anywhere else on the organization’s website.
Perhaps that’s because attacks on trans children and trans people overall are simply not the galvanizing electoral force social conservatives have hoped. Polling by the centrist group Third Way found that just 3 percent of midterm voters wanted laws related to LGBTQ people to be a first or second priority for lawmakers. Just one in five Republicans voting in the midterms cited keeping trans youth off girls’ sports teams and “transgender surgeries on our children” as a top reason for voting.
Although right-wing efforts to galvanize voters around transphobia have failed, a huge cost is still being paid by trans people and their loved ones across the country. Over the past three years, GOP-dominated state legislatures and conservative governors—often pressured by national groups like the APP—have introduced and passed an unprecedented number of anti-trans bills, increasing each year in scale and ferocity.
“In my experience,” Branstetter said, “people who make a living on transphobia are not all that well grounded in reality.” If the APP is any indication, the constellation of anti-LGBTQ organizations that have flourished in a thoroughly Trumpified GOP will continue their push to eradicate trans people from public life, no matter the electoral cost. Perhaps that can be read as an encouraging sign for the Democrats’ immediate-term political prospects. But it’s also a harrowing one for the country.