Our infrastructure is inexcusable, much of our public education is miserable and one of our leading presidential candidates is a know-nothing, say-anything egomaniac who yanks harder every day at the tattered fabric of civil discourse and fundamental decency in this country.
But let’s by all means worry about the gays! Let’s make sure they know their place. Keep them in check and all else falls into line, or at least America notches one victory amid so many defeats.
That must be the thinking behind Republican efforts to push through so-called religious liberty laws and other legislation – most egregiously in North Carolina – that excuse and legitimize anti-gay discrimination. They’re cynical distractions. Politically opportunistic sideshows.
And the Republicans who are promoting them are playing a short game, not a long one, by refusing to acknowledge a clear movement in our society toward LGBT equality, a trajectory with only one shape and only one destination.
They’re also playing a provincial game, not a national one, and scoring points in their corners of the universe at the expense of the Republican Party’s image from north to south and coast to coast, a brand that needed a makeover – remember the broadly ballyhooed “autopsy” following Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat? – and somehow didn’t get so much as a tweezed eyebrow or dab of blush.
Yes, two of the four longest-lasting candidates for the party’s presidential nomination, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are the sons of Cuban immigrants, but much of the oratorical gunfire they exchanged revolved around who would be tougher on immigration. The autopsy didn’t recommend that.
Nor did it want Republican leaders to spotlight divisive social issues and hurtle anew into the culture wars, which is precisely what Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina, who is up for re-election in the fall, just did. He hastily signed a sweeping anti-gay and anti-transgender law that was rushed through the state Legislature as if the state’s security and economy were in immediate peril.
It takes forever in this country to build a new bridge, tunnel or train line, but it took no time flat for politicians in the Tar Heel State to convene a special session, formally ostracize North Carolina’s LGBT voters and wrap conservative Christians in a tight embrace. Who says America’s can-do spirit is dead?
What happened in North Carolina is a problem for Republicans atop the major trouble (Cruz, Donald Trump) that they already had. It exposes divides within the party that are ever more difficult to paper over and contradictions that aren’t easy to explain away.
While the marriage of the party’s evangelical and business wings has never been a cuddly one, it’s especially frosty now, their incompatible desires evident in the significant number of prominent corporations that have denounced the North Carolina law and that successfully pressed the Republican governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, to veto recent legislation that would have permitted the denial of services to LGBT people by Georgians citing religious convictions.
Corporations want to attract and retain the most talented workers, and that’s more difficult in states with discriminatory laws. They want to reach the widest base of customers and sow loyalty among young consumers in particular, and the best strategy for that is an LGBT-friendly one, given that eight in 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support nondiscrimination laws, according to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute survey.
So they’re increasingly at loggerheads with the GOP, whose gay-rights advocates are still in the minority and whose socially conservative members still profit from and promote a derisive view of gays.
The gay-rights front isn’t the only one on which there’s tension between the party and big business. The Republican primaries are awash in anti-immigrant sentiment and screed; corporate America generally backs immigration reform. The protectionism and nativism that have had such currency in the contest so far conflict with many corporations’ interests.
What’s more, several major companies are so concerned about the brew of misogyny, racism and xenophobia stirred up by Trump that they are debating whether to follow through with their usual sponsorship of the Republican National Convention, as The Times’ Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reported last week.
The party’s anti-gay efforts not only undermine its pro-business stance but also contradict conservatives’ exaltation of local decision making. The North Carolina law was drafted and passed expressly to undo and override an ordinance in the state’s most populous city, Charlotte, that extended LGBT protections against discrimination to transgender people who want to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. The law went so far as to forbid any municipality from instituting its own anti-discrimination protections, lest they contradict the state’s.
Apparently conservatives love the concept of local control when the locality being given control tilts right, but they have a different view when it leans left. Rural sensibilities must be defended while cosmopolitan ones are dismissed.
North Carolina harbors both. Its tensions are America’s in miniature, and in terms of gay rights, they’re a reminder that the Supreme Court’s ruling last June to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide was hardly the finish of the fight.
That ruling was certain to prompt the kind of backlash now occurring in North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere, because the steadily growing majority of Americans who favor gay equality is not yet overwhelming, and the climate of acceptance changes greatly from state to state and county to county.
Too many of us LGBT Americans and our allies were too busy celebrating to stay alert to that. Too few of us acknowledged the tenaciousness of opponents who will resort to whatever they must, including the hallucinated specter of male sexual predators entering women’s restrooms, to sweep aside anti-discrimination laws that include us and to turn public sentiment against us.
They will lose in the end – whether that’s 10, 20 or 30 years from now. Meanwhile, they'll do undeniable harm to the Republican Party nationally and force tough, coalition-straining choices upon it.
They'll also steal oxygen from matters more central to this country’s continued vitality and prosperity.
Look, I used to be a restaurant critic. I know dessert is important. But if you want to make America great again, you can’t waste time worrying about who’s cutting the wedding cake.