Trump said there was little controversy before the law was passed, and the measure has done nothing but hurt North Carolina economically. Businesses including American Airlines, Facebook and Google have condemned the measure, and the National Basketball Association hinted it might relocate next year’s all-star game from Charlotte.“You leave it the way it is. There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble,” Trump said on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday. “And the problem with what happened in North Carolina is the strife and the economic. … I mean, the economic punishment they’re taking.”Trump’s comments were met with fierce opposition from Cruz, who defended the law last week.
Cruz seems positively giddy to be able to talk about this issue. He describes the idea of transgender women using women’s rooms as, “Men should be able to go into the girls’ bathroom if they want to.” You’ll notice the contrast of “men” and “girls,” used so that you’ll think this is some sort of issue about pedophiles preying on children. To emphasize the point, he concludes, “Grown adult men — strangers — should not be alone in a bathroom with little girls.”
I won’t even bother refuting that rancid fear-mongering, except to say that the legislators in North Carolina were unable to cite a single case where a transgender woman assaulted someone in a bathroom in North Carolina, let alone any “little girls.”
But now Trump is gingerly walking back his statement, saying that the question should be decided at the local level, which is the best he can do to make Republican culture warriors less suspicious of him. And that’s where we get to the nature of the GOP coalition, which Trump doesn’t quite seem to grasp.
There was always an implicit bargain within that coalition, one that said that even if various kinds of conservatives had different priorities, they would sign on to each other’s agendas. The supply-siders would say that unfettered gun rights are deeply important, even if most of them don’t actually own guns. The antiabortion crusaders would say that military spending should always be increased. The neoconservatives would praise tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s a circle of interdependence and common cause, and to a great degree, they all came to believe in each other’s positions, even if they didn’t agree on what the top priority for the party should be.
But Trump has upended this bargain, partly because he has nothing resembling a coherent ideology, but also because he doesn’t appreciate the need to keep the coalition together. There are some issues, such as guns, where Trump has adopted the standard Republican position (without a trace of evident sincerity). But on others, he has been willing to anger parts of the Republican coalition. Perhaps it’s because of a careful calculation about what will play well in the general election, but I suspect it’s more impulsive — since Trump didn’t rise through Republican politics, he doesn’t have an intuitive sense of what’s important to which conservatives and what will make them angry.
So when a question he hasn’t thought about comes up, he just gives an answer that seems right for him at that moment. Then what often happens is that people who understand what Republicans think about that issue — reporters and Republicans themselves — say, “What?!?,” somebody clues Trump in to why his allies are mad, and within a day or two he comes back and clarifies what he meant to say, which winds up being something more palatable to the party. This has happened multiple times.
On issues that touch on sex, Trump’s impulses often seem basically libertarian (there are those New York values!), and as he tries to shift them so they can work within the GOP, he winds up ticking people off and going through multiple iterations before he can come up with the appropriate answer. So he says the wrong thing on transgender people, and he says that women should be punished for having abortions (which runs counter to the “We’re taking away your reproductive rights for your own good because you just don’t know any better” stance of the pro-life movement) but also says that there should be exceptions for rape and incest, which the hard-core pro-lifers don’t like either.
The bathroom issue highlights how Red America and Blue America are moving farther and farther apart. If you live in a state controlled by Republicans, your state legislature and your governor will ensure that gay people aren’t protected from discrimination, make abortions almost impossible to obtain, slash social services, undermine unions, make sure you can take your gun to church and generally do what they can to turn your state into a paradise of “traditional” values and right-wing economics. If you live in a Democratic state, your representatives are probably busy raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, expanding government-provided health care and child care, protecting people from discrimination and generally doing all the things the people in red states find horrifying.
Presidential candidates from either party can come from either kind of state, but if you cross over — if you’re a blue-state Republican or a red-state Democrat — you have to assure your voters that you believe deep in your heart that their kind of state embodies all the proper values. Trump doesn’t do that, or at least he doesn’t do it often enough.
For those who are already behind him, it doesn’t really matter. His supporters don’t have specific issues that are absolute deal-breakers, in large part because his campaign is built on personality. Cruz, on the other hand, has a campaign built on ideology. And when there’s a chance to pick up a culture-war baton like this one, he isn’t going to let it pass.
Does that mean that once Trump is the nominee, the social conservatives who really care about the culture war aren’t going to vote for him? Might they just sit the election out? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that they’re the ones who are most likely to get the short end of the stick from the GOP nominee, even as Republicans at the state level work like mad to advance the right’s social agenda.