Donald Trump's Case for Tolerance

The Republican candidate’s defense of transgender bathroom accommodations shows how his approach to the culture war differs from the standard social-conservative line.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Blame it on his New York values, but Donald Trump doesn’t like North Carolina’s recently passed HB2, which—among other things—bars government from establishing or mandating transgender bathroom accommodation.

North Carolina did something that was very strong, and they’re paying a big price, and there’s a lot of problems,” Trump said at a Today show town hall on Thursday:

One of the best answers I heard was from a commentator yesterday, saying, ‘Leave it the way it is! Right now.’ … North Carolina, what they’re going through with all the business that’s leave and all the strife, and that’s on both sides. 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. And the problem with what happened in North Carolina is the strife and economic punishment that they’re taking.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Trump, as a businessman, would view the issue through the lens of business impact rather than through culture war. A range of businesses have canceled plans to add hundreds of businesses in the state, and dozens more have criticized the law and expressed misgivings. The NBA spoke out against the law, but decided not to move the 2017 All-Star Game, which is planned for Charlotte.

HB2 has split the national Republican Party. Trump’s leading rival for the presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, has backed the controversial law, which also bars cities from passing LBGT non-discrimination ordinances. Governor John Kasich, however, has said he probably would not have signed the law.

Trump’s stance against the law helps highlight the gulf in the Republican Party between a more religious, socially conservative-oriented wing and the pro-business wing—and the ways Trump has transcended that gulf. On the one hand, he touts his business credentials, and in his comments on HB2, he focused on the economic impact. Yet Trump has also taken plenty of stances that are explicitly unfriendly to big business—it’s no surprise that Wall Street and corporate donors aren’t flocking to him. His fierce criticism of U.S. corporations that take jobs out of the country, and his advocacy for high (and likely illegal) tariffs stand in opposition to free-trade conservatives.

In fact, those positions represent a different sort of cultural conservatism—a method of appealing to white working-class voters who have been left behind by the economy. He’s paired that with a strong racial element, especially bashing immigrants, whether Hispanics or Arabs. But Trump has not emphasized gay-rights issues. He has generally opposed gay marriage, but has a mixed record elsewhere, and in any case has not made LGBT issues a major priority. That tack has won him the support of evangelicals across the country, and in particularly in the south—though the most religious voters still favored Cruz or other candidates. Trump is a culture warrior, but he’s a different sort of culture warrior.

North Carolina’s law was passed hurriedly in response to an ordinance in Charlotte that barred discrimination against LGBT people and required businesses to accommodate transgender people in bathrooms, with either unisex bathrooms or allowing people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. The General Assembly’s bill preempted city rules on both, and required transgender people in state buildings and schools to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. (The law also preempted local living-wage laws.)

The law has created a conundrum for Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, who is caught in the same business vs. culture war conflict. The former mayor of Charlotte, he campaigned for the governorship as a pragmatic pro-business moderate. But on issue after issue, the more socially conservative legislature has pushed him to the right. Although he declined to call a special session to consider HB2, he quickly signed the bill when it was passed.

Since then, McCrory has staunchly defended the law, including over the weekend, when he appeared on Meet the Press. McCrory is up for reelection in November, and Roy Cooper, the attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor, has opposed the law and used it to argue that McCrory and the Republicans are bad for business.

McCrory’s campaign released a statement pushing back against Trump on Thursday:

Governor McCrory has always said that North Carolina was getting along fine before the Charlotte city council passed its unneeded and overreaching ordinance. Now that it has been overturned, businesses can adopt their own policies—like Target has—instead of being mandated to allow men into women's restrooms by government. Where the governor disagrees with Mr. Trump is that bathroom and shower facilities in our schools should be kept separate and special accommodations made when needed. It's just common sense.

In an effort to tamp down criticism of the law, McCrory issued an executive order last week “clarifying” the law—mostly an effort to communicate the ways in which the law still allowed private corporations to institute the policies they wish, including creating transgender bathroom accommodations. So far, the order doesn’t seem to have quieted the backlash, as criticism of the law from companies and entertainers continues.

While McCrory doesn’t have the power to unilaterally change the law, he also called on the legislature to reinstitute the ability for North Carolinians to sue over employment discrimination of any kind, which appeared to have been removed from the law mostly accidentally. But Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger, a Republican, appears cool to the proposal—another example of McCrory’s bind. Berger also said he did not support repealing the law when the legislature returns to session next week.

But the state may yet find its hand forced. A federal appeals court in Virginia this week sided with a transgender teen in a case over bathroom accommodations, a ruling that could put billions in federal funding for North Carolina schools at risk.