In light of Donald Trump’s repeated forays into barstool-punditry over matters of immigration and terrorism it seems crazy to consider, but the tangerine tornado sounded like a voice of reason in the furor over North Carolina’s House Bill 2. At an April town hall the GOP’s presumptive nominee called the measure “strong,” then unnecessary before adding “there have been very few complaints the way it is…there has been so little trouble.” In a later interview Trump was given a chance to elaborate on the Tarheel state’s so-called ‘bathroom bill.’ The former Apprentice star endorsed local control, the same thing Governor Pat McCrory erased when he shot down a related city ordinance; an ironic example of the same “baseless and blatant overreach” the former Charlotte mayor pinned on the Obama administration — certainly there is a compelling reason for it. At one point McCrory did offer an explanation to CNN’s Jake Tapper: there is an “expectation of privacy” in public facilities, that “other people coming into there are people of the same gender, or built as the same gender.” It sounds tame, and is if compared with a common theme echoed by Ted Cruz when he was still running for president — the prospect of regular incursions into women’s rooms by potential molesters disguised as “grown adult men.”
When Loretta Lynch set out to sue North Carolina over HB 2 she did the same thing Governor McCrory did. The former US attorney overplayed her hand when she placed the Justice Department’s lawsuit in a line stretching back to Jim Crow and Brown vs. Board of Education. The Obama administration doubled down when its Departments of Justice and Education sent a letter to public school officials to press the case for universal standards and held out a potential loss of funding as the stick. But there is not a clear case for federal intervention at this point because neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has made one. The attorney general’s case almost holds up on one point: the series of bills like HB 2 are brewed from what she called “fear of the unknown.” It would not be surprising to find something short of fear or hate involved in the mid-western and southern states that have proposed or passed similar measures. They’re not like California or New York, they’re places where the notion of gender as a relatively malleable construct is not so easily understood; places where people wonder how the guy pictured on Wheaties boxes in the 1970’s and the lady pictured on a Vanity Fair cover last year are one in the same.
The stakes in this pitched battle between two governments are rising and the rhetorical arms race has followed along. Governor McCrory filed suit against the Justice Department and has since called on Congress for clarity — yup, the guys with an 11% approval rating that are still bickering about what to do with a supreme court nomination. In related news, PayPal’s owners are reconsidering a planned outlet, the NBA could move 2017’s All Star game from Charlotte, NASCAR is weighing its options, while musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and Boston have followed suit by cancelling concerts. Then there’s the list of travel bans. If that’s not hare-brained enough, the European Union has seen fit to jump in; Spokeswoman Catherine Ray says laws like HB 2 “contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” An unfortunate side effect of the lawsuits, boycotts, and counter-lawsuits is that they’ve allowed the absurdity at the center of this battle to escape detection: an ostensibly small-government Republican signed on to a bill that would require monitors at public facilities to serve the same function a bouncer does at a nightclub, and could create smaller versions of the lines seen at TSA checkpoints. There’s got to be a punchline here somewhere.