Indiana, Arkansas, and the GOP’s Disastrous Anti-Gay Bigotry

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U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) holds a press conference March 31, 2015 at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis, Indiana. Pence spoke about the state's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act which has been condemned by business leaders and Democrats.  (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN) holds a press conference yesterday at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis.Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about the new wave of “religious freedom” laws, the new host of The Daily Show, and what to make of Andrew Sullivan’s recent comments about blogger burn-out.

Just as Indiana lawmakers announce plans to “amend” their controversial religious-freedom law, the Arkansas state legislature approved a similar bill and sent it the governor’s desk. In a surprise move this morning, the Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, who’d previously expressed support for the bill, asked the legislature to recall or amend it. Will the furor over what happened in Indiana extend into 2016?
That Hutchinson did this abrupt about-face is further proof of what a political disaster the Indiana law, and other, ongoing anti-gay initiatives in other red states, is for the GOP. At least 20 anti-LGBT laws have been proposed in Texas this year alone, according to the Texas Observer. Hutchinson’s reversal is one small attempt to quell these flames before they do more damage to his state and his party. But much damage has already been done. Not a single Republican presidential contender came down against the Indiana law, and most have been vocal in their support of it and the Indiana governor, Mike Pence. That unanimity cannot now be written out of the record as the GOP faces 2016.

For most younger voters — who tend to stay home during midterm elections but turn out in presidential years — equal rights for gay Americans has long been a settled issue. Most won’t give a political party’s candidates a serious look if the party endorses bigotry. Alex Lundry, who was in charge of data science in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, told Time last year that even “evangelical millennials are 64% in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry.” Potential campaign donors will also balk. Think of Jeb Bush, who is fund-raising in the Bay Area this week just after voicing unambiguous support for Pence and Indiana’s law. In the accounting of the San Francisco Chronicle, Twitter, Yelp, Square, and Levi Strauss & Co., have joined the CEOs Tim Cook of Apple and Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com in either coming out against the law or pulling business from Indiana.

Money talks. So yesterday Pence tried to make nice to save his state from economic sanctions. In his press conference, he promised “clarification” of Indiana’s law (not to be confused with a repeal of it), and said, “I don’t believe for a minute” that the bill intended “to deny services to gays or lesbians or anyone else.” He added that the “issue of discrimination” has been an “anthem throughout my life.” You have to wonder how stupid he thinks people are. Pence has a consistent record of supporting anti-gay discrimination, from speaking against the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010 to opposing state laws that protect the rights of gays and lesbians. As GLAAD has documented with an annotated photograph, the posse invited to pose behind Pence when he signed the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week included Micah Clark of the American Family Association, whose homophobia extends to purporting that gay people face “significantly higher risks of mental harm, physical harm, emotional harm and spiritual harm.” Standing next to Clark and behind Pence was Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute, who has equated homosexuality with bestiality.  

In other words, the intentions of the bill were naked from the start. Pence’s lying hasn’t fooled anyone, from Tim Cook to the NCAA. It’s an indication of how much damage these laws are inflicting not just on gay people but on the GOP’s national electoral prospects that conservatives who should know better are desperately trying to defend the indefensible by suggesting that liberals and gay-rights activists are overreacting. Take, for instance, David Brooks, who wrote a column this week expressing astonishment that there would be “an incredible firestorm” in response to “a state law like the 1993 federal act” that shares its name and caused far less of a stir. Brooks’s use of the word like was, to put it mildly, deceptive. Unlike the federal law of 1993, which addressed government intrusions on religious belief, the Indiana law extends to disputes between private businesses and their customers — e.g., same-sex couples seeking wedding cakes. This was instantly transparent to the hard-headed CEOs (including Walmart’s, in Arkansas) who have put civil rights ahead of party partisanship. Among the most fervent critics of Indiana’s law is the CEO of the Indianapolis-based corporation Angie’s List, William Oesterle, who managed the 2004 campaign of Indiana’s previous Republican governor, Mitch Daniels.

Other defenders of these laws, like The Wall Street Journal editorial page, are predictably pleading victimization: The real victims of bigotry, according to this argument, are Christians, who are being punished for unfashionable beliefs. The Bible has a long history of being cited in America to justify second-class citizenship for women and blacks, among others, in their struggles for equal rights over the past century. It didn’t fly then, and it won’t fly now. A GOP presidential field that supports transparent discrimination is not only on the wrong side of history but the wrong side of the present-day American electorate. There will be consequences far beyond the economic punishment that is already being inflicted on Indiana.

Less than a day after most of America discovered Daily Show host-in-waiting Trevor Noah, we discovered his Twitter account.  Comedy Central is standing by its choice. Should it?
Of course. Noah’s Twitter account contains a number of bad jokes, the most egregious aimed at women’s looks in a manner that emulates Joan Rivers in content without being remotely funny. But as Chris Rock argued in my conversation with him last year, a comedian trying out material sometimes has to “be offensive” on his way “to being inoffensive.” Noah might take a lesson from Rock and try out material in venues less public than a Twitter feed.

The outrage over Noah has, in any case, been over-the-top. His anointment as Jon Stewart’s successor has been likened to John McCain choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate, and there has been much grumping about Comedy Central’s failure to vet his social-media output. Of course Stewart himself was an active participant in the choosing of his successor, and the host of The Daily Show is at most a heartbeat away from Jimmy Fallon, not the president.

Noah will have to prove himself. What’s enticing about the choice is that as a 31-year-old South African of mixed-race background, he will bring a fresh perspective both to The Daily Show itself and to American politics. As John Oliver has proved so abundantly, an outsider can rejuvenate what had been a settled format and see things about his adopted home that we who are too close to it cannot. If Noah flames out, the marketplace will be ruthless: He’ll be gone, for Comedy Central can’t afford a flop. But he offers a chance for something fresh in late-night comedy.

Andrew Sullivan, who recently announced the end of his 15-year blogging career, told an audience at the 92nd Street Y that he had to step back because blogging “was killing” him. Should today’s bloggers — “digital writers” — take this to mean that a career premised on high-volume, wide-ranging commentary is ultimately unsustainable?
Perhaps so — though I’d argue that anyone in any kind of writing will burn out well before the normal expiration date if producing copy at the volume, intensity, and ambition that Sullivan practiced over those years. But my favorite comment of his at the Y was this: “I couldn’t imagine blogging the next election … I will not spend another minute of my time writing about the Clintons. Period. Or the Bushes.” I dare say there are few political journalists or commentators of his generation who don’t wish they had that luxury.