Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the aftermath of the Orlando shooting on Trump, the GOP’s stance on gay rights, and the Tony Awards.
Donald Trump’s renewed call for a ban on Muslim immigration after the Orlando shooting not only drew condemnation from President Obama and Hillary Clinton, but appears to have deepened the gap between Trump and Establishment Republicans: Paul Ryan responded with a statement of support for Muslims, while Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn have refused to talk about their party’s candidate to the press. Will there be any fallout for Trump within the GOP?
No. We’ve just passed the first anniversary of Trump’s declaration of his presidential campaign, and the dynamic within the GOP has never changed. We know the drill: Trump says something outrageous or hateful. A few GOP leaders timidly say that what he’s said is racist, misogynistic, “not what the Party of Lincoln stands for,” whatever. Then those leaders fall back in line. The dynamic will not change now, and for a simple reason. The GOP elites are frightened of Trump and frightened of their own party’s voters, who overwhelmingly supported Trump in the GOP primary.
What Trump has been saying post-Orlando, it should be added, is not inconsistent with what many other Republican politicians have been saying for years. When he claims that Obama is secretly allied with terrorists, he is echoing Sarah Palin’s charge that Obama was “palling around with terrorists” when she was on the GOP ticket in 2008. When Trump purports that failing to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is tantamount to surrender, he is following a time-honored Republican script. (I would hope that when he trots it out in a debate Clinton will ask him whether “radical Christian terrorism” should be applied to the fringe Christians who have, among other acts of terrorism, murdered abortion doctors or bombed abortion clinics.) Trump’s hate campaign against all Muslims, smearing an entire religion for its fanatics, is also nothing new in the GOP. It’s of a piece with the 2010 Rudy Giuliani–Fox News–led campaign against the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” (which was, in fact, a proposed cultural center, and not at Ground Zero).
Even so, Trump doesn’t care that his Muslim ban wouldn’t have stopped Omar Mateen, an American citizen born in New York. Nor did it matter to him that his Mexican wall would not have thwarted the Indiana-born federal judge Gonzalo Curiel. Spewing bigotry is its own reward for Trump. We have to hope that the American electorate will end his political career in November. But surely, a year in, there’s no point in hoping that feckless Republican elites can or will do anything to stop him.
A few prominent Republicans, including Trump, Ryan, and Mitt Romney, have begun to speak in support of the LGBT community in the wake of the shooting. Is this political opportunism, or might it mark a real change in the GOP’s stance toward LGBT recognition?
Again, it’s business as usual. Republican politicians always speak warmly of the LGBT community after its members are the victims of a horrific crime. Nonetheless, it took Ryan until Tuesday to acknowledge that gay people — or “the gays,” as Trump calls them — were targeted in Orlando. It took Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, until Wednesday. There’s nothing to suggest that such politicians’ belated expressions of sympathy with the gay victims of a terror attack will change their anti-LGBT acts of public policy.
To see Republican hypocrisy in its rawest form, I implore everyone to take five minutes and watch Anderson Cooper’s rightly acclaimed CNN interview with Pam Bondi, the attorney general of Florida. Bondi is shedding many public tears, or at least rhetorical ones, over those who were slaughtered in her state, and she is congratulating herself (in the Trump manner) for all the good she is doing now for the victims and their families. But Cooper repeatedly refused to let Bondi wiggle away from the “sick irony” that as attorney general she had slimed gays when arguing in court against same-sex marriage, accusing them of doing “public harm.” And he also forced Bondi to confront the fact that if she had succeeded in overturning same-sex marriage, gay spouses would not be able to visit their loved ones fighting for their lives in an Orlando hospital. “I have never really seen you talk about gays and lesbians and transgendered people in a positive way until now,” Cooper told her. Bondi does, of course, have nothing but positive things to say about those gay people in the Pulse nightclub now that they are dead or wounded. Whether this is a genuine change of heart or merely a cynical political exploitation of a massacre can be determined by watching the Cooper interview for yourself.
The GOP’s continued institutional opposition to LGBT rights — exemplified not just by Bondi’s history in office but by the flood of so-called “religious liberty” bills nationwide seeking to undo same-sex marriage — is matched by the party’s inability to shake its reflexive homophobia. That stain extends to conservative elites. To take one badly timed example: In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, published only hours before the Orlando bloodbath, you could find a column by the paper’s frequent contributor Joseph Epstein, whose career has been notable mainly for its homophobia. In 1970, a year after Stonewall, Epstein wrote a notorious 11-page essay for Harper’s explaining why he “would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth” and why nothing his children “could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual.” On the morning before Orlando nearly a half-century later, we find him being nothing if not consistent: He argued that Trump’s benighted voters have been driven to him by media coverage of such things as “a lesbian couple kissing at their wedding ceremony” and “the need for men who ‘identify’ [Epstein’s scare quotes] as women to have access to the public lavatories of their choosing.” In Epstein’s telling, the Trump voters appalled by such matters are not bigots — they are merely protesting what Epstein calls “progressivist” political correctness. Though his piece purports to be anti-Trump, it makes exactly Trump’s argument.
Yes, there are gay Republicans, and there are many Republicans and conservatives who are not homophobic and in some cases support gay civil rights. But the toxins of bigotry remain at the core of the party institutionally, both in its actual stands on policy and its countenancing of homophobia like Epstein’s at its most elite levels.
The Orlando attack also cast a shadow over the Tony Awards, which became the first (of many) broadcasts suddenly charged with providing entertainment and inspiration in the aftermath of a tragedy. How’d they do?
By dint of timing, the Tony Awards were in the unenviable position of being the first showbiz responder to Orlando: a live three-hour prime-time extravaganza that went on even as the news from Florida was just sinking in to many Americans. A pro forma and borderline self-promotional tweet from “The Tony Awards” that morning didn’t augur well. But the show itself was in truth stronger than any Tonys in memory. The host, James Corden, opened with a simple, heartfelt acknowledgment of Orlando that ditched the boilerplate (“Our thoughts are with … ”) of the earlier corporate Tony tweet. With perhaps one exception, the performers both presenting and receiving awards did not use Orlando as a cue for showbiz-inflected sanctimony. And Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton creator who was the night’s de facto leader, gave over his victory speech to a sonnet of his own creation that cut to the emotional heart of Orlando without a single iota of narcissism or self-righteousness. It was as powerful an instant response to the horror as could be found anywhere on the national stage.