In Battleground North Carolina, Donald Trump Is Taking Jesse Helms’s Last StandHistorians in the News
tags: racism, North Carolina, Jesse Helms, Donald Trump
There’s an echo across North Carolina this fall and the reverb sounds like this: The protestors are socialists. The bureaucrats can’t be trusted. International agreements aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Black people never had it so good. The media is anti-American. The schools should go back to how they used to do it. Our way of life is in jeopardy.
Donald Trump has spent a lot of time this fall in North Carolina, where he is running close with Joe Biden. For North Carolinians, Trump’s message is familiar. It’s the same message they heard from native son Jesse Helms for more than 40 years, first as a hard-edged conservative TV commentator and then for five flame-throwing terms in the U.S. Senate, ending in 2002. This fall, it’s as if Helms has returned to the campaign trail, more than a decade after his death, and Donald Trump is taking Helms’s last stand to save America.
Helms, a former Democrat, won five close Senate campaigns not because he carried the reliably Republican areas of the west, but because he ran strong among the conservative Democrats of the east, known as Jessecrats. Helms’s appeals to white lunch-pail workers, which was unusual for the more genteel Republicans of the 1970s (when Helms won his first two Senate races), foreshadowed the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s and Trump’s core of supporters today. Helms built a coalition of religious conservatives, business people, white males and residents of small towns and rural areas. He built the Trump coalition before Trump did.
There are differences between Helms and Trump. Still, there are enough similarities in style and message for conservative North Carolinians to view Trump as the flag-waving heir to Helms. “I told a lot of people early on how much Trump reminds me of Helms,” Republican U.S. Rep. David Rouzer of Wilmington, who worked for Helms, told me. “Helms was a conservative populist and that’s basically what Trump is.” Rouzer said Helms and Trump had “a killer instinct” and were “very, very similar in their capacity” to stir their supporters. “Helms would have appreciated Trump fighting day in and day out for the principles that make this country great.”
Like Helms, Trump recognized that a bloc of voters was angry with both parties. The journalist and historian Garry Wills once wrote “that resentment is one of (the South’s) great skills.” If so, Trump has nationalized resentment. The key for the snarling populist is to run against – even when he is the incumbent, as Helms was four times and Trump is now – even when their party was in the majority. As insiders, Helms and Trump ran as outsiders. Wills noted the mental gymnastics that requires of the angry incumbent populist – he must tell his followers that he’s been wronged and that they have been, too. He must hold on to his grievances and stoke theirs and assure them that it’s somebody else’s fault.
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