Sic semper tyrannis

We Americans have no tolerance for tyrants.

We fought a revolution to get rid of the King. We fought a civil war to get rid of slavery. We fought World War II to get rid of the Nazis.

Earlier this year, people across North Carolina and the nation protested against what they called the “tyranny” of Covid-19 restrictions that kept them from bars, gyms and hair salons for a few months.

Reopen NC protesters called Governor Roy Cooper a “tyrant.” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear was hung in effigy at the state Capitol, with a sign reading “Sic semper tyrannis” – “thus always to tyrants,” what John Wilkes Booth yelled after he shot Abraham Lincoln. 

But the Covid restrictions aren’t tyranny. They’re an inconvenience during a public health crisis, a crisis that isn’t over yet. 

In recent weeks, thousands of times more Americans have protested against real tyranny – the tyranny of racism that has terrorized African-Americans for centuries and continues today.

First it was slavery, America’s original sin. Then it was the Ku Klux Klan and post-Reconstruction terror. Then it was the Black Codes governing the conduct of freed slaves, then Jim Crow and white supremacy. 

In North Carolina, it was the organized massacre of black citizens in Wilmington in 1898 and the armed overthrow of a legally elected government, a story told in David Zucchino’s book “Wilmington Lies.”

Then it was segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters and discrimination in employment, housing and all facets of life. It was lynchings, whippings and police beatings. 

It didn’t end with the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. It goes on without end.

Now all Americans have been abruptly awakened to the reality of black America, where police officers are more feared than respected. We saw cellphone videos of police brutality against African-Americans. We saw George Floyd plead for his life while a policeman’s knee squeezed the breath out of him.

After the protests began, we saw police officers across the country turn on protesters and journalists with clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. We saw a riot squad knock down a 75-year-old man in Buffalo and stalk by him as he bled on the pavement.

We saw police departments bristling with armored cars, riot gear and semiautomatic weapons. Is their motto “serve and protect” or “dominate the battlespace”?

Sometimes the police looked more like military units. In fact, military units were called out in the nation’s capital. So were agents from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Homeland Security.

Also on the streets in Washington were officers from the Bureau of Prisons who wore riot gear but no badges or identification. They smacked of the Brownshirts in 1930s Germany.

Officers with no badges or insignia at D.C. protests

The menacing presence of these police units – and their conduct – brought white America face-to-face with what black America experiences.

Racism has deprived black Americans of the fundamental promise in our Constitution – that we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yet the Founding Fathers also justified slavery. They counted slaves as three-fifths of whites. For generations, Americans used the Constitution to protect slavery and then to preserve discrimination and oppression.

It’s time to finally end that contradiction, keep the Constitution’s promise and rid America of the tyranny of racism.

What Would Terry Sanford Do?

North Carolina has been through tense, racially troubled times before. What happened 60 years ago should give us hope.

Racism is bad now. It was even more pervasive then.

But North Carolina had a governor, Terry Sanford, who stood up against racial discrimination when other Southern governors were standing in schoolhouse doors to keep out black students.

Governor Sanford

Sanford was elected in 1960. That February, the sit-in movement had begun in Greensboro. The civil rights movement was on the rise, and so was the virulent, violent resistance of whites in the South.

In the Democratic primary, the only election that mattered then in a heavily Democratic state, Sanford defeated I. Beverly Lake, an avowed segregationist. Lake had come to political fame fighting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against school segregation. He said North Carolina should shut down public schools before integrating them.

Sanford had to thread a political needle; most white North Carolinians opposed desegregation. But he declared that the state should obey the law of the land.

As Governor, he went farther. He sent his son and daughter to an integrated Raleigh elementary school. It was token integration; there was one black student, Bill Campbell, who later became mayor of Atlanta. But Sanford’s decision was symbolic.

He prodded business and municipal leaders to desegregate cafeterias, theaters and other businesses. He desegregated state parks. And he spoke up.

In January 1963, George Wallace was inaugurated Governor of Alabama, proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Governor Sanford spoke four days later to the North Carolina Press Association – knowing he would get widespread news coverage:

The time has come for American citizens…to quit unfair discrimination and to give the Negro a full chance to earn a decent living for his family and to contribute to higher standards for himself and all men….

We can do this. We should do this….We will do it because it is honest and fair for us to give all men and women their best chance in life.”

His language in 1963 – “Negro” and “all men” – may be jarring today. It was revolutionary then. A black newspaper in Los Angeles headlined: “NC Governor (That’s Right!) Urges Equality.”

Sanford never called out the National Guard, though he sometimes had to send in State Troopers to keep peace. He didn’t feel a need to prove his toughness. He had been an Army paratrooper in World War II. He fought in Europe, was wounded and decorated for bravery.

His instinct wasn’t to crack down; it was to sit down with protesters and listen to them. He created a Good Neighbor Council where blacks and whites could talk together and work together.

That was always his way. He became President of Duke University in 1970, just as Vietnam War protests were erupting. Other college presidents called in police and shut down campuses. Sanford invited protesters into his office and heard them out.

Early in his presidency, more than a thousand students rallied and declared they were going to take over the Administration Building. Sanford joined the crowd. “Take me with you,” he said. “I’ve been trying to occupy it for a month.”

Sanford had an optimistic faith in young people. He’d be gratified today to see so many young people of all races joining protests against racism and police brutality. Photos from the early 1960s usually show white teenagers jeering, shouting and spitting at black protesters.

He’d also be proud of Governor Roy Cooper.

Sanford turned North Carolina in a new direction.

Today, we are called again to overcome hate, bigotry and injustice. Let’s ask ourselves: What would Terry do?

Protests and Politics Echo 1968

Downtown Raleigh Saturday night
N&O photo, Robert Willett

2020 feels like 1968.

Peaceful protests erupt into looting and burning. Police battle demonstrators in the streets. Black Americans vent their rage and frustration.

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis lit the fires. This year, it was the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis.

In 1968, the nation was already divided by the Vietnam war – and protests against the war. This year, our nerves were already rubbed raw by the Covid pandemic, the economic meltdown, stay-home orders – and protests against the orders.

Then, as now, there was the sickening sense that the floor under American society was collapsing.

1968, like 2020, was a big election year. 1968 ended 36 years of Democratic dominance in Washington, since FDR’s election in 1932. It ushered in an era – more than half a century now – dominated by a Republican Party dependent on white Southerners and dedicated to the proposition that government is the problem, not the solution.

In 1968, an anguished President was trapped inside the White House by protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Four years after winning a historic landslide, he withdrew as a candidate for reelection. His dream of a Great Society slipped away.

Today inside a White House again surrounded by protesters, an angry President lashes out at critics, the media and political opponents. Four years after winning a historic upset, he fears his dream of a smashing reelection victory fueled by a rising economy is slipping away.

In 1968, Democrats’ election hopes were shattered when their national convention in Chicago exploded in violence. This year, the Republican convention will be in Charlotte, assuming the city and state can come to terms with the Republican Party and President Trump over Covid precautions.

They also must consider the risk that Charlotte could attract a volatile mix of protesters against racism, “tyranny”-protesting Reopeners and camo-clad white nationalists waving Confederate flags and wielding assault weapons.

We don’t want Charlotte to be to 2020 what Chicago was to 1968.

Then, the violence in Chicago and the riots nationwide set off a white backlash that helped elect Richard Nixon President. George Wallace, running as a third-party candidate, fanned the flames.

Nixon benefitted from Democratic disarray, Roger Ailes’ TV genius and Strom Thurmond’s Southern Strategy. Republicans began their rise in North Carolina and the South. In 1972, North Carolina elected a Republican governor and a Republican Senator named Jesse Helms.

It almost didn’t happen. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the seemingly hapless Democratic candidate, nearly caught Nixon in the final days.

Former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford and his chief political adviser, Bert Bennett, helped lead Humphrey’s national campaign. Bennett said years later that Humphrey would have won with another week.

But he didn’t. Nixon won and promised to “bring us together.” But he didn’t. The Vietnam War dragged on, and our racial divide persists today.

Politics, like life, rarely moves in a straight line. We don’t control events; they control us.

Even people with power – Governor, President, police chief, protest organizer – are no more in control than a ship in a storm is in control of the winds and waves.

A few months ago, we thought this election would be about impeachment and a roaring, soaring economy.

Then a virus kills 101,000 Americans and puts millions out of work.

A white policeman keeps his knee on a black man’s neck for almost nine minutes even after the victim pleads “I can’t breathe.”

An angry protester throws a firebomb.

History pays no attention to human intention.

The Check is in the Mail?

As Washington debates what to do next about the economic crisis, it should think about one thing Washington does well.

I know what that is, because I see it every month. The second Wednesday of every month. That’s the day my Social Security is deposited in my checking account.

Democrats especially might think about this.

If they win big this year, they’ll want to do something big next year. Something that works. Something that lasts.

They’d like to do something that doesn’t get them thrown out of town in 2022, which is what usually happens when Democrats do something big in Washington. Remember when Presidents Clinton and Obama tried to do health care reform their first years in office? Democrats lost big in the next mid-term elections.

A lot of ideas are floating around as the economy sinks deeper: billions for state and local governments to fill budget holes, billions for hospitals and health care, Medicare for All, an infrastructure jobs plan, renewable energy investments, worker protections and – yes – more direct checks to Americans.

Congress already sent one round of checks. Many Americans got – or were supposed to get – one-time $1,200 checks.

The stimulus efforts had problems. Big businesses got money intended for small businesses. Small businesses couldn’t make heads nor tails of what they did get and how they could and couldn’t use the money. Some gave up and sent the money back. Some didn’t get a dime.

There are charges of fraud and favoritism, corruption and cronyism, slowness and sluggishness, bureaucratic bungling and blundering.

That happens when you throw trillions of dollars at a problem in a hurry.

Why not throw the money into the hands of the American people? Let them decide how to spend it. Let the magic of the market work.

Apparently, many people will go immediately to a barbershop or hair salon. Or a bar. They’ll pay rent, buy groceries, get the car fixed, buy clothes and stock up on toilet paper. They’ll shop local. They’ll invest in America.

This isn’t a new idea born in the pandemic. It was the whole idea behind Andrew Yang’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yang called it a “Universal Basic Income.” He proposed sending every American a check for $1,000 a month. Not just once, but forever. No income ceiling, no means-testing, no fuss, no muss. Just a monthly check.

Andrew Yang: send checks

Where would the money come from? Yang said Americans’ jobs and futures are being uprooted by new technology, so companies benefitting from technology – like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – should pay higher taxes. They get rich collecting and selling our personal information, he said; shouldn’t they pay us back?

Some Republicans might go along. Senator Josh Hawley, a conservative Republican from Missouri, has proposed monthly payments of $1,400-$2,200 for families for the duration of the emergency. He said families “need guaranteed, accessible, and rapid relief.”

Billionaire Mark Cuban proposed $1,000 payments every two weeks to all 128 million households. The money would have to be spent within 10 days, not saved. He said, “No amount of loans to businesses will save them or jobs if their customers aren’t buying.”

It’s the opposite of trickledown. Cuban called it “trickle up.”

Yes, some will call it socialism. Opponents called Social Security socialism. But that doesn’t seem to bother us. Social Security is still around almost 90 years after Franklin D. Roosevelt started it.

Once Americans get a check, they might get to liking it. It works for me, anyway.

Coming Apart – or Coming Together?

Covid-19 might as well be called Divided-2020.

When the pandemic started, optimists thought it might inspire us to come together, the way our parents and grandparents did in the Depression and World War II. 

But if you watch the news and follow social media, we seem more divided than ever. 

As usual, we seem split along pro-Trump and anti-Trump lines. North Carolina has a “Reopen” team and a “Stay Home” team. Wearing a mask, or not, is a political statement.

Those divisions are by choice. Other divisions leave little choice. The pandemic shows that, as former North Carolina Senator John Edwards used to say, there are “two Americas.”

In one America, people still have jobs. They can work from home. They may lose some income, and their 401k’s took a hit, but they’ll make it.

The other America lost their jobs or got furloughed without pay.  They worry about paying the rent and keeping their home. They worry about feeding their families. They line up at food banks. They file for unemployment and wonder when they’ll get the check and how long it will last. They may have to go to work even if they don’t feel safe there.

In one America, we can see a doctor to get tested for the virus. In the other America, an estimated 43 million people may lose their health insurance. They can’t afford to go to a doctor.

A teacher reminded me that children, too, live in two different Americas. 

In affluent America, children have parents with the time, ability and desire to home-school. They have easy access to their schools’ online classes.

In fact, the teacher said, these kids may benefit from this time. They get a break from end-of-grade testing pressure. They get a vacation from daily schedules packed with tutoring, advanced-placement classes and music, voice or dance classes. They’ll catch up when school starts back up.

But, in the other America, children don’t have Internet. They don’t have books at home. They may not get decent meals. They get no break from neglect, abuse and homelessness. They’ll never make up what they’re missing now, the teacher said.

America needs an honest and constructive discussion about how we address these gaps in economic security, health care and education.

Will our poisoned political climate allow that? Well, maybe we’re not as divided as it seems. 

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll May 5-10 found that two in three Americans think it will be July or later before gatherings of 10 or more people will be safe.

Yes, there is a partisan split; 80 percent of Democrats agree with that timeline. But a majority of Republicans, 54 percent, also agree.

Despite all the media coverage of protests, only 21 percent in the poll said current restrictions on restaurants, stores and other businesses in their state are too restrictive; 58 percent say they are appropriate and 20 percent, not restrictive enough.

Maybe we should pay less attention to the people yelling – on the streets, on TV and on social media. Maybe we should listen to quieter voices that speak to the basic decency of all Americans.

Like former President George W. Bush. He was never known for his way with words, but he put it pretty well recently:

“Let us remember that empathy and simple kindness are essential, powerful tools of national recovery. Even at an appropriate social distance, we can find ways to be present in the lives of others, to ease their anxiety, and share their burdens.”

Amen, Dubya. 

In Praise of Inside Players

Politics, like basketball, has an inside game and an outside game. You can win either way. But rarely do you see a political player who is good at both.

Two of the North Carolina Democratic Party’s all-time all-star inside players died this year: former state Senator Tony Rand and former state Senator and Lieutenant Governor Bob Jordan.

Both were masters of the legislative inside game. From the mid-70s until Republicans took over the legislature in 2010, either Jordan or Rand were go-to players in the Senate. They had their hands in every big issue, and they got big things passed.

Tony Rand

But in the 1988 election, they showed that legislative insiders rarely make great statewide candidates. Jordan tried and failed to unseat incumbent Republican Governor Jim Martin, and Rand lost the race for lieutenant governor to Republican Jim Gardner.

Insiders are adept at legislative maneuvering, negotiating and compromising. They come alive in floor fights, in committee and, especially, in backroom, bare-knuckled wheeling and dealing.

One lobbyist recalled talking with Rand about a knotty issue in the Senate. “He waved his hands around in circles, he talked in circles and I was totally confused. But he worked it out.”

The same skills don’t work well in the outside game. In fact, they can become negatives.

In a televised debate during the 1988 campaign, Gardner blistered Rand for being part of “the gang of eight,” a small group of powerful legislators who decided the state budget behind closed doors. Rand’s reply was famously weak: “There were not eight people there. There were six or seven people there.”

His campaign never recovered.

Jordan was often visibly uncomfortable as a candidate. He was even less comfortable with his campaign’s ads attacking Martin.

Bob Jordan

Ironically, Rand’s campaign spawned a great outsider candidate. Mike Easley, the district attorney in Southport, did a TV ad defending Rand’s crime-fighting credentials. Easley was good on TV; he went on to be elected attorney general twice and governor twice.

Some politicians are good inside and outside. My old boss, Governor Jim Hunt, was. So were Governors Martin and Jim Holshouser, both Republicans. Governor Roy Cooper was a legislator and attorney general.

Inside players rarely are great speakers. Instead, they talk inside baseball (to switch sports metaphors). They bog down explaining the legislative process, arcane things like committee substitutes, conference reports and parliamentary procedures. Remember John Kerry: “I voted for the bill before I voted against it.”

That kind of talk is fatal in the outside game. Which is why most Presidents weren’t legislators: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Presidents Bush. President Obama was in the Senate and the Illinois legislature, but he was never an insider. Those Presidents’ strengths were giving big speeches, painting big pictures and setting big goals.

Lyndon Johnson, “Master of the Senate,” lost to John F. Kennedy, a lackadaisical back-bencher. Then it took LBJ to get Kennedy’s program – and a lot more – through Congress.

Let us not dismiss inside players. They can be MVPs.

When Rand died this month, he was eulogized for his work for public education, economic development, the UNC system, UNC law school and his adopted hometown of Fayetteville.

When Jordan died in February, he left a lengthy legacy: the N.C. Rural Center, the N.C. Biotechnology Center, the Basic Education Program, highway funding reform, school construction and the Teaching Fellows Program.

Rand’s obituary said, “Like they sang in ‘Hamilton,’ he wanted to be in the room where it happened.” Rand and Jordan worked their way into the rooms where it happened. Then they made things happen.

Unsettled Times, Unsettled Politics

Political pollsters often use a caveat that their audiences often ignore: “If the election were today…”

The 2020 election is not today. It’s exactly six months away. There are clear trends today, and many of them favor Joe Biden and Democrats. But Democrats who are sure that President Trump is going down – and taking the Republican Party with him – need to remember history and get real.

Recently I listened in on a state-of-the-election briefing by one of the best pollsters in the business – Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native. Hickman and I go way back; we worked together for Governor Jim Hunt in the 1990s. When he talks, I listen.

Americans are feeling “unsettled” by the Covid-19 crisis, he said in the briefing, but some things are settled. “People want a new tone in their politics. There’s more of a sense that we’re all in this together.”

Hickman

There’s more awareness of social and economic inequalities. There’s more feeling that government action – and spending – are needed. And people’s faith in medical and scientific experts has increased.

Those trends seemingly should help Biden and Democrats this year, Hickman said.

He noted that President Trump’s approval ratings have fallen back to about 40-45 percent. Trump got only a small – and temporary – bump early in the crisis. “Compare that to previous presidents in times of crisis. They had dramatic increases.”

Now, “every day Trump has a press briefing, it helps Democrats,” Hickman said. Polls in battleground states consistently show Biden leading.

But Hickman raised a warning flag about polling during the Covid-19 crisis: “It’s unclear whether polls are working like they should.” In normal times, poll calls are made from centralized call centers. Quality control is high. Today, callers work from home. There’s not as much oversight.

He added that many polls today are made by automated calls, which legally can call only land lines, not cell phones. Some polls are done online, but only 50-60 percent of Americans are regularly online.

Then there’s the predictable unpredictability of presidential campaigns.

In 2016, Hickman said, “The key swing group was 20 percent of voters who disliked both Trump and Hillary Clinton. Through most of the campaign, a majority of them supported Clinton.”

But they switched in the final 10 days, after FBI Director James Comey reopened the investigation of Clinton’s emails. Trump won 65 percent of them.

Today, Hickman said, 65 percent of the voters who dislike both Trump and Biden say they’ll vote for Biden. But, again, that can turn on a day’s headlines – and turn battleground states and the Electoral College upside down.

On top of all that uncertainty, I sense uncertainty – even among Democrats and Biden fans – about Biden as a candidate.

He can talk too much and say too little. For all his years in politics, he’s still largely untested. In fact, he flunked the test in the 1988 and 2008 presidential races.

This year, Biden’s candidacy was faltering until Jim Clyburn endorsed him and moderate Democrats coalesced behind him on Super Tuesday. That dramatic shift was fueled by fear of Bernie Sanders.

Now Biden has been forced into the basement of his Delaware home. For better and for worse, he has dropped off the radar. His campaign lags way behind Trump’s in fundraising and online.

He is grappling with a 1993 sexual assault allegation. Hunter Biden lurks in the wings. And the debates lie ahead.

Maybe the polls are right. Maybe Trump is done for. Maybe Biden and Democrats win big if the election were today.

But it’s not today. No maybe about it.

Covid-19 Response Boosts Cooper

Like many Governors, Roy Cooper gets good poll ratings for handling the Covid-19 crisis. Unlike most other Governors, Cooper is running for reelection this year.

Polls on opposite ideological poles – Public Policy Polling on the left and Civitas on the right – say that North Carolinians strongly approve of Cooper’s performance. His numbers are much better than President Trump’s.

The two polls agree that Cooper has opened up a big lead against Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in the Governor’s race: 50-36 in PPP and 50-33 in Civitas.

Both polls also found little public support for the “ReopenNC” protests.

PPP said last week that North Carolinians approve of Cooper’s handling of the crisis by a 62-22 margin. In contrast, only 46 percent approve of Trump’s performance, and 49 percent disapprove.

PPP reported that governors in three other swing states also got good approve/disapprove ratings: 57-37 in Michigan, 59-29 in Pennsylvania and 53-37 in Wisconsin.

The Civitas poll, taken earlier in April, was better for Trump, but even better for Cooper. North Carolinians approved of Trump’s handling of the crisis by 57-40, but they approved of Cooper’s performance by 84-11.

On the reopening issue, PPP said: “Only 19 percent of voters think social distancing measures should be relaxed, with 54 percent believing that the current policies are correct and 26 percent supporting more aggressive measures than the ones already in place.”

A national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 58 percent of Americans are more concerned about a premature reopening than about harm to the economy; 32 percent are more worried about the economy.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helped conduct the poll, called the results a “powerful signal” that the country is not ready to reopen now.

Another poll, by Gallup, found that only 20 percent of Americans would immediately return to normal activity if restrictions were lifted; 71 percent would wait and see what happens.

As always, polls can change. Unlike a hurricane or ice storm, this crisis will last weeks and months. The virus could go away, or flare up again. The economy could recover quickly, or sink deeper.

For now, it looks like Governor Cooper’s response has increased his reelection prospects.

Crises often help governors politically. Governors can act, and they can command the cameras. Political news gets blocked out. People want politicians to work together on the problem, not fight with each other.

North Carolina has seen this movie before.

The first time was way back in 1955. Luther Hodges, elected lieutenant governor in 1952, had become Governor when William B. Umstead died. Hodges was getting ready to run for a full term on his own when three hurricanes hit the state. Hodges donned rain gear and headed for the coast to survey damage. Hugh Morton (of Grandfather Mountain fame) took photos and shipped them to newspapers across the state. Hodges won election easily.

In 1996, Governor Jim Hunt was running for his fourth term against then-state Rep. Robin Hayes. In early September, Hurricane Fran slammed the state. Suddenly, nobody cared about the campaign. Governor Hunt, always a take-charge executive, dominated the news for weeks. By October, the race was over.

In 2016, Governor Pat McCrory was trailing Roy Cooper in the Governor’s race. Then Hurricane Matthew hit in October. Suddenly, McCrory was on TV and in command. He got a boost in polls, and he nearly beat Cooper.

McCrory’s admonition then is apt now: “Don’t put on your stupid hat.”

Trump’s Trump Card

The virus has taken away President Trump’s biggest reelection weapon. But he has a big weapon left, and he’s wielding it relentlessly.

Gone is his economic message: “You’ve never had it so good, the stock market has never been so high, and unemployment has never been so low.”

But Trump hasn’t lost the weapon that got him elected and could get him reelected: his ability to divide and conquer.

That weapon is super-charged by the President’s willingness, eagerness and ability to dominate the public debate. He has turned his daily White House briefings into the most powerful of bully pulpits.

But therein lies a risk. For Trump can – and has – hurt himself as much as he helps himself in the briefings. Staying at a podium for more than an hour is like staying at a bar past midnight: Not much good can happen.

Trump reminds me of North Carolina’s Senator Jesse Helms. I still have scars from Governor Jim Hunt’s unsuccessful campaign against Helms for Senate in 1984. That race taught me some hard lessons about politics.

Helms’ team approached the race very differently from us. Hunt was a popular Governor, while Helms was controversial and unpopular. We thought that gave us an edge.

But the Helms campaign didn’t try to make him more popular than Hunt. They didn’t think that was possible, I later learned. So, they flipped the script.

Their goal was to make Hunt more unpopular than Helms.

They did a good job. They started running negative ads against Hunt 18 months before the election. They never stopped.

Much like Trump does to his opponents today, they tied Hunt to people and groups who were unpopular with a lot of North Carolina voters: Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, abortion-rights supporters, labor unions and what Helms called “the homosexual lobby.”

This same strategy is Trump’s trump card, if you will. He played it against Hillary Clinton. He’ll play it against Joe Biden.

A Republican political consultant once explained to me the ironclad hold that Trump has on his famous base: “He’s fighting the people they hate.”

That’s why Trump constantly picks fights. He fights with Democrats in Congress, with bureaucrats in Washington and with politicians of both parties.
At his virus briefings, he picks fights with reporters, with governors and with his own public health experts.

He picks a fight with China by calling it the “Chinese virus.” He picks fights with the World Health Organization. He picks fights with his own staff, Cabinet and military commanders.

The day he announced his campaign for President, he picked a fight with Mexico and immigrants. He picked fights with John McCain and a Gold Star family. He picked fights with his Republican primary opponents – nasty, personal fights.

He’s a fighter. His base loves that. They love him for fighting, and they hate the people he fights.

But his greatest strength can also be his greatest weakness. Trump is President at a time when the nation is facing the greatest crisis in a generation.

It’s a double whammy: thousands of people are dying and getting sick, and millions of people are losing their jobs and businesses.

Ultimately, President Trump will face the voters’ judgment on how he has responded and on how he acts from here out. This election was always going to be a referendum on Trump. Now it’s even more so.

Voters know he’s good at fighting his enemies. They’ll judge how good he is at fighting for the country.

Weighing Lives Against Livelihoods

The battle over the coronavirus shutdown was bitter, divisive and partisan. Already, the battle over opening back up and going back out is bitter, divisive and partisan.

Even in a national emergency, even facing a public health disaster and an economic disaster, we seem incapable of pulling together.

The partisan split has been there from the beginning. President Trump resisted a shutdown, then accepted it reluctantly and impatiently.

Democratic governors were quicker than Republicans to order people to stay home. Democratic-voting cities and counties moved quicker than those leaning Republican.

That’s partly because Democratic states and counties are more urban, more densely populated and more likely to have infections.

Republican areas were more likely to believe dismissals of the virus early on from Trump, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the conservative information ecosystem.

North Carolina, always a battleground, is split. While customers wore gloves and masks to grocery stores in Raleigh, a friend said people in Carteret County mocked her when she wore surgical gloves to the store.

Governor Roy Cooper has to balance the competing interests of public health versus economic health. Doctors, hospitals and public health leaders pushed for a shutdown; the Chamber of Commerce resisted.

John Hood, president of North Carolina’s conservative John W. Pope Foundation, wrote a column headlined, “Shelter in place isn’t sustainable.”

Hood said, “Our government hasn’t just shut down businesses (some potentially for good), thrown hundreds of thousands out of work, and disrupted the daily lives of millions of North Carolinians with no clearly articulated standard for when the dictates will be lifted. Our government has also suspended our basic liberties as citizens of a free society.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican nominee for Governor, questioned Governor Cooper’s order that closed bars and restaurants starting St. Patrick’s Day. Forest said the Council of State, which is mostly Republicans, should have been consulted. None of the Council of State members seemed keen on wading into the fight. Forest backed away.

Republican legislative leaders have been circumspect so far. But the legislature returns to Raleigh April 28. The political distancing will be greater than the social distancing. There likely will be battles over the budget, including helping the unemployed, helping businesses and meeting health care needs.

There will be uncertainty about state revenues. Teachers and state employees may go another year without pay raises. Governor Cooper will say Medicaid expansion is needed more than ever, and Republicans will resist.

As April gives way to May, the pressure will come to loosen stay-home orders and let businesses reopen. The push has begun already.

The economic carnage – 16 million Americans lost their jobs in just three weeks, and one estimate says one-fourth of the nation’s restaurants could go out of business – will bolster arguments that the shutdowns aren’t sustainable. Going back to business as usual, though, risks people’s lives.

These are not easy decisions to make. They’re being made, mostly, by Governors and other elected and appointed state and local leaders. They are, literally, life and death decisions.

Do we let restaurants reopen so they can stay in business and so their employees can pay for rent, food and child care? If we do, how many people could get sick and die because of that decision?

If ever there was a time America needs leaders – and advocates on both sides – to rise above simplistic answers, self-righteousness and selfish partisanship, this is it.

These next few weeks will tell us a lot. We’ll see who rises to the moment. And who doesn’t.