How North Carolina Explains Trump's Rise

Despite the disapproval of top state conservatives, the outsider exploited the same tensions that gave Republicans control of the Old North State’s government.

A Trump supporter at a rally in Hickory, North Carolina, on Monday (Ben Earp / AP)

DURHAM, N.C.—How did North Carolina, a place that once prized its moderation, end up among the pack of states poised to hand the Republican nomination to Donald Trump?

The margin varies, but every poll taken in the last month shows the entertainer with a lead over his nearest challenger, Senator Ted Cruz. He’s built that margin even though—as in most states he visits—he does not have the support of major Republican officeholders. The winner-take-all GOP primaries in Ohio and Florida have understandably gotten more attention, but the Old North State actually sends more Republican delegates to the convention than either Ohio or Illinois.

There are several reasons for Trump’s success. First, there’s his national lead in the polls—voters tend to flock to a winner. Second, there’s his sheer presence. In the last couple of weeks, Trump has visited Fayetteville, Hickory, and Concord for his trademark huge rallies. Cruz has visited the state as well. But Marco Rubio, fighting for his life in Florida, and John Kasich, doing the same in Ohio, have not. (Rubio announced his “North Carolina Women For Marco” group Monday evening—about 12 hours before most polls open.)

But North Carolina was also inviting territory to Trump because of the conditions in the state as he ran. The state has been pounded by job loss in manufacturing over the last two decades, especially in industries like textiles and furniture, both of which have a long history in the state. A Public Citizen examination of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that North Carolina has lost more than 359,000 manufacturing jobs since NAFTA. Nearly two-thirds of them applied for funds for workers who had lost their jobs because of trade deals. A protectionist candidate like Trump can find an enthusiastic audience in North Carolina. (Unsurprisingly, Bernie Sanders has tried a similar tack here. That seems to have served him well in Michigan and could work in Ohio, but may be less helpful in North Carolina, where a large proportion of the Democratic electorate is black and favors Clinton.)

The state is also extremely polarized, with its urban centers strongholds of liberalism and rural parts of the state much more conservative. For decades, Democrats mostly controlled the legislature and governorship, while the state voted Republican in national elections. But Republicans were able to take over the state legislature in the 2010 Tea Party wave and the governorship two years later. They promptly set to work harnessing a groundswell of voter anger to pass a series of conservative measures.

One major engine of the charge was Art Pope, a wealthy Tar Heel businessman and philanthropist. Pope donated to campaigns, funded conservative think-tanks, and served as budget director to Governor Pat McCrory, who was elected in 2012. Pope is essentially a classic pro-business conservative—he’s most interested in removing regulatory barriers. As Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, Pope had once run for office as a single-shot pro-business libertarian; he later added some more socially conservative arrows to his quiver. But pro-business conservatism isn’t typically wildly popular on its own with average citizens, so Republican legislators pursued a wide range of conservative causes.

They passed one of the nation’s strictest voter-ID laws, which is going into effect for the first time on Tuesday. They repealed the state’s Racial Justice Act, which provided for challenges to convictions. They relaxed gun laws. They cut pre-school program and encouraged the use of vouchers for students. Some of them pushed to make Christianity the official state religion. They passed a law banning cities from designating themselves “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants, in a state with a fast-growing Hispanic population. In other words, they tapped into populist, nationalist, and ethnic resentment as a tool for passing their business agenda: Lower taxes, fracking, opening up campaign-finance laws for judicial elections.

But McCrory, who had been a moderate during his tenure as mayor of Charlotte, found that he wasn’t able to contain the legislature. Lawmakers passed an anti-sharia-law bill, which the governor didn’t sign but allowed to enter law. They overrode his vetoes on bills ranging from “ag-gag” provisions to so-called religious-liberty measures.

This arc—Republicans tap into simmering resentments, gain political traction, then find themselves unable to control the forces they’ve unleashed—is very similar to the one that many analysts have seen at a national level, first in the rise of a Tea Party faction in Congress that Speaker John Boehner could not corral, and now in the rise of Trump at the presidential level, which threatens to splinter the Republican Party.

North Carolina, in its dramatic turn rightward and the current lean toward Trump, is a microcosm of that. McCrory has not endorsed any candidate in the presidential race. State Senate leader Phil Berger endorsed Ted Cruz on Monday, though he also praised Trump. But Pope and Senator Thom Tillis—speaker of the state house before vaulting to the U.S. Senate—both endorsed Rubio, who has been a non-entity in North Carolina (and nationally, for that matter). Senator Richard Burr, who is up for reelection, was reported to have said privately in January that he would vote for Bernie Sanders over Ted Cruz, a claim Burr hotly denied. While many of these Republicans have been restrained in their comments about Trump, John Hood, who has worked for several Pope-related organizations, has not. He wrote a scathing broadside against Trump for National Review earlier this month:

Donald Trump is a dangerous charlatan, a bully who deftly uses false promises, egregious lies, and malicious attacks to manipulate people to his advantage. His marks include media figures desperate for ratings, political has-beens desperate for relevance, and voters desperate for someone to restore American greatness after two unpopular presidencies, two costly wars, and nearly two decades of economic stagnation. It’s a swindle. It’s a world-class con. And for conservatives in North Carolina and around the country, it’s one of the greatest challenges we will ever face.

Trump’s toxic brew of insult comedy, rank dishonesty, ethnic grievance, and hostility to basic principles of free enterprise, free speech, and limited government cannot be reconciled with the modern conservative movement. If Donald Trump is the answer, you have asked a very wrong and very stupid question.

But who asked the question? It’s easy to conclude that North Carolina’s Republican establishment asked it, not realizing that it wouldn’t be able to control the answer.