Bad news, good news in end-of-year conflict in Raleigh

Bad news, good news in end-of-year conflict in Raleigh

Demonstrators gather at the Legislative Building during a recent special session of the General Assembly.

The threat of Trumpism and lessons for fighting back

There have been a lot of missives in recent weeks by people from North Carolina warning their fellow Americans about what it is they’re about to endure under the coming era of right-wing rule in Washington. The basis for these warnings, of course, is the damage that’s been inflicted on the state since ideological conservatives took control of state government. The list is a long and sobering one and it includes, among many other things:

  • a withering assault on the social safety net,
  • ultra-regressive tax policies that feature large giveaways to profitable corporations and the rich while asking more from the poor and middle class,
  • constant attacks on racial equality, women’s rights, and LGBT rights,
  • massive voter suppression efforts,
  • unceasing efforts to privatize public education, and
  • utter devastation of environmental protection efforts.

In many ways, it’s clear that North Carolina — a fast-growing and deeply purple state — has been a kind of lab experiment for the national conservative movement and its efforts to resist modernity and roll back much of the progress of the 20th Century.

Now, however, with the Trumpists poised to take charge in Washington, it appears that this symbiotic relationship between national and North Carolina conservatives may have entered a new and even darker phase — one that features not just reactionary policies, but a full-fledged attack on democratic governance as well.

The evidence for this new and sobering conclusion was on full display in Raleigh the week before last as Republicans at the General Assembly took their four-year pattern of abusing power and process to new and extreme levels. In just a few hours, legislators called themselves into a “special session” of questionable constitutionality and then executed an outrageous, last-minute power grab that seized numerous duties from Governor-elect Roy Cooper. Cooper’s feckless predecessor, Pat (I’m for defending the office of the Governor, but only so long as I occupy it) McCrory then placed an exclamation mark on the whole shoddy affair by cravenly approving the grab.

Here’s how an on-the-money Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial summarized the maddening mess:

“They [conservative politicians] are motivated, not by seeking to do good for the state, but by imposing their personal partisan and ideological views, regardless of the popular will. They maintain power by unconstitutionally manipulating election laws and gerrymandering representative districts.

Now, when a majority of the state’s voters picked a new governor not of their liking, they are rushing to make ill-conceived changes in essential functions of state government, strip the governor of long-standing authority and duties while dishing out plum state jobs and judicial appointments to their political pals.

It is not a picture of political prowess and finesse. Rather it is a portrait of the arrogant ham-handedness of grown-up school yard bullies.”

The connection to Trumpism

One of the most striking things about the power grab session was the way it captured the attention of the national media. At a time in which the nation stands on the precipice of a new and troubling political era, it seems clear that many journalists, policy observers and just average citizens around the country saw the North Carolina power grab as a kind of opening volley (and perhaps a first test of wills) in the coming battle.

This is from a solid summary on the national political website Vox.com:

“What’s happening in North Carolina is a microcosm of what Democrats fear nationwide. Trump lost the popular vote, but won sweeping control over government anyway. If voting rights, and even gubernatorial powers, are so easily stripped after victory, it could put Democrats even further behind.”

And this is from a summary on the national news site Business Insider:

“North Carolina’s Republican governor seemed to be taking a page out of Donald Trump’s book on Monday when he defended a controversial law stripping power away from his Democratic successor….

‘I have come to realize that current changes to executive authority in House Bill 17 have been greatly exaggerated by misleading TV ads, paid protesters and state and national media outlets,’ McCrory said in the statement.

McCrory’s assertion, for which he provided no evidence, mirrored comments from North Carolina State Rep. Michael Speciale, who last week also claimed that protesters in Raleigh were ‘likely paid.’

‘A group of malcontent thugs who are likely paid and bussed in to disrupt the business of those who represent the people detracts from the ability of the peoples’ government to effectively do their jobs,’ Speciale said in a Facebook post.

Such claims could signal that North Carolina lawmakers are taking cues from President-elect Trump. Three days after winning the presidential election in November, Trump derided the ‘professional protesters’ demonstrating against him in cities across the country.”

The connection between the December Raleigh putsch and the coming era of Trump was certainly on the minds of numerous protesters who flooded the Legislative Building during the rump special session. In conversation after conversation with demonstrators, I was struck by how many expressed the sense that lawmakers had been emboldened by Trump’s cynical, ends-justify-the-means triumph and that the actions of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore were almost certainly cut from the same cloth as the actions we can expect to see in Washington come January.

And now the good news…

Happily, as dreadful and discouraging as the special session was, there were a couple of important silver linings worth highlighting and building upon.

First, of course, was the inspiring presence of so many angry average citizens who turned out to witness and protest the proceedings. Notwithstanding the ludicrous claims of McCrory and Speciale, even a moment’s interaction with these demonstrators revealed them to be passionate North Carolinians who’d come on their own accord and were doing their duty as citizens. As the aforementioned Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial noted:

“The actions by legislators are so reprehensible that even citizens observing in the state Senate and House chambers couldn’t restrain themselves Thursday from outbursts of protest. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in the Senate and Speaker Tim Moore in the House, ordered the boisterous audiences — chanting ‘All political power comes from the people’ — cleared.

While the disruption, loud protests and arrests continued outside the chambers, the Senate and House were forced to recess.

We understand the frustration of those in the gallery – shared by tens of thousands of North Carolinians — over the arrogant and unwarranted power grab they were witnessing.”

And make no mistake, the protesters made a big difference. Were it not for their constant presence (as well as the outcries of so many others across the state) it is a sure thing that legislators would have gone further and done much more damage.

There is a vital lesson here for all caring and thinking Americans as they prepare for the next four years.

The second sign of hope for the fight ahead is to be found in the outcome of the next special session that followed during Christmas week on the subject of North Carolina’s infamous all-purpose discrimination law, HB2. As has been well-documented by now, that session ended up as a disastrous fiasco for conservative leaders when an uprising of right-wing hardliners in their ranks (and a united front amongst Democrats not to concede further ground) helped torpedo an effort at “compromise” that would have swapped a repeal of Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance for a partial repeal of HB2. Now, because of their stunning inability to deliver what they had promised, the conservative legislative leaders look much less together and even more out of the political mainstream than ever.

The obvious lesson here: Notwithstanding the regular bluster and bullying tactics of its leaders, the Right is far from invincible. It is, in fact, a fractious and frequently disorganized movement and, like most bullies, often rendered stunned and impotent when the targets of its abuse push back. This seems almost certain to be the case with the unruly crew the President-elect has assembled in Washington just as it is here in Raleigh.

The bottom line: North Carolina’s disastrous four-year experiment with right-wing government should serve as a warning to the nation for what lies ahead, but there is much in the resistance that has arisen that can serve as a model for fighting back. Let’s hope people keep paying attention.