Betraying decency and democracy in North Carolina

Published 5:18 p.m. Thursday

By Gene Nichol

The North Carolina Republican Party is well and generously represented in the federal sedition caucus. Mark Meadows, of course, directly aided and abetted Donald Trump's repeated steps to thwart democracy as his chief of staff. Madison Cawthorn famously worked to pump up the crowd who sought to overthrow the government by violently storming the Capitol on Jan. 6. Cawthorn's colleague Virginia Foxx was delighted to make the successful motion to expel Liz Cheney from House Republican leadership because she refused to endorse Trump's lies about the 2020 race. The habitually embarrassing Foxx taunted Cheney in making the motion, calling her a "leader who has no followers" — almost bragging about the absence of character in the Republican House caucus. No Republican House or Senate member from North Carolina voted to establish an independent commission to study the post-election insurrection. Traumatized Capitol Hill police officers expressed their "deep disappointment" in the Republican vote in a letter, writing, "It is inconceivable that some of the Members we protect would downplay the events of January 6th."

Former Republican North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin offered his studied legal advice to the former president, indicating — either dishonestly or incompetently — that Mike Pence had the right to reject the election's certification. The loony North Carolina Republican lawyer, Sydney Powell, presented stunning conspiracy theories across the country, in court and out, on behalf of Trump and his campaign — though she later asserted that any sensible person would have known she was lying. Two-thirds of the North Carolina Republican congressional delegation voted, even after Capitol police were brutally murdered in an unprecedented coup attempt, to award the 2020 presidential contest to the losing candidate. Dan Bishop, Ted Budd, Richard Hudson, Greg Murphy, and David Rouzer joined Cawthorn and Foxx in an attempt to overturn the results. A similar cohort of our Republican House members earlier signed on to an outrageous Supreme Court brief filed by a buffoonish Texas attorney general designed to unconstitutionally disenfranchise four states and millions of African American voters to throw things Trump's way. Republican Tar Heel Washington officials and their advocates have stepped up eagerly, often, and prominently to dismantle our constitutional order.

And, still focusing on federal office holders, upon learning of Sen. Richard Burr's vote to hold Trump accountable for instigating violent rebellion, the North Carolina Republican Party called an "emergency" meeting to unanimously censure Burr for his heresy. Chairman Michael Whatley said it was crucial to immediately separate Tar Heel Republicans from any effort to stand up to Trump. North Carolina Republicans apparently value the former president more than accountability or truth, and they were quick to show it. Burr responded, accurately, that his "party's leadership has chosen loyalty to one man over the core principles of the Republican Party and the founders of our great nation." And in the now-crowded Republican primary field seeking to replace Burr, embracing Trump's treacherous efforts to overturn the presidential election is said to have become "the litmus test" for fawning would-be candidates.

To no one's surprise, the North Carolina Republican Party invited Trump to be the keynote speaker at its June statewide convention in Greenville — providing as broad a platform as possible for the former president to broadcast his mendacious spiel about the 2020 election. There Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd — the Mark Meadows pal who voted to overturn the 2020 election and joined the Texas brief urging the Supreme Court to throw out the constitutional process and simply crown Trump — for the open North Carolina Senate seat. Budd, in return, enthusiastically pledged his troth to making America great again.

If Republicans in Washington are presently engaged in a divisive, future-determinative civil war, you can't prove it by North Carolina. Principle — conservative or otherwise — is nowhere to be found. Subservience to the most dishonest and constitution-busting president in American history is all that matters.

Breaking fidelity
The moves of the North Carolina sedition caucus are not only dishonest, servile, and wrong; they are unfaithful. They break fidelity with the American promise.

In 1935, the German American political theorist Carl Friedrich wrote that "to be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact." Friedrich wasn't out to disparage the French. He meant, rather, to stress that in the United States national membership is not based on race, religion, language, tribe, geography, pedigree, or ancestry. It is, instead, lodged in an idea, a commitment. In what Abraham Lincoln saw as our nation's "primary cause," the principle of "liberty to all."

Lyndon Johnson described the centrality of our creedal promise with surprising eloquence in his greatest speech, introducing the Voting Rights Act: "This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose sound in every American heart — 'All men are created equal,' 'government by the consent of the governed.'"

In our most important national document, Lincoln named that promise as the central purpose of the Civil War — "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." President Obama put it less formally in a recent conversation with rock star Bruce Springsteen: "America is a place where you don't have to look a certain way, it's fealty to a creed that matters." To be an American demands a pledged and devoted notion, not a claim of ancestry or purported privilege.

That means, of course, it is possible to behave in ways that are un-American, ways that violate the American promise, rejecting the very mission of our nation. It is possible to be guilty of casting aside our constitutive agreement, to betray both our declared meaning and the sustaining sacrifice of millions, stretching over centuries, to make real, as Martin Luther King put it, "the promises of democracy." Our Republican leaders in Washington have shown that such betrayal can come even from those in high public office, those who wrap themselves habitually in the American flag, and those who wrongly advertise their status as super patriots.  

Think of what the North Carolina sedition caucus has demonstrated.

As Senate leader Mitch McConnell put it on Jan. 6, "the voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken, if we overrule them it will damage our republic forever … our democracy would enter a death spiral."

Rep. Liz Cheney added a few weeks later:

"The Republican Party is at a turning point and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution. The 2020 election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system."

North Carolina Republican House members Bishop, Budd, Cawthorn, Foxx, Hudson, Murphy, and Rouzer answered these challenges decisively — voting to reject the positions proffered by both McConnell and Cheney. These lawmakers, and the broad political organizations that support, sustain, and enable them, chose explicitly to favor their own quests for power over democracy and constitutional obligation — the ultimate governing transgression in the United States. They moved to reject the necessary background conditions for democratic political work in a republic. They proved themselves faithless to the central commitment of our nation. The first statute ever passed by the United States Congress prescribed an oath of office for the new government's officials. George Washington signed the bill on June 1, 1789. Its simple text read: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States." The majority of North Carolina's Republican congressmen have given Washington's handiwork the back of the hand.

No doubt we have potent and dividing disagreements over the facts of American political and social life these days. But this breach is deeper, more foundational. The North Carolina sedition caucus, and its broad chorus of companions across the state and country, don't any longer agree with the foundational principles of democracy itself. They don't believe in what we are as a country, what we have long committed to as a people. The rest of us need to understand this and make it plain, look it unflinchingly in the face. We could wish it were otherwise. But it is, at bottom, what it is. An autocratic movement is alive and well in North Carolina. And it is powerfully positioned.

The North Carolina General Assembly
And what of Raleigh? Does the same anti-democratic charge apply to the Republican-run state legislature?

Perhaps, I'd concede, not as directly. They have taken no explicit votes to overthrow the government. But the record of the North Carolina General Assembly, over the past decade, in attempting to thwart democracy — especially in denying the political rights of African Americans — is path-breaking and relentless. It, too, has sundered our constitutional compact by waging a multi-front war against democracy, equality and, often, truth itself. In fact, our state Republican lawmakers likely have potent lessons to teach their federal counterparts in battling the worrisome tides of expanding pluralism and increasingly diverse demographics. They have ample experience and expertise in elevating their efforts to secure enduring power over any defining commitment to political equality or consent of the governed. And like their federal colleagues, they express a certain righteousness in justifying their relentless steps to distort the electoral playing field because they believe only Republicans deserve to rule. Democracy and the rule of law, in their view, are for suckers. Lincoln and Jefferson are so, so, old school.

In 2016, the Republican caucuses of the North Carolina House and Senate gave us, famously, what the nation's leading election law scholar called "the most brazen and egregious political gerrymander yet seen in the United States." Rep. David Lewis (who was later indicted on federal charges and pleaded guilty to dramatic campaign finance violations) explained: "I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats … so I drew the maps to foster what I think is better for the country." He broke the rules to favor his friends, he said, and to disenfranchise his enemies, as much as humanly possible. The North Carolina courts finally invalidated his efforts as "extreme outliers of partisanship."

Earlier, the federal courts had invalidated the same crew's ballot access and voter identification requirements as based on mere pretext — the state had "failed to identify even a single individual who had ever been charged with committing in person voter fraud in North Carolina." Lawmakers attempted, the judges said, "to conceal their true motivation," curing "problems that don't exist" to "entrench themselves." Perhaps most outrageously, and presaging Trump's eventual moves, Republicans in November 2016, after losing the governor and attorney general races, acted in purported special "emergency" session to dramatically limit the powers of those now-disfavored offices — breaking the most foundational rule of a democracy, that if you lose an election you accept the results and move on. National commentators were shocked, saying the "legislative coup" was "the kind of thing one might expect to see in Venezuela, not in a U.S. state." Tar Heels, by this time, were used to it.

And the anti-democratic moves of North Carolina's Republican General Assembly have been highly racialized. The all-white Republican caucuses of the House and Senate have worked repeatedly and tirelessly to violate the electoral rights of African Americans. The 2011 U.S. House districts drawn by the Republicans were invalidated by the federal courts because they were crafted to limit Black voter effectiveness, not to comply with the Voting Rights Act. The state districts they formulated were ruled to present a "widespread, serious and longstanding constitutional violation … among the largest racial gerrymanders ever confronted by a federal court." It deprived Black North Carolinians of "a constitutionally adequate voice in the state legislature." So profound was the transgression, the court concluded, that it "interfered with the very mechanism by which people confer their sovereignty." The voter access restrictions passed in 2013, described by scholars as the most restrictive enacted by a state in over 50 years, were held to have been crafted "with almost surgical precision" to discriminate against Black voters. The court added, apparently somewhat amazed, "neither this legislature nor, as far as we can tell, any other legislature in the country, has ever done so much, so fast, to restrict the franchise."

I suppose it is possible to claim that these democracy-destroying state Republican moves have nothing to do with the murderous storming of the Capitol or the House sedition caucus' efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Maybe. But think about it. Our Republican lawmakers have repeatedly, unconstitutionally, passed laws to disenfranchise Black Tar Heels. They have intentionally cheated, time after time, in the redistricting process. They've overturned local elections because they didn't like the outcome. And they refused to comply with the most basic rule of democracy — that is, if you lose, you turn the keys over to the new folks and try again next time. Each time they did one of these things, of course, they lied about it. Don't take my word for it. Reviewing courts have explicitly said so, over and over again.

What happens to lawmakers if they regularly attack the American democracy and then dissemble about it? Do they explain to themselves that they've cast aside what they pledged allegiance to as children? And to accomplish that destruction, that they've had to cheat to get more power? And it's been necessary to lie repeatedly because you can't exactly broadcast that you're out to overthrow our hard won democratic traditions in favor of rule by a preferred, minority tribe? Given all that, is it really that big a stretch to try to invalidate a presidential election? How about insisting that Georgia election officials literally steal thousands of votes? Or file lawsuits to invalidate the votes of millions of Black citizens? Is it really that different to storm the Capitol? Or to try to kill your way into power? I think not. Or, more relevant, I'm convinced they think not.  

North Carolina's Republican lawmakers have repeatedly set aside what Lyndon Johnson named as the "great phrases of purpose that sound in every American heart … all are created equal … and government by the consent of the governed" to assure Republican entrenchment and white supremacy. Both national and state Republican leaders have embraced a philosophy profoundly hostile to democracy, equality, and constitutionalism. It is harsh but precisely accurate to say, as Ulysses Grant did in 1861, "there are but two parties now, traitors and patriots."

Confronting an anti-democracy party
As Donald Trump bullies the Republican Party nationally, and Republican-dominated legislatures across the country move to further limit the electoral rights of their adversaries, I'm not certain that most North Carolinians recognize that their democracy is imperiled. Most are reluctant to conclude that an array of their leaders are out to end the American political experiment. But, as in the South of the 19th century, we have a massive group among us willing to throw democracy away in order to assure their ascendancy.

With a dominant political party committed to autocracy, we're treading new ground — at least new ground in modern times. We have folks who now seek to accomplish what the Nazis, the fascists, and the Confederates couldn't manage. They have proven themselves unfit to govern, unfit to be trusted, ever, with moral and political leadership. That won't change. They've shown their surprising stripes. There is no unity to be had, or sought, with people who don't believe in the American promise. There is no compromise. Meeting seditionists halfway only makes one complicit in a war against democracy. The only decent response by traitors to their oath of office is to apologize, resign, and go home. Former Republican strategist Steven Smith has argued that the pro-democratic forces in this defining struggle can't be the gentle ones, the sweet and civil opposition. The stakes are too high. As historian Heather Cox Richardson has explained:

"This is not the only story from today, but it is the only story historians will note from this era. Did Americans defend their democracy or did they fall to oligarchy?"