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The Return of the Don

The Return of the Don Cory Vaillancourt photo

Former President Donald Trump made one of his first major public appearances since losing the 2020 election, returning to the battleground state of North Carolina on June 5 and dispelling any doubts about who’s really wielding power in the Republican Party. 

Since leaving office in January — under the cloud of pending impeachment and a social media blackout — questions have swirled over Donald Trump’s continuing influence among Republicans, as well as Trump’s own political future. But when North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley heaped praise upon him at an event in Greenville over the weekend, it sounded very much like he was making a case for Trump’s re-election. 

“When Donald Trump came down the escalator in 2015 and announced he was going to run for president, that he was going to win the presidency, he said that he was going to unleash the American economy. After he won that election we saw record low unemployment among Hispanics, record low unemployment among Blacks, record low unemployment among women and the most robust economy we’ve seen since the end of World War II,” Whatley said. “Promises made, promises kept.”

Whatley was speaking to a capacity crowd of more than 1,200 Republicans at the party’s annual state convention, at the Greenville Convention Center. During the weekend-long event, party delegates from across the state gathered to elect new party officers, attend workshops and hear speeches from a roster of GOP luminaries like Rep. Madison Cawthorn, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. 

The main attraction, as always, was Trump himself. 

A master showman, Trump kept the crowd waiting for more than an hour as their anticipation grew, but when he finally took the stage, he spent more than an hour recounting what he said were the major accomplishments of his administration.

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“As you know, we handed the new administration the greatest economy in the history of the world. We passed massive tax cuts — the largest ever — larger than our great friend Ronald Reagan. [We enacted] record regulation cuts, historic pro-American trade deals and achieved American energy independence,” Trump said. “We launched the fastest economic recovery on record. We produced three vaccines and numerous therapeutics to defeat the virus.” 

Indeed, the Coronavirus Pandemic dogged Trump during the final year of his term and may have even cost him the election. He blames China, and during his speech made a bold demand.

“The time has come for America and the world to demand reparations and accountability from the Communist Party of China,” Trump said. “We should all declare with one unified voice that China must pay. They must pay.”

Trump called for a 100 percent tariff on all goods made in China, which he said would help American farmers, hamper China’s military and bring offshored manufacturing back to the United States — specifically, North Carolina’s furniture industry. 

Going a step further, Trump said that the entire world should present China with a bill for $10 trillion and take meaningful steps to collect on it.

“As a first step, all countries should collectively cancel any debt they owed to China as a down payment on reparations,” he said. “The nations of the world should no longer owe money to China.” 

China currently owns the second-largest portion of the estimated $28 trillion U.S. national debt, about a trillion dollars, just behind Japan’s $1.25 trillion stake. 

The shift in focus back to China as a malfeasor in the global pandemic is more than financial; it underlies what’s come to be known as The Big Lie — conspiratorial claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. No proof of these claims has yet been found, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still looking.

“The 2020 presidential election was by far the most corrupt election in the history of our country. There’s never been anything like this. They used COVID and they used the mail-in ballots to steal an election,” said Trump. “It was a third-world country election, like we’ve never seen before.”

Trump went on to congratulate state senators in Arizona, who called for an election audit that’s currently underway. Although the audit has been widely derided by experts as haphazard and a “circus,” its results — no matter how flawed — will likely add more fuel to the phony election fire. 

“They’ll be finished in three or four weeks. It’ll be very interesting, but I’ll tell you, maybe they’ll find nothing. Maybe they’ll say, ‘Oh, it was a wonderful, perfect election,’ but maybe not,” he said. “Now they’re looking at it in Pennsylvania and they’re looking at it in Georgia. And they’re looking at it in many other states because they’re [all] saying ‘The same thing’s happened to us.’ That election will go as the crime of the century, and our country is being destroyed by people who perhaps have no right to destroy it.”

And it wouldn’t be a Trump speech without heaping helpings of ridicule and derision directed at people he thinks are destroying the country — an ever-growing enemies list that includes congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Talib, Facebook magnate Mark Zuckerberg and Sen. Bernie Sanders, just to name a few. 

The harshest blows were reserved for President Joe Biden himself. 

“Joe Biden and the socialist Democrats are the most radical left-wing administration in history. Even Bernie Sanders can’t believe it,” Trump joked. “I don’t know if they even know what the hell they’re signing. Somebody is drawing these documents and putting [them] in. It’s getting signed. It’s a disgrace what’s happening to our country.” 

Trump won North Carolina by less than 4 percent in 2016, and less than 2 percent in 2020. North Carolina will again be a battleground state in the 2024 Presidential Election but will also become more valuable — census figures show the state will get another congressional district, and another vote in the Electoral College. 

With campaign season for the 2022 mid-terms already underway, it’s critical for Republicans to maintain their dominance at the state level if they hope to keep North Carolina red, whether it’s Trump running for president or not. 

“The survival of America depends upon our ability to elect Republicans at every level, starting with the midterms,” he said. “Next year, we have to get it done. We have to get it done. We have no choice.”Trump 2

Two Western North Carolina Republicans who hold prominent positions in party leadership, District 11 Chair Michele Woodhouse and Haywood County Republican Party Chair Kay Miller, were asked to assess — on a scale of 1 to 100 — how much North Carolina Republicans were still behind Trump. 

“Oh, I would say a hundred,” Woodhouse said. 

“Very close to a hundred,” said Miller. “In my view I thought that the support was really palpable. You could just really feel it. Everybody was so excited. I’m sure there’s some folks that wish he would just kind of move on, but right now he’s the leader of the party.”

Woodhouse reiterated Whatley’s assertions of “promises made, promises kept” and credited Trump’s enduring popularity within the party to his wide appeal across demographics. 

“You had people in there tonight sitting at $25,000 tables, and you had people in there who had paid their admission into this convention. You had incredible patriots from the front to the back of the room and people of all classes in there, and he continues to be the one key Republican who can speak to people from plumbers to executives, urban to suburban whites, Blacks,” she said. “He really does speak across a much broader range than we’re used to seeing in the Republican Party.”

Even though he’s not in office, Trump’s impact on the 2022 midterms cannot be overstated. He used the occasion of his speech to make a surprise endorsement of Rep. Ted Budd, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by retiring Republican Richard Burr. 

Maintaining control of the seat is especially important for Republicans, given the current 50-50 deadlock in the Senate. Vice President Kamala Harris votes in the case of a tie, and serves as President of the Senate, technically putting it under Democrat control, like the House and the presidency. 

Miller thinks Trump’s endorsements still hold considerable weight. 

“People are going to get behind those candidates,” she said. “I think that those he’s backing are going to see that it helps them.”

Like anything else, there are both pros and cons to Republicans again casting their lot with Trump. One of the cons is that Trump lost support in the suburbs in 2020. In 2016, the suburbs paved the way to the Trump presidency, but if Trump’s to throw his weight around for Republicans in 2022, the party has to figure out how to reclaim this important demographic. 

“I think the suburban white voter like me, the suburban white college-educated woman has proven to be a problem for the Republican Party before president Trump,” said Woodhouse. “It cannot be a problem going forward. The Republican Party has to use the school struggles that we’re having with critical race theory, things that are happening to suburban white working women, and speak to them. We’re not doing a great job with the platform in that space, and I think we have an incredible opportunity to really improve.”

At the grassroots level, Miller and her Haywood Republicans are working to preserve dominance of their own, from top to bottom. The county commission is 4-1 Republican, both state reps are Republican, the state senator is Republican, the congressman is Republican and both U.S. Senators are Republican. 

Western North Carolina is so Republican, in fact, that not only do its Republican presidential candidates often win, they win by large margins that generate surplus votes to erode the influence of heavily Democratic, urban areas in the rest of the state. 

“Our efforts are really focused on grassroots mobilization right now and getting our precincts with the proper leadership in place and having precinct meetings and just trying to educate our folks in the precincts, getting to know our neighbors,” Miller said. “That’s the biggest thing that we’re doing right now.”

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