If you follow intra-party strategic debates among Democrats, you likely know about the furor over what is called “popularism,” a tenet associated with the data analyst David Shor. To oversimplify: “Popularism” holds that Democrats should talk about those policy positions that are popular among target voters (particularly the white-working-class voters they have been steadily losing) and shut up about issues (generally those associated with hot-button cultural topics like policing and racism and sexuality) that repel them. I have my own issues with Shor’s advice, but for now I will just observe that Democrats are not the only ones with the problem of views strongly held by the party base that are not terribly popular with the rest of the world. Consider North Carolina lieutenant governor Mark Robinson.
Robinson is the source of a huge uproar in the Tar Heel State that is spilling into the national news, thanks to a video that surfaced of him making some pithy remarks at a church in June.
“There’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth,” Robinson said. “And yes, I called it filth, and if you don’t like that I called it filth, come see me and I’ll explain it to you.”
A host of Democrats and LGBTQ advocacy groups have called for Robinson’s resignation, which he, of course, is treating as slanderous persecution. He insisted this week that he “will not back down” — though he argued that he was merely attacking LGBTQ-themed school materials, not LGBTQ individuals.
“This issue has been twisted into something it is not,” Robinson said on Tuesday. “When I stood on that pulpit on that Sunday and referred to ‘filth,’ I was not talking about any person. I was talking about materials that are being presented to our children that are absolutely inappropriate.”
However much Robinson is claiming his remarks were misunderstood, they are highly characteristic of this conservative pol, who won office last November. Before that run for office, his first, he was notorious for inflammatory Facebook posts. One warned that tolerance of homosexuality would lead to “PEDOPHILIA … closely followed by the END of civilization as we know it.” Another attacked then–First Lady Michelle Obama in a novel manner: “Michelle Obama is an anti-American, abortion and gay marriage supporting, liberal leftist elitist and I’ll be glad when he takes his boyfriend and leaves the White House.”
Mark Robinson’s brief but intense political career is a testament to the power of the hard-core MAGA/Christian right base of his party. He won a very competitive 2020 GOP primary as a political novice thanks to a 2018 viral video of him lecturing the Greensboro City Council on gun rights in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in Florida:
Robinson has united his conservative religious beliefs with his Second Amendment absolutism, claiming guns are a “gift from God.” He told delegates to this year’s state Republican convention that being transgender is “a delusion” (on another occasion, he said transgender people were “demonic” and like “someone dressing up as a dog”) and said women who become pregnant no longer “own” their bodies. Just about every time he speaks, he serves up red meat to “the base.”
Robinson is, needless to say, very Trumpy, and an awful lot of rank-and-file Republicans very strongly agree with virtually everything he says. The conservative evangelical base of the GOP is largely composed of people who are regularly taught in church that LGBTQ folk and feminists are living in rebellious defiance of the word and will of God, and it clearly affects their political preferences. (Catholic teaching uses a more intellectualized condemnation of gay people as “intrinsically disordered” and treats abortion as simple homicide, but a lot of Mass-goers ignore such guidance.)
Trouble is, public opinion outside evangelical and traditionalist-Catholic circles has decisively turned away from conservative culture-war positions, particularly with respect to LGBTQ equality. According to Gallup, no fewer than 70 percent of Americans support marriage equality, a position that is anathema to the likes of Mark Robinson. And the last time North Carolina Republicans acted on their transphobia, it produced the fiasco of HB 2, the state’s “bathroom bill,” which required transgender people to utilize the restrooms assigned to their birth identity (in effect saying that being transgender is “a delusion”). That law had a lot to do with Democrat Roy Cooper’s defeating the Republican incumbent governor Pat McCrory in 2016, and it inflicted a lot of economic damage on North Carolina via boycotts prior to and even after its partial repeal (it has now been entirely repealed).
What Robinson shows is that even though Republican politicians know such issues have become big losers for them, there will always be demagogues who will ride them to unlikely if limited political success because “the base” isn’t sitting around looking at polls or paying attention to swing voters. The GOP has its own “popularism” problem, and it isn’t limited to cultural issues, as you can tell from the muted but very powerful support so many Republicans cherish for “entitlement reform” and regressive tax schemes. It doesn’t help that their unquestioned Maximum Leader, Donald Trump, undoubtedly shares the temperament and many of the views of Mark Robinson.