The “black Jesse Helms” on challenging the Republican leadership in Congress and sacrificing elected officials who stray from the path.
This ought to be Vernon Robinson’s triumphal moment.
The former Winston-Salem city councilman forced a political showdown by erecting a monument to the 10 Commandments in front of City Hall in 2004. His chutzpah and outspoken social-conservative views helped earn him the title “the black Jesse Helms.”
A “Twilight Zone”-themed television ad in Robinson’s unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2006 attacks Islamic extremism, same-sex marriage, feminism, “liberal judges,” and civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton before concluding, “And the aliens are here, but they didn’t come in a spaceship; they came across our unguarded Mexican border by the millions.” Another version of the message accused his Democratic opponent of seeking to make America “nothing but one big fiesta for illegal immigrants and homosexuals.”
The inflammatory rhetoric and shock value of the ad was almost a decade ahead of its time, and Robinson lost by 27 points in a district that was admittedly drawn to favor a Democrat. But the arch-conservative Robinson hasn’t fared much better in friendlier political territory, placing 10th in a 17-candidate scrum for the Republican nomination to the 13th Congressional District last year that was dominated by Ted Budd, a political neophyte backed by the Club for Growth PAC who later won the general election.
One might expect Robinson to be elated: A Republican firebrand who appealed to white nationalism and insulted women just finished his first week in office with a flurry of executive orders to build a Mexican border wall, escalate deportations and shut down the flow of refugees and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, while promising a Supreme Court appointment in the mold of Antonin Scalia.
But in remarks to a conservative luncheon group at the Golden Corral in Winston-Salem on Monday, Robinson largely restricted his comments to economic issues, focusing on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. A volunteer “sentinel” for Heritage Action for America, Robinson explained how the outfit mobilizes constituents to pressure lawmakers to enact the policy agenda of the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation, its sister organization.
To be sure, Robinson did speak positively about the new Republican president, noting with approval that Trump appears to have the upper hand against the Republican-controlled Congress. He said he told some commenters on Facebook who were urging the president’s impeachment: “You don’t understand. The Congress is terrified of Donald Trump.”
And after the presentation, Robinson said he approved of Trump’s recent executive orders. Arguing that US authorities have no way to check the bona fides of refugees from Syria, he said, “We have to be on the highest level of vigilance.”
Politifact has written that the US government “can vet refugees through a process that involves the FBI, plus the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and other agencies,” which can take two or three years. The fact-checking organization went on to say that FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress that while the process was thorough, he couldn’t guarantee there would never be a problem and a terrorist wouldn’t ever slip through the cracks.
On Trump’s order to institute a 90-day ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Robinson said, “I think it’s great.”
A public speaker with a pleasant and engaging manner, Robinson focused much of his criticism on the Republican leadership in the two houses of Congress, which he characterized as a “cartel,” including Rep. Virginia Foxx, an arch-conservative who represents the 5th Congressional District and holds the second-ranking position on the House Rules Committee.
“This is the deal: The leadership does not want risk,” Robinson said. “They want a majority re-elected. They’re willing to push an agenda as long as it does not force them to take risks. As conservatives we want to take the risks necessary to push a conservative agenda forward. That is a totally different view of how your representative should be voting.”
Of the Senate majority leader, a Republican from Kentucky, Robinson said, “Mitch McConnell cannot even spell conservative.” That was mild compared to his characterization of the MSNBC channel and Larry Kissell, a former Democratic congressman from North Carolina, whom he called “communist.”
Demonstrating a willingness to risk electoral losses has to be a part of a strategy to enforce ideological purity, Robinson argued. As an example, he mentioned former Republican congressman Robin Hayes’ loss to Kissell after Hayes changed his vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement; initially, he said he was opposed to the trade deal. Similarly, Robinson said Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost his reelection bid to Democrat Roy Cooper last year because he crossed commercial fishermen and commuters upset about a toll road. Many political observers, however, attribute McCrory’s loss to his support for the unpopular HB 2 “bathroom bill.”
“I don’t want to be stuck with Cooper; I certainly voted for McCrory,” Robinson said. “But the bottom line was that was a good vote. It was a good vote because Republicans need to be at least concerned in the back of their head that if they do something stupid that the voters told them not to do, that they may lose an election…. They didn’t vote for Cooper; they just didn’t vote for McCrory. And in a close race, whoosh-boom! You go down.”
Robinson expressed suspicion that Republican lawmakers won’t follow through on stated goals to repeal the Affordable Care Act and de-fund Planned Parenthood without adequate pressure from constituents.
“You need to be very concerned about the members who say we need to repeal and replace at the same time,” he said, adding that it will be difficult for Republicans to agree on the provisions of a conservative replacement policy.
Heritage Action advocates repealing the law first, and then passing a replacement bill before the current provisions expire.
“Then they get to work and they have to pass whatever they’re going to do this year,” Robinson said. “Why? Because if the premiums are still going through the ceiling by the mid-terms next year someone’s head is going to be on the chopping block, and there’s not a whole lot of Democrats to execute.”
Likewise, he said if it’s a choice between maintaining their majority and de-funding Planned Parenthood, the Republican leadership in Congress would choose the former. Unfortunately for them, he added, now that there’s a Republican in the White House they no longer have an excuse to not deliver on their promise.
“That sound you’re hearing,” Robinson said, “is the peasants sharpening their pitchforks.”