Last Monday, Donald Trump flew into Fayetteville, North Carolina, for a rally ahead of a special congressional election. There, in support of Republican Dan Bishop – a state senator who sponsored the notorious anti-LGBTQ "bathroom bill" that led to months of protests and boycotts in 2016 before it cost the governor his re-election and was partially repealed – Trump plowed through his usual litany of MAGA grievances before the usual sea of mostly white faces.
Because he lacks self-awareness, Trump included this bit: "You go to California, which has so many sanctuary cities," Trump said. "They don't know what's happening out there. You have people that want to get rid of those sanctuary cities; they just aren't able to do it with the people that get elected. A lot of illegal voting going on out there, by the way."
It's nothing new for the president to invent conspiracy theories about voter fraud in California, which he's long used, without a scintilla of evidence, to suggest that he really did win the popular vote. But someone probably should have reminded him why he was there in Fayetteville.
North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District held a special election last week because, in 2018, the Republican candidate's campaign committed fraud. A consultant hired to collect absentee ballots allegedly cheated in a manner substantial enough to affect the outcome amid a blue wave. People have since been indicted, and the North Carolina Board of Election refused to certify the results, which had Republican Mark Harris up fewer than 1,000 votes in a district Trump carried by 12 points.
This was the do-over, and the cheaters prospered. Bishop prevailed by about two points – enough for Trump to beat his chest about how he saved the day, but still an ominous 10-point shift compared to 2016.
The next morning, almost to the minute of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, North Carolina Republicans cheated again. And again, they prospered.
To understand how and why, some context: Since the GOP took over the state's General Assembly in 2011, North Carolina has operated under one of the most blatant gerrymanders in the country. Even after Democrats won the governor's office in 2016, Republicans claimed a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature.
That ended – barely – in 2018, though Democrats had to win more votes statewide to overcome the GOP supermajorities. (Recently, a state court ordered the General Assembly to draw nonpartisan legislative districts for next year's election.) This year, for the first time, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper had a meaningful veto. This spring, he vetoed the budget to force Republicans to negotiate over expanding Medicaid. But Republicans – having grown accustomed to their my-way-or-the-highway approach and generally disinterested in providing health care for poor people – refused to budge. So aside from a few piecemeal spending bills, there's been a months-long stalemate.
To override Cooper's veto, Republicans needed seven Democrats to flip – or, more likely, to not show up for a vote. Over the summer, Democrats found this a constant concern, particularly in a sprawling state with an ostensibly part-time legislature that remained in session, with a House speaker who made clear that he would call the override vote the second he had the numbers, no matter how he got them.
So what happened last week was less a surprise than a shock. On the evening of Sept. 10, Democrats say, Republicans leaders assured them that the next morning's session would be perfunctory, no votes taken, as most morning sessions are. It was 9/11, after all. Several Democrats made plans to work on redistricting maps. Only nine showed up in the House chamber the next morning.
Fifty-five Republicans did. It was a trap.
House Speaker Tim Moore had enough members from a quorum, and with a nearly Democrat-free quorum, enough votes to override the veto. Once the few Democrats present realized what was happening, they objected. One shouted at Moore: "How dare you subject this body to trickery, deceptive practices, hijacking the process! It is so typical of the way you conduct yourself. How dare you, Mr. Speaker! If this is the way you believe democracy works, shame on you!"
But it was too late. You can't shame the shameless, nor can you preach democracy to those contemptuous of it. (The override now heads to the Senate, where Republicans need to flip two Dems. One hopes the state's Democrats won't be so naive again.) Like their counterparts in D.C., North Carolina Republicans have bought into the mantra that winning is all that matters, that power is an end unto itself. They didn't hesitate to use 9/11, an anniversary that they once treated as sacrosanct, to launch a sneak attack on democracy.
There's some irony there.
American institutions are propped up by norms – guardrails that rely on the principle that one's opponents and their supporters have an equally legitimate claim to power, guardrails that say that a party that won the governor's office and earned more votes in statewide legislative races deserves an opportunity to negotiate over key issues.
But these guardrails are fragile, and those most willing to exploit them first, and most ruthlessly, tend to prevail. The problem is, in the end, the victors inevitably destroy the very thing they've set out to conquer.
In the age of Trump – and North Carolina Republicans – that's the real danger America faces.
– This story is from the Sept. 18, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.