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OPINION: The puppet show

King Henry II believed it was his divine right to rule England, including the Church of England. Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury and principal leader of the Church of England, thought otherwise. On Christmas day 1170, Beckett excommunicated several Bishops who sided with the king. Henry responded, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”

After reading this quote recently, I wondered if there would ever be a time when we don’t incessantly hear, read or discuss Donald Trump? Many believed we would be rid of him after the 2020 presidential election. They were wrong. Or perhaps following the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. Wrong again. To be sure it would end after Trump-endorsed candidates did so poorly in the 2022 mid-terms. Still wrong. Today the Trump cult is alive and thriving in North Carolina as well as throughout the country. I join those questioning how we got to this place?

My reading suggests many comparisons between Trump’s rise and that of Hitler. Ken Burns, in the PBS series, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” suggests that Hitler rose to power when Germany needed leadership, saying people are relentlessly drawn to power figures. Hitler acknowledged their grievances, stoked their fears, raised scapegoats of blame, and made bold promises of better times. Large crowds bought in. Does this remind you of Trump?

We might understand why many, especially white, male, high school grads joined the cult, but it defies understanding why so many leaders in business, religion and especially elected Republican leaders have either endorsed Trump or have remained silent to his threats.

Voter registrations in North Carolina demonstrate the Trump breeding grounds in rural counties east of I-95, in much of the piedmont and far western counties. And while legislative and congressional districts have been gerrymandered to favor Republicans (and in effect the MAGA cult) the larger, more urban cities and exurban surroundings are increasingly favorable to Democrats.

If we remove ourselves from the emotion and partisan team-choosing it is clear that we have become little more than an audience to an old-time vaudeville show. Donald Trump is, if nothing else, a showman, starring in what amounts to a puppet show. Puppet master Trump pulls the strings and his minions dance and hop in whatever direction he chooses.

This master puppeteer has silenced dissent, purging the ranks of those who don’t kiss his ring by threats of violence or retribution. Like Pontius Pilate of Biblical times, our leaders are fearful of bucking Trump and his vocal cult. The Republican Party has become one of sycophants.


Proof lies in the immigration issue. Since the sunsetting of America’s immigration policy in the 1960’s, people of both parties, especially Republicans — and more emphatically Trump himself — have complained about our lack of control on our southern borders. A bipartisan group of Senators, meeting behind closed doors, worked months to come up with a compromise reform plan. As with all compromises, the plan wasn’t perfect but was at least a good step toward ultimate solutions. Even though it passed the Senate it was quashed without even consideration in the House of Representatives, not by a vote but a veto from Donald Trump. He can’t generate large donations and great crowd support without a big issue, and since he can no longer rail about the economy, immigration is the issue he is banking on to entertain the crowds and to regain the presidency.

A majority are not happy about the Biden-Trump rematch, underscored by the fact that only 24% of North Carolina’s voters cast ballots in the primary elections. That’s far fewer than the 31.1% in 2020 or the 35.6% in 2016. Almost 250,000 more Republican ballots were cast than in 2020, while about 350,000 fewer Democratic ballots were tallied.

Western Carolina University’s Chris Cooper, one of our state’s prominent political scientists, clarifies what happened. Unaffiliated voters get to choose whether they want to vote a Republican or Democratic ballot in the primary. Cooper says two-thirds of unaffiliated voters chose the Republican ballot. Even more intriguing is that four times as many Republican voters as Democrats voted at the top of the ticket then skipped over offices further down the ballot.

Large numbers wanted to vote for or against Trump as well as for or against Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson. Cooper says the roll-off, those not voting all the way down the ballot, could have amounted to enough votes to have overturned some council of state races.

How big a factor will voter fatigue be on Nov. 5? Can Democrats energize Blacks, Hispanics and young voters to turn out? Who will just sit this election out? Will the larger numbers vote for the “Old Guy” or the puppet master?

Already this is one show most of us will be glad to see come to an end.

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. His weekly half-hour TV program, NC SPIN aired for 22 ½ years. Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.