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Chris Kromm: The South's Political Clout Is Rising Under Trump

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We look at the increasing power of states in the South to shape national politics. Our guest, Chris Kromm, writes in his latest piece that Southern states gave 160 Electoral College votes to Trump, more than half of the 306 total he won. "Southern Republicans have emerged as key figures in the new administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, giving Southern states growing influence in shaping the nation’s political agenda," Kromm writes. Many Republicans from the South have been confirmed in senior Cabinet positions, including South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney as director of the Office of Management and Budget, Rick Perry from Texas as energy secretary, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions as attorney general and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson of Texas as secretary of state.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the capital of North Carolina, in Raleigh. We’re turning now to look at the increasing power of states in the South to shape national politics. Our guest, Chris Kromm, writes in his latest piece that Southern states gave 160 Electoral College votes to Trump, more than half of the 306 total he needed to become president. With this victory, Kromm gees on to write, quote, "Southern Republicans have emerged as key figures in the new administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, giving Southern states growing influence in shaping the nation’s political agenda," he writes. Many Republicans from the South have been confirmed in senior Cabinet positions, including South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney as director of the Office of Management and Budget, Rick Perry from Texas as energy secretary, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions as attorney general and the former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson of Texas confirmed as secretary of state.

Yes, Chris Kromm is still with us, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of Facing South.

So, talk about the leadership being drawn from the South and the significance.

CHRIS KROMM: Well, this is part of a larger trend. The South is rising again, for sure, in national politics. One-third of the Electoral College votes that it takes to be elected president in this country are in 13 Southern states. And that’s only going to grow. After the 2020 census, there’s going to be another five Electoral College votes or so. They’re going to come from Southern states. So, what it is is a shifting of the gravity of political power in this country going to the South.

And I think the Trump administration knows that. They know that the South—for all the attention we’ve put on Michigan and those battleground states, which was certainly important, it was really the fact that Southern states accounted for half of his Electoral College votes that he’s in the White House today. And he understands the power of Southern conservatism behind the wind in the sails of his presidency. And you see that in these key positions, especially in the Trump Cabinet. You also see it in the delegations from Southern states that are having a lot of influence in Congress.

And I think what it adds up to is that we understand that really the South has to become contested territory, that it can’t be ceded to conservative Republicans, or they’re just going to be able to really up their game in using the South as a platform to drive a conservative agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you seeing that change here in North Carolina, as you said, when you look at this latest election?

CHRIS KROMM: Oh, absolutely. And I think North Carolina is an example—right?—of these conflicting trends, where, on one hand, for sure, the demographics are changing. It’s becoming an increasingly diverse state, of growing populations, new immigrant communities, Asian-American communities, one of the fastest-growing Asian-American communities in the country, a return migration of African Americans to cities like Charlotte and Raleigh. This is really changing the makeup, this so-called new American majority. We saw the evidence of that in the last election with like in the governor’s race and other key races. But on the other hand, we have to be reminded about this deep white conservative trend that exists in many Southern states. And that’s exactly what Trump was able to activate in winning the state in 2016.

AMY GOODMAN: So I want to turn your recent piece, in which you profile several Trump Cabinet ministers from Southern states, including, oh, the head of the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. Let’s turn to Mulvaney talking about the budget last month in an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He was questioned by Willie Geist.

MICK MULVANEY: Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no. We can’t ask them to continue to pay for defense, and we will. But we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. ... Make no mistake about it: This is a hard-power budget, not a soft-power budget. That is what the president wanted, and that’s what we gave him.

WILLIE GEIST: So, Director Mulvaney, there’s, in this budget, a $3.7 billion cut in grants for teacher training and after-school summer programs and aid to low-income students.

MICK MULVANEY: Mm-hmm.

WILLIE GEIST: What do you say to a family right now who is a low-income family and depends on this kind of money? What do you say to a teacher who’s busting his or her butt every day and relies on this money? What happens to them?

MICK MULVANEY: A lot of those programs that we targeted out, they sound great, don’t they? They always do. We don’t—we don’t put a bad name on a program. Programs are always wonderful. It’s always small business or whatever. They don’t work. A lot of them simply don’t work. I can’t justify them to the folks who are paying the taxes. I can’t go to the auto worker in Ohio and say, "Please give me some of your money so that I can do this program over here someplace else that really isn’t helping anybody." I can ask them to help pay for defense.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mick Mulvaney on MSNBC. Chris Kromm?

CHRIS KROMM: Well, I think it’s just a great example. Here you have someone who’s in charge of devising the budget, that will fund government, who’s deeply antigovernment. All he can do is come up with a list of programs that he thinks are antithetical to free enterprise and the American way. He went so far as to say he couldn’t justify the Meals on Wheels program, and then he had to walk that one back later. But it’s just a great example of—you know, he is deeply hostile to government programs. He was actually viewed, because he had been a member of the Freedom Caucus, that he was supposed to be a bridge to some of the other Republicans to help push through the repeal of Obamacare. That didn’t work out. He wasn’t able to make that coalition happen.

One interesting thing is that when he was a representative from South Carolina, this anti-spending impetus he had even extended to military spending. And he sided with Democrats in opposing some weapons programs. But now that he’s in the Office of Management and Budget, it’s interesting that the budget that he unveiled for the Trump administration had a $50 billion increase in military spending. So I guess he’s made peace with the war budget now that he’s in the Trump Cabinet.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about Tillerson from Texas, Sessions from Alabama.

CHRIS KROMM: Well, it’s a real cast of characters. Sessions, I think, has gotten a lot of national attention just given his checkered history on voting rights, civil rights, coming out of Alabama. One of his top aides was also a top aide to Trump—that’s [Stephen] Miller—who went to school just down the road here at Duke University. But clearly, you know, he’s being rewarded for his early support of the Trump candidacy. I don’t think anybody would have picked him to be the top candidate for the attorney general position, especially given his history of targeting African-American voting leaders in Alabama, for which Coretta Scott King famously authored that letter that Elizabeth Warren, Senator Warren, tried to read in the Senate when that confirmation hearing was happening. Then you think about people like Tom Price—

AMY GOODMAN: And she was censured for reading—

CHRIS KROMM: Was blocked from being able to actually read this letter, which so eloquently laid out about why the civil rights community was so concerned about Sessions back in the 1980s.

You look at characters like Tom Price, coming out of Georgia, who was interesting as a doctor. He was part of this group that called Medicare and Medicaid, you know, aspects of socialized medicine that should be vehemently opposed. And he really had a checkered record because—was known for going to bat for pharmaceutical companies, a lot of conflicts of interest where he tried to pull reports that were critical of different drugs from companies that he had gotten money from the CEO of that company that created that heart drug—just kind of down the line, questions about stocks in pharmaceuticals that he was—being discussed in his committees. So, he really had a checkered record. I think those—some of those issues are going to come back to dog him as he continues in his position at Department of Health and Human Services.

And then, Tillerson, I think you’re absolutely right. I think the most interesting one there, as just given his history of conflicts, where in his position as a CEO at Exxon, Exxon having interests that are really antithetical to the interest of the State Department and wanting to operate in countries where there were sanctions or other limitations, where the government was really trying to put—turn the screws a little bit on human rights violations, but Exxon wanting to come in and be able to do business. And it’s interesting that he’s going to still have that conflict as secretary of state.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the 13 Southern states, only Virginia voted for Hillary Clinton.

CHRIS KROMM: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what accounts for this?

CHRIS KROMM: Yeah. Well, I think Trump was really remarkable in being able to activate—you know, we know that the demography of these Southern states is rapidly changing. We know that they’re becoming more diverse, more—a lot of majority people of color communities across the South. But we also were reminded, I think, in this last election that there’s a deep well of Southern conservatism, that Trump was able to effectively mobilize. And so, you really saw turnout jump in a lot of states. And it was both some of the newer voters, who are the future of a lot of these Southern states, but also he was able to mobilize a white conservative electorate, which in many cases carried the day and allowed him to win those states.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a recent piece in Slate headlined "America Could Look Like North Carolina [by] 2020. Yikes." Do you agree with this?

CHRIS KROMM: I think it’s definitely, as I said earlier, a cautionary tale. It shows what, when there’s unfettered conservative control, like we saw in North Carolina starting in 2012, just the scale of the agenda that was able to really dig into voting rights, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, the environment—just this full-scale attack—immigrant rights—just to see how much could happen in a very short period of time with that degree of conservative control. And then, on the other side, though, about the resistance and the ability to beat some of those back.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris, I’d like to talk about Art Pope. We just covered the People’s Climate March in Washington. There was a lot of discussion about the Koch brothers and their power and the power of dark money, the influence on everything from Congress to the U.S. Supreme Court. Can you talk about Art Pope in North Carolina? When we last spoke in—here in Charlotte at the Democratic convention that took place, you were talking about his power. Who is this figure?

CHRIS KROMM: Yeah, Art Pope is a multimillionaire who over the last decade has invested about $50 million in trying to shift the agenda of the state in a more rightward direction. He’s a close ally of the Koch brothers. He was actually for many years the chair of Americans for Prosperity, the national tea party group. He founded a retail—inherited a retail business empire, that really is the basis that fuels his money and his political machine.

And what’s really interesting was his ability to not only fund politicians and inject money into the political process after Citizens United, so he was funding a lot of the so-called dark money groups and injecting money that really helped fuel the takeover of conservatives in the state Legislature in 2010 and 2012, but then also he had a network of groups, like Americans for Prosperity, think tanks, advocacy groups. And these really were the masterminds behind the attacks, for example, on voting rights. It was these places that wrote up the bills that were taking out all the protections for clean elections, that were drawing up the bills to slash early voting, and drumming up concern about voter fraud. And so, it was this really sophisticated network, very well funded.

And when Governor McCrory, the Republican, took power in 2012, lo and behold, he appointed as his budget director, perched there in the office of the governor, as budget director, Art Pope. And that really was, I think, the apex of his power and influence in the state. And one of the first things he did is defund a clean elections program that tried to drive money out of judicial races in the state, so was really able to exert his influence. So, right now, with McCrory out of power, you don’t see his influence as directly as you saw before. But certainly, he’s one of the most important state-level big money players you’re going to see anywhere in the country in his ability to shape state politics.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to civil rights icon, the Democratic Congressman John Lewis, from the South, from Georgia, testifying during Sessions’ confirmation hearings earlier this year.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you. But we need someone who’s going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help, for people who have been discriminated against. And it doesn’t matter whether they are black or white, Latino, Asian American or Native American, whether you’re straight or gay, Muslim, Christian or Jews. We all live in the same house: the American house. We need someone as attorney general who’s going to look out for all of us, and not just for some of us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was John Lewis, speaking against the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Of course, he was confirmed. Your final comments?

CHRIS KROMM: Well, I think that’s just a powerful reminder that despite how dark things look and that when you think about the strong agenda, the right-wing agenda that we see right now, this unbroken tradition of resistance in the South that people like Representative Lewis embody. At the Institute for Southern Studies, we were founded by civil rights veterans. And you just think about that unbroken history that you really see today, that’s able to really continue to push the South forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Chris Kromm, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of Facing South. We’ll link to your piece, "South’s political clout rising under Trump."

That does it for our show. We’ll be covering the story of hog farming and liquid hog manure being sprayed on largely African-American communities later on our journey. This does it for our show, as we continue our tour around the country. I’ll be speaking in Miami tonight, 6:30, at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. Then, on Wednesday, I’m on to Tampa at 7:30 p.m. at the Seminal Heights United Methodist Church. Thursday, it’s Atlanta, 7:00 p.m. at the First Iconium Baptist Church; and on Friday at 2:00 at Carleton College in Minnesota, at 6:30 p.m. at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. On Saturday, we’re on to Madison, Wisconsin, in the afternoon, then Chicago in the evening. Sunday, I’m speaking in Michigan in Kalamazoo at 11:00, Lansing at 2:00 and Grand Rapids at 5:30. Monday night, I’ll be speaking in Philadelphia at the Philly Free Library. Check our website for all the details.

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