Mark Robinson believes Republicans and conservatives should never concede the cultural narrative, and that the party’s greatest need is to put forward those who can speak with force, conviction, and eloquence about the party’s shared values with everyday Americans. The lack of articulateness in such matters is, of course, a perennial complaint about GOP political discourse. However, if anybody is in a position to do something about it, it is the man who will be, barring incident, the first black lieutenant governor of North Carolina.
I’ve witnessed a great many politicians give a great many speeches, but I’ve seldom come across one with the natural ease and ability to combine passion and reason the way Robinson does when he gets warmed up on his favorite issues. His is a national-level talent that the GOP would ignore or sideline at its peril.
I saw a display of Robinson’s appeal last summer when he addressed a Back the Blue rally in downtown Raleigh. He electrified the audience and with a speech basically shut down the Antifa and Black Lives Matter protestors cat-calling and drumming on the periphery, striking them, at least momentarily, silent and dumbfounded.
“It’s got to be a natural gift from God,” Robinson told me. “I was a very shy child. Didn’t do a lot of talking. I was very reserved. I believe I was in the ninth grade . . . that was the first time I’d stayed in one school for multiple years. Elementary school, we moved around so much. We were required to do a speech that year. I was a C student at best . . . well, when I got finished delivering the speech, I got a rousing ovation. . . .The teacher asked me how long did I practice, and I said I didn’t at all. She told me ‘You have a special gift for speaking English,’ and she worked with me.”
Robinson came in second at the citywide competition that year, losing out to the mayor’s son, prompting Robinson’s mother to claim the fix was in.
“At the end of that year, [my teacher] wrote in my yearbook ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do, but whatever it is, God knows it’s probably going to include public speaking,’” Robinson said.
It was a long time coming. Robinson, who is 52, made a stunning political debut in 2018 at a city council meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina where the members were considering prohibiting a gun show at city-controlled facilities. Robinson claims to have made his oration off-the-cuff. The impromptu speech went viral and ended up on Fox News. It’s now been viewed more than 1 million times.
Robinson comes from a poor background. He is the second youngest of ten children who were frequently separated in his early years. He worked two factory jobs (the loss of both of which he blames on the North American Free Trade Agreement stifling American industry) and was a restaurant manager. He’s also a former Army Reservist.
North Carolina lieutenant governors of the past 100 years have been decidedly pale in complexion. Robinson thinks it is important that the first black lieutenant governor be a Republican.
“It sets the standard for this party,” said Robinson. “Being a student of history, it’s extremely exciting for me to make history. But I think when you get right down to the political side of it, to be able to make this statement for the party of freedom and equality—which is what I call the Republican Party—it lets people know that this party doesn’t have just one face. Also, it gets people who normally would not pay any attention to this party to take a look at us. And we hope to do some things that when they do take a look at us, they’ll say ‘Hey, I agree with that.’”
Robinson’s deeply socially conservative positions animate his political direction. Beyond Robinson’s victory in North Carolina, his personal story is a script seemingly written with a new Republican Party realignment in mind.
Yet conviction conservatives like Robinson, even entire movements, have been rolled up and suffocated by the GOP establishment before. The Tea Party is the prime example, of course. Robinson’s blue-collar background combined with his deeply social conservative stance may be a recipe for winning in the larger cultural war the GOP will be required to wage if it hopes to meet Democrats on a level playing field.
“One of the things the Republican Party has not been very good at is dictating the narrative and telling their story. We have allowed other forces to tell our story,” said Robinson.
Incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won reelection over the man Robinson will replace, outgoing Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Robinson faces an uphill battle for affecting Cooper and the executive branch’s willy-nilly Covid-19 response, with many schools opening, then reverting to virtual.
“I believe the people of North Carolina, and the American people, are smart enough to handle Covid-19 and still continue on with their normal lives,” said Robinson. “I have heard from so many parents who say that they have A and B students who are now C and D students because they’re disengaged with this process. We need to get them back to school.”
Not surprisingly, a big Robinson issue is long-term educational reform.
“There are a lot of poor communities around this state. A lot of housing projects. A lot of trailer parks, so to speak. Lower-income areas where we have some fantastic parents and wonderfully talented children. Some of them will never get access to the kind of education that is commensurate with their talent. Opportunity scholarships is a big thing. Social engineering is not how we teach our children to be successful. We need to teach them real-life skills. We need to teach them how the government works. How our economy operates. Financial literacy. We need to teach them trades.”
Then there is gun rights and the Second Amendment, Robinson’s first big issue. Robinson, who will sit on the state’s two boards of education, is willing even to push for allowing legal carrying on the campuses of North Carolina’s public universities.
“We certainly hope so. We’re going to do as much as we can to expand the gun rights of law-abiding citizens in this state. Now more than ever. We see reports of a lot of these riots, a lot of this unrest, a lot of these folks who refuse to follow the law, the depredation of our police forces across the state and across the nation, law-abiding citizens need to be able to rely on themselves, as always. We need to make those possibilities even easier,” he says.
Not surprisingly for a man only recently come to politics, Robinson has left a trail of piquant Facebook posts for his opponents to mine and decry.
“I think it is absolutely ridiculous that we have major news outlets digging through people’s social media posts at the same time that we have cities burning to the ground,” Robinson said. “We have police officers being assassinated, we have a presidential election that has not been decided because we don’t have something as easy in this nation as voter ID and strict limits on absentee balloting. And we have a health crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands and put millions out of work. Then what these news agencies choose to focus on is some old Facebook posts.”
Signs of an extreme realignment in the Republican Party, and in American conservative mainstream thought, are everywhere. In a night filled with disillusionment, disgust, and graveyard humor, Robinson’s election was a moment of delight for many Republicans. It ought to mean more. Robinson is a culture warrior of the highest ability. The establishment right utterly blew it with the Tea Party, but the realignment that the Tea Party movement portended has now arrived.
After being bludgeoned for years by the combined strength of the establishment left, there is a definite possibility that the Republican Party will reel into irrelevance and dissolution. On the other hand, it might take the advice (and help) of an eloquent black lieutenant governor from a Southern state who made his debut not in the fetid stew of identity politics, but at a leftwing-dominated city council meeting where he spoke for the constitutional guarantee every American possesses to own a weapon and protect his or her rights.
“We need to take that narrative into our hands,” Robinson said. “We need to take it into the community and tell folks who we are, what we’re standing for, and tell them about all the good things we’ve done and not be ashamed to tell them what we’ve done.”