Like Trump, Helms always found enemies. His antipathy toward the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) was so legendary that when the North Carolina legislature was debating the creation of a new state zoo, Helms purportedly commented that erecting a fence around Chapel Hill would do as a replacement. Although this story is apocryphal, it illustrates a source of Helms’s power — an enmity toward educated “elites” whom Helms’s White, rural and small city base saw as threatening their traditional Christian values and their beliefs about race. In many ways, this sentiment is also at the root of Trumpian political discourse and the president’s popularity.
Helms, who died on July 4, 2008, was media savvy and spent three decades in newspaper and broadcast journalism. But he will be remembered as a larger-than-life figure who remade the political landscape, sowing the deep polarization that Trump tapped into and reminding us that stoking prejudices and promising what he called old-fashioned values remain politically potent.
In North Carolina, the political polarization that Helms later tapped into dates to the early 20th century, when modernizers, relying on the rise of UNC as the leading Southern public university, attempted to transform the state from one of the poorest and most undereducated into a leading center of the knowledge economy and to monetize its university-based technological industries.
In a seminal 1950 Senate election, liberal UNC President Frank Porter Graham expected to win. But conservative Willis Smith defeated him in a primary runoff by stoking fears about the end of segregation, which played well with those voters who were skeptical about modernity and the liberal haven at UNC that seemed to encourage it. It was long believed that a 28-year-old Jesse Helms, who conducted opposition research for the Smith campaign, was the mastermind behind Graham’s defeat. This characterization was inflated — but it displayed the long shadow Helms cast over North Carolina politics.
Although both men were Democrats, the bitter Graham-Smith contest defined the political fissures and intense polarization of politics that would develop over the following 70 years. In 1950, the Republican Party in North Carolina was moribund — as it was throughout the South; no Republicans won statewide office between 1898 and 1972.
Yet the response to federal intervention in civil rights after the Brown v. Board decision in 1954 reinvigorated the Republican Party throughout the states of the former Confederacy. One of the beneficiaries was Helms, who switched parties in 1970 and became the most important Republican in the state for the next generation by employing the same slash-and-burn tactics that defeated Graham in 1950.
Helms helped to redefine political patterns in the state and paved the way for the attack politics so common today. In 1972, he won election to the Senate by attacking his opponent, Rep. Nick Galifianakis, for his association with liberal Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. In an infamous political ad for Helms, the tagline said, “He’s one of us,” phrasing that suggested Helms’s opponent — the child of immigrants — was not a true North Carolinian.
Helms quickly became an architect of the modern conservative movement that culminated in Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. He used the then-new tactic of direct mail to build a powerful national fundraising operation reliant on small donors. Helms’s war chest enabled him to flood the airwaves with attack ads, overwhelm his opponents and help allies.
In the U.S. Senate, Helms skillfully manipulated the rules to both obstruct legislation and attack the liberal establishment by forcing amendment votes and deploying slashing rhetoric. Though he had no such thing as Twitter, Helms used fights over his amendments to motivate his base in North Carolina and nationally.
Helms repeatedly managed to stave off fierce electoral challenges, most famously beating popular North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt in 1984. The key both to Helms’s success — and the limits of his popularity — was his willingness to polarize the electorate on issues of race and culture. A longtime opponent of federal intervention in civil rights, much more than any other southern Republican, Helms aggressively used racism to rally his base in the state’s hinterlands.
A year before what pundits predicted was certain defeat at the hands of Hunt, Helms waged a lonely filibuster against federal legislation honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Calling King a “Marxist-Leninist,” Helms failed to attract any support in the Senate. But while he overwhelmingly lost the legislative battle, just fighting it honed Helms’s appeal to rural and small-town White voters.
Similarly, in 1990, at the end of the campaign for his fourth term in the Senate against Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, an African American, Helms ran the infamous “White hands” television ad — where there appeared to be a suggestive black smudge on a letter telling a White blue-collar worker that he didn’t get a job. The ad targeted affirmative action to inflame racist grievance. In the end, Helms narrowly overcame Gantt’s lead in the polls.
Helms also relied upon White evangelical Christians, who mobilized during the late 1970s, to continue narrowly winning close Senate races. The senator brokered the politicization of evangelicals by using the Senate as a conservative bully pulpit — railing about cultural liberalism on issues like school prayer, abortion and gay rights. An open opponent of LGBTQ rights, Helms embraced homophobia as a cultural issue. In particular, he used the AIDS crisis to demonize gay people and firmly opposed expanding federal research into defeating the disease.
Recalling Helms’s tactics, and his ability to last 30 years in office despite engendering deep antipathy from liberals, reshapes how we understand the Trump presidency. Helms both capitalized upon and drove the polarization that has fueled Trump’s rise. He relied on solid support from the state’s small towns and countryside. But he also attracted urban and suburban support in areas containing older industries, such as the swatch of cotton textile and furniture factories that emerged during the generation after the Civil War and went into decline after the 1970s.
By the end of the 20th century, a sharp divide separated these older industrial and agricultural areas from those driven by knowledge-based technology and finance. Today, the contrast is particularly evident in the comparison between the Raleigh-Durham megalopolis, where tech has thrived, and the hinterlands of central North Carolina, where dying manufacturing left a deindustrialized core.
It is in those hinterlands where Trump thrived, securing just enough support from a mobilized and energized base for narrow victories in both 2016 and 2020 — the same playbook Helms used. Like Trump, Helms’s margins were narrow, and his strategy depended on his fully aroused supporters. Demonizing their political enemies activated their own bases.
Helms not only used such tactics, he pioneered them. As early as the 1950s, he attacked New Deal liberalism as threatening his political supporters; in Helms’s telling, liberals and liberalism became part of urban elites’ assault on small-town and rural North Carolina and America. Helms criticized liberal “bias” in the print and broadcast media, just as Trump relies upon attacks on “fake news” to discredit journalists’ scrutiny.
While such tactics alienated the highly educated, who often caricatured Helms as a buffoon, he won fierce devotion from those rural and small-town Americans, who turned out in droves. In 2020, Trump dusted off the Helms playbook. But while it worked in North Carolina, it fell just short in other states.