Would North Carolinians ever vote to elect Donald Trump or somebody like him?
We did once.
When we did, we proved that North Carolinians, like voters across America, can be attracted to tough-talking candidates who challenge the establishment, bark out simple solutions to the most complicated problems, inexplicably advocate programs far out of the mainstream, and generally be totally full of bunkum.
This North Carolinian “out-Trumped” Donald Trump and was so full of bunkum that it was part of his nickname, “Buncombe Bob.”
U.S. Sen. Robert Rice Reynolds came from Buncombe County. An earlier legislator from that county talked so much about Buncombe it came to mean nonsense, and some changed the spelling to “bunkum.” Reynolds served in the Senate for 12 years beginning in 1933 and kept people all over the country entertained and shocked by:
1. Planting a big kiss on Jean Harlow, the famous movie star, right on the Capitol steps.
2. Getting married five times.
3. Snubbing the king and queen of Great Britain.
4. Appearing in Lucky Strike cigarette advertising for a thousand-dollar payment.
5. At 57, marrying a wealthy 20-year old Washington socialite who often wore the famous “Hope” diamond, owned by her mother.
He was also incredibly audacious in his political actions and viewpoints.
In the years before World War II, he gained the reputation as a No. 1 defender of Hitler and Germany’s aggression in Europe and cooperated with German agents based in the U.S.
He published an anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-Jewish newsletter that was often sold at pro-Nazi rallies in this country.
He introduced legislation to demand that Great Britain cede Newfoundland, Bermuda and its Caribbean possessions to the U.S. as a penalty for failing to pay its World War I debts.
When he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, he upset the incumbent Cameron Morrison, the powerful former governor, who had the support of the established political organizations in the state. Buncombe Bob ran on a platform calling for more government programs, more government spending, higher taxes on the wealthy, and pro-inflationary policies.
Like Trump, he was not afraid of the political fringes.
In fact, he ran as a liberal against the wealthy Morrison. He mocked Morrison’s living habits, asking crowds at his political rallies, “What do you think he eats? He does not eat cabbage or turnips or ham, nor fatback like you and I do. My friends, think of it, Senator Morrison eats caviar.”
Holding up a jar of caviar, he would continue, “Friends, it pains me to tell you that Cam Morrison eats fish eggs — and Red Russian fish eggs at that and they cost two dollars. Now let me ask you, do you want a senator who ain’t too high and mighty to eat good ole North Carolina hen eggs or don’t you?”
After his election, his “liberal” image had faded into a “pro-fascist” one, but he continued to swim outside the mainstream.
I learned about North Carolina’s Trump-like politician from “Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds,” by Julian Pleasants and published by UNC Press in 2000.
When I asked Pleasants to comment on the Buncombe Bob-Trump connection, he wrote that they are similar: Both showmen of the first order, with charisma and a love to be in the limelight, and virulently opposed to immigration, especially alien immigrants.
However, Pleasants continued, “Bob Reynolds was quite different since he was a courteous man with a fine sense of humor. Trump is arrogant and aggressive. His recent racial slurs against Mexicans illustrate his attitude toward immigrants. He appears to be without a sense of humor. Both are demagogues who used unrest and fear, in this case immigrants, to improve their political chances.”
Buncombe Bob or Bunkum Trump.
Take your choice.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.