How Donald Trump won America’s
most racially diverse rural county

Meet the Native American Indian tribe that helped deliver victory to the GOP candidate

PEMBROKE, N.C.—The conventional wisdom during the presidential campaign held that Donald Trump’s politically incorrect rhetoric would alienate millions of minority voters, who’d turn out on Election Day and deliver the presidency to Hillary Clinton.

The thing about the conventional wisdom is how unwise it can be — especially when it comes to a candidate as unconventional as Trump.

He didn’t perform very well overall with minority voters. But he won a larger share of them than Mitt Romney did when he was the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee. And in some specific places minority voters helped deliver victory to Trump.

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One of those places is Robeson County, N.C., America’s most racially diverse rural county. No majority-minority county in the nation saw a greater electoral swing than Robeson County. Trump won it by 5 points four years after Obama won it by 17.

The reasons Trump won Robeson County are as numerous and varied as the reasons why he won the county as a whole. Phillip Stephens, chairman of the local Republican Party, noted that the county has been slowly turning Republican for the past decade. At one point, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 9-to-1. Today the ratio has been cut to 2-to-1.

This slow transformation is partly a result of local Republicans’ changing electoral strategy. It no longer runs “nuts or unqualified” local candidates who in the past sullied the local GOP brand, said Stephens. Instead, Republicans sometimes nominate centrist Republicans (“centrist” being a relative term in a place where even Democrats are conservative).

Trump’s promise to tear-up unfair trade deals could have been tailored to attract Robeson County residents, whose economy was devastated by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Donnie Douglas, who edits the Robesonian newspaper, had a slightly different take. He said most local voters are conservative but many historically favored Democrats, who pledged to take care of them. Forty-percent of the county’s residents are on Medicaid, he said, “so we’re a county that depends on the government.” Trump’s mix of law and order, social conservatism, outsider status, and his promise that “nobody’s going to be dying on the street if I’m president,” resonated here. 

More than anything, though, Trump won here because he attracted members of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi. Robeson County’s roughly 50,000 Lumbee Indians make up a plurality of the electorate. 

Pembroke is the tribe’s political and cultural center. It’s home to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a historically Native American university. That’s where my twin brother, Jordan, and I met up with Jarrod Lowery.

Lowery, a representative on the Lumbee Tribal Council, said “The reason Robeson County voted Republican is the Native American population voted Republican.”

Lumbees started considering the Republican Party when GOP gubernatorial candidate James Holshouser championed the “Save Old Main” movement in the early 1970s when the Old Main, UNC-Pembroke’s oldest and grandest building, was slated for destruction. 

When the building was destroyed in a 1973 fire, Holshouser, who had just started his term as governor, stood on the steps of the charred building and promised to rebuild it. It was restored in 1979. 

“When Governor Holshouser said, ‘We’re going to rebuild Old Main,’ there were a lot of elders at the time and people in the community who said it was the first time they considered voting for a Republican,” Lowery said. 

Lowery explained that Republicans’ social conservatism and emphasis on law and order also resonate with the Lumbee, whose political focus is on faith, family, and traditional values. 

Last November, only 10 of Robeson County’s 39 precincts voted for Clinton. Those that did were in heavily black areas. Maxton, for instance, in the western corner of the county, voted 66 percent for Clinton, which is just a little higher than the 64 percent of its residents who are black. Trump got about the same share of the vote in a neighboring precinct that’s 67 percent Lumbee Indian. And in Prospect community, “the oldest Lumbee community, which is 96 percent Lumbee, voted 73 percent for Trump,” Lowery said. 

The most important issue for the Lumbee is official recognition by the federal government, a move that requires a federal law and which would allow hundreds of millions of dollars to flow into the county. But the Lumbee are also looking for a more basic kind of recognition, one that comes from the basic human need to feel included. 

“A lot of time throughout the country we are forgotten,” Lowery said. “People go down the list of minorities, but nobody ever mentions Native Americans, native Alaskans or Native Hawaiians. So when you have a politician in your community who points at you and takes an interest in you, you’re like, ‘Wow, somebody’s finally paying attention to me.’”

Lowery felt that Trump is one politician who perhaps would finally pay attention to the Lumbee. “Lumbees don’t trust the government,” he said. “And when you have a guy who comes in who looks like he’s going to bust up the system, who admits there’s corruption here and there’s corruption there, we say, ‘This guy’s been saying the same things I’ve been saying.’ He didn’t visit here, but he’s engaging and saying a lot of the same things a lot of us have been saying.”  

Another of those politicians who paid attention was State Senator Danny Britt, who became the first Republican to hold the seat since Reconstruction after the Civil War in large part because of strong support from the Lumbee. 

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“Senator Britt come to my home community of Prospect several times asking for our vote,” Lowery said. “And when you have been told your whole life, ‘You don’t vote for Republicans,’ and you have [a Republican] that comes to your door and says, ‘Hey, can I have your vote?’ That starts opening you up a little more.”

Later, eating barbeque at Papa Bill’s outside Pembroke, Lowery returned to the idea of inclusion. “With us, what matters is that you listen to us, that people say, ‘Those Lumbee, they’re important, they’re as important as people in Silicon Valley, as important as New York City, they’re important.’ That’s all we want.”

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