At first glance, the late Sen. Jesse Helms and President-elect Donald Trump could not be more different.
Helms, who represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 1973 until 2003, was as plain as brown shoes, married to the same woman his entire adult life, and lived unostentatiously on Raleigh’s Caswell Street.
Trump is, well, Trump.
But look closer and one can find a number of parallels.
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Both Helms and Trump were plain-spoken populists who gained much of their support from blue-collar workers and from people living in rural areas.
Both campaigned as outsiders: Helms consistently ran against Washington, while Trump has promised to “drain the swamp.” Both often painted a dark picture of an embattled country. Helms liked to say that God had given America one last chance, while Trump’s vision during the campaign was often of a country coming apart at the seams.
Both were accused by critics of exploiting racial divisions for political benefit.
Both campaigned against the news media, using them as political foils at their rallies, although the news media were addicted to both of them like crack cocaine because they rarely failed to generate news.
Although they ran as Republicans, both had strong followings among registered Democrats. Helms’ Democratic backers were nicknamed “Jessecrats.” It seems very likely that the Jessecrats – or more likely the sons and daughters of the Jessecrats – voted for Trump. A map of the counties carried by Helms and Trump would look very similar.
I ran these ideas by a couple of people who know a lot about Helms.
Carter Wrenn, a Raleigh political consultant who was Helms’ chief strategist, generally agreed with the similarities.
“Both had a populist streak,” Wrenn said. “Both had blue-collar support. And both are sort of demagogues. The main difference is that Helms did have a pretty rigid set of conservative values. I don’t think Trump does, but we just won’t know until we see.”
“Trump may be more of a pragmatist than an ideologue,” Wrenn said.
Both Trump and Helms were political innovators. Helms was regarded as cutting edge in his politics – pioneering in the use of TV advertising and direct-mail fundraising.
Trump found a way to get out his campaign message without using paid commercials – called free media in the political business – in a way that was “revolutionary,” according to Wrenn. He also pioneered in his use of Twitter, not only reaching many supporters, but creating news each time.
“He would put it on Twitter and then it would go on The New York Times, the Washington Post and all the TV networks,” Wrenn said. “The echo chamber there was huge.”
Both Helms and Trump were media savvy before entering politics. Helms had for more than a decade been TV editorialist for WRAL-TV, one of the first in the nation. He had also been a Raleigh city councilman, a banking lobbyist, a Senate and presidential campaign aide, and both a newspaper and a radio reporter.
Both worked outside the media of their time and discovered a new way to shape politics.
William Link, historian
Trump was both an experienced marketer and promoter, who had also hosted his own reality television program.
“Both worked outside the media of their time and discovered a new way to shape politics,” said William Link, a historian who is the author of “Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism.”
“Both tapped into deep frustration with politics as usual,” Link said. “I suspect Helms had a bit more suburban appeal. Both were best on rhetoric and weak on policy – though we don’t know with Trump.”
A major difference, Link said, is that Helms was much more interested in ideology, while Trump is more interested in making money.
I asked Wrenn whether he thought Helms would have endorsed Trump – an obviously unknowable question – if he were still alive. Wrenn noted that Helms made a point of staying out of Republican primaries with one notable exception – for California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
But Wrenn suspects that Helms would have kept him at arm’s length in the primary because of questions about Trump’s devotion to the conservative cause.