Mark Robinson Is MAGA’s Great Black Hope

Donald Trump Holds Rally For North Carolina Midterm Candidates

Mark Robinson, the lieutenant governor of North Carolina, at a rally for Donald Trump in Wilmington in September.
Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

On April 3, 2018, a 49-year-old furniture upholsterer and incorrigible Facebook shitposter named Mark Robinson set fire to North Carolina politics. It happened at a city-council meeting in Greensboro, where officials were soliciting public input about a proposal to cancel an upcoming gun show on city property. Robinson’s hometown, like the rest of America, at the time was reeling from the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and drew more than 1 million protesters into the streets calling for stricter gun-control laws. “We didn’t want to sell guns,” Greensboro mayor Nancy Vaughan told me.

Vaughan was minutes away from banging her gavel when the final speaker strode to the podium: a middle-aged Black man who looked like a retired bouncer, bald and heavyset with a salt-and-pepper goatee and eyebrows that, whenever he became agitated, furrowed in a cartoonish V. “I didn’t have time to write a fancy speech,” he began, shooting a disdainful look at the 12 speakers who came before him, only two of whom had delivered pro-gun statements. “What I want to know is, when are you all going to start standing up for the majority?” By “the majority” he meant people like himself, “a law-abiding citizen who’s never shot anybody,” he explained in a twanging baritone, jabbing his index finger at the ceiling for effect. “It seems like every time we have one of these shootings,” he went on, his voice growing louder, “nobody wants to put the blame where it goes, which is at the shooter’s feet. You want to put it at my feet.” This would ultimately spell death for lawful gun owners once they were disarmed by the government and left at the mercy of gun-toting Crips. “Guess who’s going to be the one that suffers?” he shouted. “It’s going to be me!”

To Vaughan, the speech was a bracing, baffling four minutes that, for all the speaker’s boorish charisma, was wildly off-topic. Nobody had proposed confiscating guns — Vaughan was a gun owner herself — and canceling the show would hardly hurt firearm sales in a city that housed plenty of brick-and-mortar gun shops. But Vaughan didn’t realize that their debate and others like it had poked a hive of gun fanatics and culture warriors eager to turn Robinson’s grievance into a national rallying cry.

Robinson likely had only a vague notion of this himself. He had spent the last decade building a Facebook following of 15,000 people by putting a Black spin on the ravings of a typical terminally online Gen-X conservative. His race gave him special license to ridicule the “soft headed negroes” who thought Alton Sterling’s killing in 2016 was motivated by racism and to taunt civil-rights legend John Lewis for getting beaten by state troopers. But none of it could have prepared him for what happened after his speech. If you kept tabs on conservative media in the spring of 2018, its impact was epochal, the political equivalent of watching the dinosaur-killing asteroid hurtle into the Yucatán Peninsula. There was life before Mark Robinson, a fiery detonation, and then life after him.

Later that night, a clipped version of his speech exploded across conservative messaging apps and social-media feeds, catching even those who followed local politics closely off guard. “Before many of us knew that Robinson was from Greensboro and had spoken just up the street, he was in our inboxes, linked and headlined in screaming type,” wrote journalist Steven Doyle in a column for the Greensboro News and Record. Mark Walker, a Republican who represented Greensboro in Congress, shared the video on Facebook and racked up millions of views, which Robinson estimates helped his own following double overnight. Within the week, a private car was chauffeuring Robinson to Winston-Salem for an interview with Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade on Fox & Friends. “How can we follow you on social media,” asked Earhardt, “and will you ever run for office?” Robinson replied blushingly that he and his wife, Yolanda Hill, had discussed a bid for elected office, but for now he was focused on completing his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

That calculation began to shift after the National Rifle Association cast Robinson in a commercial featuring video from his speech. “Anyone who is concerned with holding onto the Second Amendment, I absolutely think they should join the NRA,” he said solemnly. The organization flew him to Dallas for its May convention, where President Donald Trump was a speaker. The commander-in-chief did not stop by Robinson’s green room, but Robinson flew home dazzled and started to parlay his underground celebrity into appearances where GOP voters might take notice. “I back what Mark Robinson said 100 percent,” a Hillsborough resident named Jeffrey Brenneman told the News and Record at a Second Amendment rally in July. Robinson was fêted by conservative media and gun groups so often — the World Forum on Shooting Activities flew him to Nuremberg, Germany, and gave him an award —  that he quit his job at Davis Furniture, a manufacturing plant in nearby High Point.

The more Robinson spoke, the more people seemed to want him on their ballots. “Sometimes others see more in you than you see in yourself,” he wrote in his 2022 memoir, We Are the Majority! Soon, he and Yolanda were brainstorming which elected position made the most sense for a factory worker turned keyboard warrior and ended up with lieutenant governor. “Our lieutenant governor,” explained Chris Cooper, who runs the public policy institute at Western Carolina University, “has about as much power over legislation as the cashier at the local Family Dollar.” For Robinson, a person with no experience in politics and barely any experience in leadership of any kind, it was ideal — a mostly ceremonial position where he could learn the ins and outs of state politics while keeping the media on call.

He used an online search engine to find a campaign consultant and hired the third guy listed — a 20-something up-and-comer named Conrad Pogorzelski III who agreed to get started working for free — then waded into a crowded 2020 Republican primary field. The previous year’s groundwork paid immediate dividends. Many of his opponents were more experienced, among them the superintendent of education and a state senator, but none could match the star power he had amassed through coverage from Breitbart, the Blaze, and Fox News. In March 2020, Robinson won the primary with a 32.5 percent plurality of the vote.

It was around this time that reporters started digging into Robinson’s Facebook history and unearthed a trove of such vicious invective that it made Trump look restrained. Robinson blasted The View co-host Joy Behar as a “she-beast” and Congresswoman Maxine Waters as “Ol’ ‘Maxie Pad.’” “Note to homosexuals,” he wrote, “Your homosexuality is a FILTHY ABOMINATION, that satisfies your degenerate, un-natural lust.” He mocked what he considered poor refereeing in the NFL as “‘f@g uh-hum I mean, flag football.” “The goal” of transgender people, he wrote, “is to turn God’s creation backwards, and make it into a sickening image of rebellion to glorify Satan.” The Holocaust death toll had been used, he proclaimed, to distract from deaths caused by communism, while Marvel’s Black Panther was “created by an agnostic Jew” in order “to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets.”

Lesser offenses have killed bigger candidacies, but 2020 was an unusual cycle. There were several consequential elections in North Carolina that year: MAGA edgelord Madison Cawthorn was gunning for Congress, Cal Cunningham for Thom Tillis’s U.S. Senate seat and a possible Democratic majority, Governor Roy Cooper for reelection, and Joe Biden for the Oval Office. Robinson’s race for lieutenant governor barely cracked the top five, and he flew under the radar by play-acting as an average retail politician, spending hours a day phone-banking and gladhanding. “On the campaign trail,” recalled Blake Harp, Cawthorn’s old chief of staff, “I remember walking into dinners, coffee shops, and small businesses seeing everyone wanting to shake his hand.” There was only so much his Democratic opponent, former state senator Yvonne Holley, could do to sound the alarm about their relatively low-priority contest. “That was the one race,” said Dan McCorkle, a longtime Democratic strategist, “that we, honest to goodness, weren’t thinking enough about.”

Robinson defeated Holley 52-48. While he pounded a gavel now and again in his new position, he never had to cast a tie-breaking vote in the legislature and the few meetings he took would be with much more powerful people who did not really need him. But the job had other benefits. In front of hundreds of people at a Right to Life rally in January 2021, Robinson cast his unlikely success as a biblical reckoning. “I would have been on the abortion table had it been up to them,” he bellowed. “I’m standing here as lieutenant governor today because God is that good.” In April, he announced in a Facebook video that he was considering a run for U.S. Senate in 2022 — only to delete the post an hour later without explanation.

But the extent of his ambition had become clear. Robinson sallied forth into a series of crusades so trendy and trivial that their only true objective could be higher office. He set up a glorified hotline called the FACTS Task Force where people could complain about leftist “indoctrination” in schools, then submitted an 831-page writeup of its findings to a state-senate hearing. When Democrats shrugged it off as a nonissue driven by Fox News, Robinson stormed out of the room. “An absolute insult!” he exclaimed. He was invited to Capitol Hill to testify about voter ID laws. “How absolutely preposterous,” he snorted in response to the notion that such voting requirements were racist against Black people. He gave barnstorming sermons warning against gay content in schools. “There’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth,” he boomed at a church in the rural pottery town of Seagrove. “And yes, I called it ‘filth’!” His tirades apparently started to make it into the briefings of Governor Cooper and even President Biden. “The role of a leader is to bring people together,” said White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates about Robinson, “not to spread hate and undermine their own office.”

Robinson was a natural showman. “There’s just no risk of Mark Robinson being too boring,” said Cooper, the Western Carolina professor. Each new outburst seemed specially designed to offend the prevailing sensibilities of the moment. In May 2022, just days after a gunman murdered 19 children at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Robinson spoke at an NRA convention a few hours away in Houston. Earlier that month, he had bragged of owning an AR-15 in case “the government gets too big for its britches.” He preached in June of that year  that “we are called to be led by men” rather than women, as an anxious public awaited the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. (“I am overjoyed,” he said when the decision to strip abortion rights came down.) After David DePape allegedly broke into Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home and bludgeoned her 82-year-old husband, Paul, Robinson posted a photo of a Halloween costume on Facebook of a man brandishing a hammer. “I’m sorry Paul,” he captioned the image, “I don’t believe you or the press!!!!”

When Robinson finally announced in April 2023 that he was running to succeed the term-limited Cooper this November, thus becoming the instant and prohibitive front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, it had been the worst-kept secret in state politics for more than a year. The news thrilled the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, which saw Robinson’s viciousness as a marker of authenticity and adopted him as their Great Black Hope. “Watching the lieutenant governor come out of nowhere was nothing short of spectacular,” said Harp. But as soon as he started facing the heightened scrutiny that comes with a gubernatorial run, his inner circle started hiding him from it. His flak, Michael Lonergan, told me repeatedly that he would not be made available for an interview. “You could always read his book,” suggested his wife, Yolanda, when I reached her over the phone, while his best friend, political allies, and former workplace acquaintances did not respond to several requests to speak with me. This reduced exposure has not harmed him politically. Robinson refused to debate his opponents in the gubernatorial primary — “like boxing a shadow” is how one adversary, State Treasurer Dale Folwell, described the experience — yet handily defeated his more Establishment-friendly rivals by running as a proudly inexperienced folk hero of the unbought MAGA right. In March of this year, shortly before Robinson ran away with a dominant 64.8 percent of the primary vote, he snagged a gushing endorsement from Trump — “You’re better than Martin Luther King” — and will face Democratic attorney general Josh Stein in the general election on November 5.

Thus, at the exact moment when Robinson’s personal views and political decisions are poised to have the most serious consequences for everyday people in North Carolina — a moment when he is vying to govern the one of the fastest-growing purple states on an increasingly red-or-blue electoral map — he is becoming less accessible and less transparent. Some things we know: He spawned from the same murky depths of social media where Fox News checks its pulse, making him the rare Facebook grandpa who made good. We know he is an exceptionally underqualified public servant, even by today’s standards, an emblem of the Republican Party’s desperation to recruit Black spokesmen. We know he is one of the legitimate would-be heirs to whatever Trumpism-after-Trump looks like, and at a time when Black male voters appear to be drifting rightward. We have heard he came out of nowhere in the proverbial sense, but “nowhere” is not a place. In America in 2024, it is where Trump draws much of his strength: a spiritual outpost of the aggrieved, the disaffected, the tear-it-all-down.

Mark Keith Robinson was born on August 18, 1968, the second-youngest of his mother’s ten children and one of five she had with his father, an alcoholic carpenter. When Robinson was 1 year old, his father struck his mother with the butt of a gun, so she called the cops and ran away to her mother’s house for protection. Robinson’s father was thrown in jail while he and his siblings lived in foster homes for five months. Then his parents reconciled, and the beatings resumed inside their claustrophobic red house on Logan Street, on Greensboro’s Black east side. The abuse was routine and paralyzing — Robinson never felt like he could intervene because he was a child, and his dad’s authority was absolute.

Their home was infested with rats, he wrote on Facebook, and he bought groceries using food stamps, which some of the richer kids taunted him for at school. The sting lasted into adulthood; one tormentor ended up working a concession stand at an event where he was campaigning. “I had to remind myself that this woman was now fully grown,” he wrote in his memoir. He ate frequently at the F.W. Woolworth’s on South Elm Street where, in 1960, four students from nearby North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black institution, launched what became known as the sit-in movement by dining at the then-segregated lunch counter, enduring torrents of abuse until the proprietors agreed to integrate. Robinson has said he knew nothing about this fractious history in his youth.

Robinson’s childhood home in Greensboro.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Youtube

In 1979, he seems to only have been vaguely aware of another racial dustup that happened after an undercover federal agent caught wind that white supremacists were planning to attack communists at a planned anti-Klan march. The police did nothing to prevent the violence and five people died — a tragedy, Robinson later decided, because the most “amoral people in the American political arena” had tried to involve Black locals. He was talking about the communists.

When Robinson was a preteen, his father died of what his family believes was cirrhosis. The upheaval was liberating, but also a little scary. Robinson’s father was so jealous he did not allow his wife to attend church for fear she would meet another man, so church is precisely where she started taking her children after his death. St. Stephen United Church of Christ abuts a sprawling lawn across from a public-housing project within walking distance from the family’s little red house. There, Robinson met some of his earliest role models: a former A&T professor who became like a surrogate father to him, a tall ex-Marine whom he idolized, and the austere-looking pastor with the black mustache, George Gay.

His mother also had to work for the first time, and a friend hooked her up with a custodian gig at A&T across from the home on Dudley Street they were renting. As a teenager at Grimsley High School, Robinson looked up to Vietnam War veterans and TV cowboys and relished the shiny brass buttons on his JROTC uniform. But his seven-year stint in the U.S. Army Reserve, including training as a field medic, proved a debacle. “I don’t want to go,” he bluntly announced to his recruiting officer, when he was already set to join the Army. He soon enrolled at A&T, a move he did not feel ready for. “I could see great things around me,” he wrote years later on Facebook, “but they never seemed to be FOR me.” He dropped out of college after one semester, got a job at Sbarro, met Yolanda through a friend, and in 1989 she became pregnant. Like many struggling couples in the decades between Roe and Dobbs, they felt unprepared to become parents and were able to postpone that responsibility by having an abortion. They got married soon after, and by the early 1990s had two children, Dayson (named after Robinson’s father) and a daughter, Kim. Robinson bounced from job to job, often on the floor of local furniture-manufacturing plants, and settled into what seemed bound to be a life of fitfully employed anonymity.

Robinson credits his political awakening to reading Rush Limbaugh’s 1992 book The Way Things Ought to Be, which made him realize that he had been a conservative “since I was a child,” he claimed in a Facebook remembrance video he made after Limbaugh died in 2021. He had assumed Limbaugh was racist because that is how pundits characterized him, but he realized that they in fact believed the same things. What attracted him most to conservatism was how it rejected “woe-is-me” accounts of Black history and instead insisted on seeing Black people as winners of the American lottery. (Look how far we have come!) This seems to have seeded within Robinson an abiding scorn for the welfare state and any talk of reparations. “Rise up and take hold of your freedom,” he wrote on Facebook, “not someone else’s money.”

His own problems with money were exceptions to this rule. Around the time he read Limbaugh, Robinson’s job at a local furniture plant dried up and he switched to an $8-an-hour gig at Papa John’s. He made general manager, then left for an aviation company, but couldn’t avoid calamity: He went bankrupt in 1998 and 1999. Filing for bankruptcy offered him and Yolanda much-needed relief as they clawed toward a balanced checkbook — a fresh start on their finances sponsored by Uncle Sam. Yolanda seemed to rescue them for good when she opened a day care in 2000. But within three years, that company, which Robinson quit his aviation job to work for, also went bankrupt, and the bank foreclosed on their house.

“I call this our ‘time in the wilderness,’” Robinson writes in his memoir. During times of stress, he coped by retreating into childhood comforts. Professional wrestling was an area of rare accord in his family growing up, and he still unwinds after long days at the General Assembly by watching old highlights on YouTube. But his greatest love was trains — not just model locomotives, which he collected avidly, but the real-life hunks of metal that barrel along America’s 140,000 miles of track. The vastness of this network gave Robinson plentiful opportunities to indulge a borderline-Freudian childhood obsession. In his memoir, he writes at length about lying on the tracks in front of oncoming trains as a child, surrounded by “oil and grease spatter,” and becoming enveloped in their “creosote-and-steel odor” as they screamed overhead. “I sighed in a long ‘ah,’ as adrenaline coursed through me.”

One time in high school, Robinson was lagging behind some JROTC buddies as they crossed a series of tracks when he suddenly stopped in front of what he thought was an approaching freight train. His friends shouted for him to move, which by luck he did at the last second — it turned out to be an Amtrak passenger train, which, according to Robinson, at 70 miles per hour traveled much faster than freight. He heard his friends scream in horror and realized they thought he was dead, so he hid in a nearby drainage ditch, then jumped out as they rushed over to inspect what they assumed would be his mangled corpse. They did not think it was funny, but the anecdote illustrated what Robinson felt was a laudable trait in himself — ”the desire to take chances.” His relationship with trains is slightly less torrid nowadays. “I call trains ‘big dirties,’ because they are,” he writes. “They’re big, dirty pieces of equipment.” In his spare time, the lieutenant governor cruises around Guilford County looking for locomotives to follow, and when he spots one begins stalking and talking to it. “There he is right there,” he will say. “There’s a big dirty, and he’s trying to hide from me, but I see him.”

His darker idiosyncrasies found a more natural home on Facebook, which he joined in 2007. His initial posts were about professional wrestling, but his political provocations got more attention. In 2009, he spoke at a Greensboro city-council meeting for the first time when officials were debating whether to apologize for the 1979 Greensboro massacre. Robinson argued that “the city is already healed,” because the mayor at the time was a Black woman. He started making memes, which often featured his own glowering visage engaging in imaginary arguments against politicians, and developed an ostentatious style that mixed evangelical moralizing with the insolence of a wrestling heel. “The problem is not our low unemployment numbers,” he wrote in a characteristic response to a statement by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about the economy. “The problem is your low IQ.”

His career stabilized after he successfully applied to Davis Furniture around 2015, and Facebook became a second home — in equal parts a testing ground for his conservative zingers and a steady drip of validation. Part of Robinson’s appeal was his knack for slaughtering sacred cows around race. He reserved particular ire for the civil-rights movement, despite the fact that his hometown of Greensboro — with its history of sit-ins, student protests, and visits from Martin Luther King Jr. — had served as the movement’s cradle. Near Robinson’s old neighborhood, its legacy is memorialized everywhere you look. The Woolworth’s lunch counter has been preserved as the main exhibit of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The likenesses of the four A&T students who led the sit-ins grace the mural outside the Windsor Community Recreation Center, where Robinson played as a child.

By contrast, Robinson himself — the state’s first Black lieutenant governor — is regarded as an aberration from this history. “He is a tragic mistake,” said Reverend Nelson Johnson, a survivor of the Greensboro massacre of 1979. The feeling is mutual. On Facebook in 2017, Robinson characterized Black people who believe in collective struggle as suckers. “Maybe they should try God, family, and country,” he sneered. “So many freedoms were lost” to the “so-called civil-rights movement,” he claimed on a podcast in 2018, explaining that integration was a ploy to subvert the free market and arguing that if Woolworth’s refused to feed Black customers they should have simply taken their business elsewhere.

He has come to believe instead that the greatest civil-rights issue of our time is abortion. “It is quite possible,” he wrote in 2019, “that the cure for cancer was in the mind of a child that was aborted.” Abortion looms large in Robinson’s self-conception in no small part because he regrets having paid for one. “No one is perfect,” he admitted in a self-exonerating video, “but no one is too far gone to be saved.” That belief in his own capacity for personal salvation is informed by Robinson’s faith, Evangelical Christianity, which he embraced even as he continued attending the church where his mother raised him. The relationship proved untenable — the denomination to which St. Stephen belongs, the United Church of Christ, was born out of a “social gospel” tradition that seeks to improve real world conditions like poverty and inequality. In the early 1960s, St. Stephen housed Freedom Riders on their journey through the South, while today the church is openly supportive of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. In the years after his pastor retired, Robinson pulled his family out of its longtime congregation, a move he glossed over in his memoir with an unceremonious parting shot. “The direction of the church started going sideways when the pastor I grew up with, Dr. George Gay, retired,” Robinson wrote of his decision to leave for “more spiritually nurturing pastures.” “They just stopped coming,” recalled Eric Griffin, the current pastor of St. Stephen.

Short shrift though he may have given it in the book, Robinson’s departure from St. Stephen was a moment that crystallized one of the dominant themes of his life: loss. He had lost any semblance of a normal childhood to abuse, his father to alcoholism, a job to corporate downsizing, a house to foreclosure, financial independence to three bankruptcies. “Living in that house and in poverty,” he wrote, “I learned more than I ever could have in a private school or on a private jet going to Europe.” But this seems like a forced effort to squeeze his complicated, difficult life into a neat, Horatio Alger–like fable that validated his conservative worldview. In reality, his fuming, impulsive decision to clock out from work and drive to City Hall on April 3, 2018, saved Robinson from a lifetime of losing.

Kristie Puckett, a Black progressive lobbyist who was working for the ACLU around the time that Robinson ascended to the lieutenant governorship, caught Robinson outside the Assembly one day and asked for his thoughts on education reform. “He is not smart,” she told me. “He can’t dig deeply into a subject.” She recalled him seeming shocked that she treated him like a normal politician instead of an enemy combatant. He was also disarmingly polite in his confusion, a far cry from the rabble-rouser people see on TV, but he was undoubtedly sincere. “He’s not shucking and jiving,” Puckett said. “He believes this stuff.”

If Robinson has any hope with Black voters, with whom he is presumed to have unusual affinity for a Republican, it will probably come from Black apathy toward the alternatives they are being offered. Josh Stein, Robinson’s white Democratic opponent, is the state’s top law-enforcement official, not exactly an enticing prospect for voters who have become the focal point of this election: those who are politically disengaged, skeptical of the system as a whole, and on the fence between Biden and Trump. Puckett is bullish about Robinson’s odds. “I think he is going to win,” she said. “Hell, some of the stuff Mark Robinson say, Black people in my family say.” North Carolina is now a tantalizing test case for a post-2020 social order in which Black men are voting at higher rates for Trump than they had in 2016. The Republican strategy in the state seems straightforward: peel off enough Black male votes, or get enough of them to stay home, to nudge the race into Robinson’s column — far from unrealistic when facing a roughly 50-50 Democrat-Republican electorate and a 30 percent-plus plurality of “unaffiliated” voters who compose a persuadable middle.

Robinson has used his largely ceremonial post as lieutenant governor to raise his profile.
Photo: Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP

Early statewide polls show Robinson with a narrow advantage, though history is not on his side. It is a poorly understood reality outside North Carolina that even though Republicans control most statewide offices, and the state itself hasn’t elected a Democrat president since Obama in 2008, the GOP has won only a single governor’s race since 1988. A bipartisan chorus of naysayers see a brewing disaster for Robinson and the Republicans. “I think this year was the last opportunity to elect a Republican governor in my lifetime,” said Dale Folwell, the Republican state treasurer who lost to Robinson in the primary. Folwell recalled once trying to gauge his new colleague’s interest in actually governing. “Those are hours of the day I could never get back,” he said of his meeting with Robinson. “No notes, folds his arms. Occasionally he picks up his phones, probably bidding on model trains.”

State Republicans are still haunted by the ghost of Pat McCrory, the lone GOP governor of the last three decades and the national face of HB2, the so-called “trans bathroom bill” in 2016 that restricted local anti-discrimination policies, and barred people from using restrooms in government buildings that did not correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. Musicians canceled their shows in protest, the NBA relocated its All-Star Game, and NCAA basketball pulled almost two dozen championships, all causing acute suffering for North Carolina’s economy. And McCrory was a dove compared to Robinson, whom many fear will usher in a darker night of pariah statehood. “We just had the prime minister of Japan into North Carolina on a major business trip,” said Robert Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice. “You want Mark Robinson being his host?”

Democratic strategists are licking their chops. “Robinson’s brand of extremism,” said Morgan Jackson, who is the chief political adviser for Josh Stein’s campaign, “is basically like spraying bug repellant on the swing voters in suburban North Carolina.” The most recent midterms confirmed that Black Americans still vote Democratic at higher rates than any other racial group. Some politicos even foresee him becoming a drag on Trump’s odds at a time when Biden’s approval ratings are underwater and North Carolina should be a lock for Republicans. “I’m of the firm opinion,” said Paul Shumaker, a longtime GOP strategist, “that Donald Trump will un-endorse Mark Robinson by the time we get to Labor Day.”

On a Friday afternoon in April, I visited Robinson’s old church, St. Stephen, an aging structure shaded in earthy browns, and toured its empty, dimly lit halls with Pastor Griffin, George Gay’s successor who has led the congregation since 1997. Toward the end of Gay’s tenure, Griffin told me, the coalition of southern churches that St. Stephen belonged to was roiled by disagreement over whether to allow gay and lesbian people to marry or get ordained as ministers. “Dr. Gay lost some people he considered to be friends,” Griffin said of the late pastor’s support for their cause. St. Stephen was, in other words, a church like any other navigating this increasingly secular age — wrestling with how to balance tradition with modernity, biblical certitude with the ambiguities of real life. And walking its halls, it was evident that Robinson’s dramatic rise over the last six years was not simply that of an opportunist who had traded the sacred (the birthright of the civil-rights movement) for the profane (riding a wave of rancor to personal glory). It was the story of a man adrift who responded to a life of fear and loss with unyielding certainty.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the communities he chose to forsake. A few months after Robinson was elected, a Greensboro-based faith leader named C.J. Brinson was attending his 5-year-old son’s soccer game when he spotted the lieutenant governor alongside the pitch. Brinson and Robinson had grown up on the same side of Greensboro and both had addicts for fathers, though Brinson is about 20 years younger. As a student at North Carolina A&T, Brinson had been tapped to train as a community organizer at the Beloved Community Center, a local activist hub led by survivors of the 1979 massacre, and he now organizes rural and working-class North Carolinians around progressive causes.

Robinson’s grandson was on the same soccer team as Brinson’s son. “I just told him what I do,” Brinson said. “He said, ‘We should talk.’” It was an unexpectedly cordial exchange, given their opposing beliefs and Robinson’s firebrand reputation, and Brinson, realizing he was in the presence of Black history, snapped a selfie. “That was the extent of it,” Brinson told me, and they went back to watching the game. Not long after, Robinson visited Raleigh’s Upper Room Church of God in Christ, which Brinson described to me as the most radically conservative Black church in the state. “Ain’t but two genders!” Robinson bellowed from the pulpit. “If there’s a movement in this country that is demonic, and that is full of the spirit of Antichrist, it is the transgender movement!” It was the sort of moment that made Brinson think of the photo they had taken. “There’s no way I’ll ever post this,” he said.

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