The politician I speak of is, of course, George Corley Wallace.
As I write these words, President Donald Trump is bungling the worst crisis of his presidency, and of our era. He is failing to promulgate any kind of coherent strategy to cope with the coronavirus; he is maundering senselessly about injecting disinfectants into people; firm majorities of the public disapprove of and distrust his handling of the pandemic. Yet despite all of that and more, he is solid with Republicans and is likely to get at least 45 percent of the two-party vote in November. Some of his supporters, of course, will back him because of who he is not (a Democrat), but many will back him because of who he is—or, rather, who he emulates.
“We can foresee that unless something changes in American political culture and civil life,” says Dan Carter, a historian and Wallace biographer, “we’re doomed to deal with Trumps, whether they’re this Donald Trump or future Donald Trumps, for the next generation.” Thank George Wallace for that.
Wallace, a four-time presidential candidate and longtime governor of Alabama (both on his own account and with his wife serving as his surrogate), made his national name as an outspoken segregationist in the early 1960s. But, like Trump, he was more an opportunist than an ideologue, embracing segregation only after losing a 1958 gubernatorial race to a segregationist and vowing, infamously, to “never be out-niggered again.” His first presidential campaign, as a Democrat in 1964, fizzled when Barry Goldwater entered the race. In 1968 Wallace ran again. The Democratic establishment had sidelined him, so he ran under the banner of his own American Independent Party and won an impressive 13.5 percent of the popular vote.
In 1972, with the help of new rules that weakened party insiders’ grip on the nominating process, he tried again, this time as a Democrat. He had five primary wins under his belt (including Michigan) and was ahead in the popular vote and the delegate count when, in May at a campaign rally, a would-be assassin’s bullet took him out of the race. Undeterred, he made yet another run in 1976, alarming Democratic insiders who saw him as toxic to the party’s base and a sure loser to President Gerald Ford. By clearing the field for Jimmy Carter to defeat him in Florida, they managed to block him (in the process boosting Carter to the White House).
That was Wallace’s last race, but his politics and constituency, once organized, have proved durable. His message and style resemble Trump’s in so many respects that listing them all is a challenge. True, there are differences. Wallace, unlike Trump, was a genuine populist who hated rich people. He didn’t talk about immigration and trade, which were not big issues in his day, and he was a Vietnam hawk rather than an opponent of what Trump calls “forever wars.” But the similarities are much more numerous and striking.
Like Trump, Wallace knew that fear is the demagogue’s friend. He jabbed at what Trump would later call “American carnage” hard and often, decrying “the breakdown of law and order” and blaming it on elites and what today we call political correctness. “You can’t talk about law and order unless they want to call you a racist. I tell you that’s not true and I resent it and they gonna have to pay attention!”
Both parties’ establishments, he claimed, micromanage everyone’s life and hold ordinary people in contempt. “They wanna tell you how to do, and those that write guidelines, some of ’em have pointed heads and can’t even park a bicycle straight,” he said. “They’ve looked down their noses at the average man on the street too long. They’ve looked down at the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker.”
Ordinary politicians might knuckle under to the establishment and conventional wisdom, but not him, not ever! The voters, he said, wanted “men with backbone who do not go kowtowing off to our enemies in a show of spineless weakness.” He was not above accusing anti-war opponents of treason and toying winkingly with violence, hinting (according to Dan Carter) that he might shoot protesters and mow down liberals with his limousine.
Did highfalutin editorial writers call him dangerous or sick? “I tell you who’s sick. It’s some of the leadership in this country that’s sick.” Was he called a bigot? “When they say you and me are racist and a hate-monger and a fascist, it’s because they can’t logically argue against the position we take. And so they write us off.”
And was he outrageous? Good! In a world of double-talk and hypocrisy, he was the only straight shooter. “I say we ought to be honest with people, and that’s the reason I believe that people of all races are eventually gonna support this movement, because they’d rather have somebody honest talking.”
Whether running as a Democrat or an independent, Wallace promised, above all, defiance. He and his followers would “shake the eyeteeth of the liberals in both national parties.” (In those days, liberal Republicans still existed; but to Wallace’s constituency, the whole establishment was liberal.) And, he told his followers, they could win even without a majority. “Not that we don’t have a majority viewpoint, but it is a political fact that you can win on less than a majority.” Donald Trump would later prove Wallace right, first in the 2016 Republican primaries and then in the general election.