Donald Trump is the second coming of George Wallace

Before there was Donald, there was a populist from Alabama who decided that segregation was his ticket to victory

Published December 8, 2015 10:57AM (EST)


Bigoted statements made by Donald Trump have seemingly distilled the worst of this country into one very loud man. Understandably, his complaints about American jobs being moved abroad, his (sure, somewhat empty) call to close tax loopholes benefiting hedge fund managers, and his defense of Medicare and Social Security get less attention.

“China is ripping us off and abusing us because we have leaders that don't know what they're doing, and the new trade pact is a disaster because they don't talk about currency manipulation,” said Trump, railing against Obama and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As for Paul Ryan, Trump complained that the new Speaker of the House has “been so anti-Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.”

Traditional economic conservatives are aghast that someone holding such views—someone who has spoken favorably of single-payer health insurance!—is the leading Republican candidate. The Club for Growth released advertisements attacking Trump. Its president declared that he “has the worst record of the entire field with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders on economic growth policies.”

And Bernie Sanders is a socialist!

For certain Republicans, particularly the many downwardly-mobile white people who support him, Trump is the ideal candidate precisely because his bigotry and economic populism are deeply intertwined. And it all has deep roots in 20th-century American liberalism's core contradictions: its inability, failure and unwillingness to successfully combine economic democracy and racial egalitarianism, which was all compounded by its role in substituting big finance for factories.

The New Deal did a lot of great things for many workers, marshaling government spending and wartime production to create jobs, lower unemployment and support union organizing. Meanwhile, a host of government programs subsidized those workers buying homes, including in the new suburbs rising outside American cities. But black workers, millions of whom made their way from Jim Crow South to the North, Midwest, and West, were systematically denied access to many good union jobs. As a matter of policy, they were shut out of green suburbs and into overcrowded ghettos.

President Roosevelt's appeasement of Southern segregationists was critical to securing the passage of New Deal legislation. It showed. The National Labor Relations Act excluded heavily-black domestic and farm labor. So did the Social Security Act. In the 1950s and '60s, the black freedom movement began to force the Democratic Party to embrace civil rights. It was too late, however, to broaden a New Deal Coalition that had always excluded black people from its full promise. The coalition began to fracture, and collapse.

White Southern Democrats mounted a segregationist Dixiecrat run for the White House in 1948, and later migrated to a Republican Party increasingly hostile to civil rights. The reaction, however, was not a regional phenomenon. In the North, the very white working and middle class people lifted up by the New Deal terrorized black families when they tried to move into their neighborhoods.

Whites increasingly flocked to conservative and right-wing candidates who blamed government for their problems. One such candidate was Richard Nixon, who successfully crafted a message that appealed to a wide swath of angry white people, from brazen Jim Crow supporters to the anti-busing suburbanites who upheld a purportedly colorblind meritocracy.

But it was segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace who threatened to deny Nixon the presidency in 1968 and who personified the grassroots vehemence amongst a swath of working-class white voters—voters who, despite their growing hatred of liberalism, never became entirely comfortable with country club Republicans. Protesters frequently interrupted his rallies and called Wallace to a Nazi. He mocked them as effeminate hippies. He promised strength that would deliver immediate safety, and prison for subversives. Wallace flattered the everyman sensibilities of his supporters. His message, like Trump's, resonates.

"If we were President today, you wouldn't get stabbed or raped in the shadow of the White House, even if we had to call out 30,000 troops and equip them with two-foot-long bayonets and station them every few feet apart,” said Wallace. "If you walk out of this hotel tonight and someone knocks you on the head, he'll be out of jail before you're out of the hospital, and on Monday morning, they'll try the policeman instead of the criminal."

* * *

In 1963, Wallace, a onetime New Deal Democrat and somewhat-racial moderate, had taken office as governor of Alabama pledging massive resistance to federal integration: “I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”

Wallace was the consummate opportunist, adopting to whatever message suited the political moment. After running a straightfowardly economic populist campaign for governor in 1958 and losing to a hardcore segregationist, he reportedly told an aide: “I was out-n***ered, and I will never be out-n***ered again."

In 1968, Wallace mounted a third-party campaign for the presidency. (In 1964, he had run as a Democrat.) It was no longer so much that white and black children will never go to school together. Instead, he clarified that the dictatorial federal government shouldn't make them do so. And so “Stand up for Alabama” became “Stand up for America,” and a neo-Confederate white supremacist message adapted to an all-American jingoism.

“Everybody knew where he stood on race,” says historian Dan Carter. “He didn't have to talk that much about race,” because he used euphemisms like “thug” instead. “Privately the n-word was about every other sentence, according to people who knew him well.”

“The New York Times calls me a racist,” protested Wallace, whose state troopers had just a few years prior viciously beaten protesters in Selma. “Well, it's a sad come-off when you can't favor law and order without somebody asking if you're a racist.”

One Wallace campaign ad celebrated his followers as opponents of school busing, supporters of a law-and-order crackdown on rampant crime and riots and, in a combination of wartime jingoism and economic populism, people who were angry to watch their “hard earned tax dollars sail away to anti-American countries.”

"Look America,” another commercial intoned over footage of a burning town or city. “Take a good look. This was done by anarchists. Revoluionaries. The molotov cocktail set. Ask yourself, why are the anti-American, anti-God anarchists also violently anti-Wallace? Wanta' get rid of them? Then don't waste your vote on those who encourage the sit ins and illegal marches. Vote for a law-abiding, God-fearing America. It takes courage. Wallace has it. Do you?”

Wallace viciously, and pretty devastatingly, mocked hypocritical liberal politicians in Congress for preaching integration but refusing to send their children to D.C. public schools and living in the white suburbs. He complained that a “pseudo-intellectual government” and their allies in academia and media were “looking down their noses at the average man on the street, the glassworker, the steelworker, the autoworker, and the textile worker, the farmer, the policeman, the beautician and the barber, and the little businessman, saying to him that you do not know how to get up in the morning, or go to bed at night, unless we write you a guideline.”

Workers who backed Wallace, however, were not hostile to workers rights.

“The president of the local John Birch Society and the president of the local trade union can sit down side by side at a Wallace rally and each find something to cheer,” Alabama journalist Ray Jenkins wrote in the New York Times Magazine. “Wallace speaks of Senator Barry Goldwater as 'a good man, but a poor candidate. He didn't have the massive support that we have among the working people!'”

“He seldom attacked basic social welfare legislation except for poor people,” says Carter. “Welfare he was constantly harping on but he was a great defender of Social Security, unemployment compensation. He seldom attacked labor unions—in fact, almost never.”

But it was the image of the white working class man, rather than his more economically populist policies, that became the centerpiece of Wallace's campaigns. The New Deal delivered many white working class people into the middle class. But as the Vietnam War ground on, growth slowed, and cities spun into crisis. That white vanguard of the 1930s revolution was now primed for conservative reaction.

* * *

On the eve of the crises that would define the 1970s, prosperity remained the starting point for American politics. But even then, economic dislocation and anxiety were rising. And the many poor white people left behind by the post-war boom were still poor—and they certainly didn't feel privileged.

Manufacturing workers' real wages fell by 82 cents an hour between 1965 and 1969, according to historian Judith Stein. Detroit, historian Tom Sugrue recounts, lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs between 1947 and 1963 as factories were relocated to the suburbs and beyond.

In Detroit, where whites had spent years fighting to keep black people out of their neighborhoods, the economy was unraveling. And Wallace found a receptive audience.

In 1968, he received support from a Flint United Auto Workers local, and won a straw poll amongst workers at Ford's River Rouge plant. According to Sugrue, polls showed that Wallace voters tended to be more pessimistic about the economy than others. In 1972, when he ran as a Democrat, Wallace won the Michigan primary, “sweeping every predominately white ward in Detroit.”

Wallace's campaign pivoted on the distinction between a noble and hard-working white laborer and a lazy and criminal black underclass abetted by enabling liberal elites.

"But some psychologist says, 'Well, he's not to blame—society's to blame,” Wallace recounted at a rally, according to Jenkins. “His father didn't take him to see the Pittsburgh Pirates when he was a little boy.' Well, I was raised in a house that didn't even have an indoor toilet. My mama couldn't even buy me a dollar and fifteen cent cowboy suit that I saw in the Sears, Roebuck window. But I didn't go and bust the window out to get it.”

Wallace was a strong man and, literally, a pugilist: he won two Golden Gloves in high school. Soldiers and police were the archetypal noble worker, laboring not only to put food on the table but risking their lives to preserve safety and freedom for everyone else—including the ungratefrul “bearded professor who thinks he knows how to settle the Vietnam war when he hasn't got sense enough to park a bicycle straight."

In 1968, Wallace chose former Air Force chief of staff Curtis E. LeMay as his running mate, an unhinged militarist who had proposed using nuclear weapons to end the Vietnam War if necessary: "We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons," LeMay complained, as Wallace introduced him at a press conference.

To the people most compelled by Wallace's message, black rioters, anti-war radicals and an international communist conspiracy, with the aid of liberal elites and a Supreme Court hostile to police, was bent on destruction of their way of life.

As the Democratic Party fractured over race and the Vietnam war, Wallace took a wealth of grievances and threats, domestic and foreign, and morphed them into one political movement. Those workers didn't go away. In the years that followed, Democrats like Jimmy Carter and later, Bill Clinton, abetted deindustrialization, and helped deliver more of those white workers to the Republican Party.

Wallace, like Trump, is not appealing to the well-to-do libertarians who made up much of the Tea Party movement. Rather, they are nostalgic, ironically, for the pre-Civil Rights, New Deal and World War II era Democratic Party. The economic crisis dictates that populism will define the future of American politics, whether it be Bernie Sanders' inclusive, socialist version or Trump's racist, exclusionary brand.

Today, Trump brags about his stamina, warns of the danger posed by strange outsiders, pledges to waterboard terrorists, and suggests that he might impose police state surveillance on American Muslims.

He has the causes all wrong. But his supporters know he is right when he says it: “We don’t win anymore.” Most Americans certainly don't.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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Donald Trump George Wallace History Racism Segregation White Supremacy