George Wallace Tapped Into Racial Fear. Decades Later, Its Force Remains Potent.
President Trump has used us-versus-them rhetoric to appeal to voters who are fed up with the status quo. We look at another politician who tapped into America’s divisions decades ago: George Wallace.
Separated by as much as half a century, the two men's public lives run strikingly parallel. It's as if they drank from the same political cup: George C. Wallace, the Alabama governor who ached to become president, and Donald J. Trump, the developer and showman who made it to the top. They are bound by their streaks of opportunism and by their campaigns tailored to resentful voters brimming with the conviction that society's deck is stacked against them.
“What both share is the demagogue's instinctive ability to tap into the fear and anger that regularly erupts in American politics,” Dan T. Carter, a historian and Wallace biographer, wrote in The New York Times during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Retro Report, a collection of video documentaries examining major news stories of the past and their enduring impact, begins a new series with a look at the rise and fall of Mr. Wallace, a four-time governor and three-time presidential candidate who embodied the populist conservatism now associated with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Wallace is probably best remembered for his fierce opposition to racial integration. Having lost a campaign for governor in 1958 with relatively tolerant views on race, he vowed not to be outdone on that score ever again. In January 1963, delivering his first inaugural address, he pledged to protect “the great Anglo-Saxon Southland” with this battle cry: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” Five months later, in an exercise that was more stagecraft than true resistance, he made a futile “stand in the schoolhouse door” to keep two black students from enrolling in the University of Alabama.
But his appeal for many white working-class men and women extended beyond Alabama's borders and even beyond matters of race. When he ran for president — briefly in 1964, more substantially in 1968, 1972 and 1976 — he found ready support among white ethnic groups in the industrial Midwest, which even then were wilting economically as factories closed and populations migrated south and west. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the very region that gave Mr. Trump his surprising triumph in 2016.
The two men fired up crowds in similar fashion. Both appealed to “forgotten” Americans, stoking fear and loathing of “the other” — blacks in Mr. Wallace's case, immigrants in Mr. Trump's (though he also has had race cards up his sleeve, as with his embrace of “birtherism” to discredit President Barack Obama). The message from both was that a nefarious other, enabled by a bumbling government, was stealing work and wealth from upright Americans.
“Wallace understood that there were people who were hurting, struggling, losing jobs,” B. Drummond Ayres Jr., who long covered the South for The Times, told Retro Report. “He tapped into that and appealed to that, because folks that are struggling often feel put upon.”
The similarities between then and now are unmistakable.
Mr. Wallace demonized the federal government as an oppressor trampling on states’ rights. Mr. Trump and his ardent supporters denounce Washington as “the swamp” and its bureaucracy as a malevolent “deep state.” Mr. Wallace told listeners in 1968 that they had been treated like “a doormat long enough.” Mr. Trump said when he declared his candidacy that the United States had become “a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”
Mr. Wallace sneered at the press, often singling out The Times for special scorn. Mr. Trump can hardly pass up a Twitter opportunity to rail about “fake news,” especially in the “failing” Times. He has gone so far as to call the news media in general an “enemy of the American people.”
In speeches, both took delight in belittling people. Mr. Wallace made rhetorical pin cushions of “pointy-head college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.” At one of his rallies, he called out to a longhaired male protester, “Oh, I thought you were a she.” Mr. Trump has yet to meet a demeaning adjective he doesn’t like, with his “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Liddle Bob Corker” and other insults.
Both exhorted audiences to get physically rough with hecklers. Both called for certain malefactors to be put to death. “Bam, shoot ’em dead on the spot!” Mr. Wallace said in 1968, referring to those rioting in America’s cities. Last month, Mr. Trump said drug dealers should be executed. The two men even had similar speech mannerisms, often saying the exact same sentence twice in rapid succession.
For a time, a George Wallace presidency was not an outlandish notion. He ran well on the American Independent Party ticket in 1968, capturing 13.5 percent of the popular vote and the 45 electoral votes of five southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi — plus a “faithless elector” in North Carolina, a state won by Richard M. Nixon.
In 1972, Mr. Wallace seemed to have the wind at his back in pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination, until he was gravely wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullets at a campaign stop in Maryland. From then on, his was a life in a wheelchair and in constant pain. (The gunman, Arthur Bremer, now 67, served 35 years of a 53-year prison sentence and was paroled in 2007.)
Mr. Wallace had one more presidential race in him, in 1976, but he quickly faded. Six years later, he was elected Alabama governor for a fourth time. But long before then, he cast himself as a changed, even chastened, man on race relations.
In 1973, he crowned the University of Alabama’s first black homecoming queen, Terry Points. More substantively, he began speaking remorsefully about his race-baiting past — how wrong it was and how sorry he was. In 1979, he went to a church in Montgomery, Ala., where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had once been pastor. There, he spoke of having learned the meaning of suffering. “I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure,” he said. “I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.”
African-Americans in Alabama granted him redemption. They voted for him in large numbers in his final runs for governor. After he died in 1998 at age 79, Representative John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights era, wrote in The Times that “George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change.”
Even so, questions linger about the genuineness of his personal road to Damascus. After all, as time passed, he needed to appeal to Alabama’s expanding black electorate if he hoped for political survival. “Only the good Lord knows whether or not he was sincere,” Mr. Ayres said.
But at least Mr. Wallace, once a great divider, had the capacity to say “I’m sorry.” For all their oratorical similarities, that is where he and Mr. Trump notably diverge. “I’m sorry.” Those are two words conspicuously missing from the Trump lexicon.
CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.