Politics & Policy

Our George Wallace

George Wallace in 1968 (Marion Trikosko/Library of Congress)

George Wallace knew how to handle the hecklers who routinely disrupted his events. “These are the folks,” he declared at a rally in 1968, “that people like us are sick and tired of. You’ve been getting a good lesson in what we’ve been talking about. They talk about free speech but won’t allow it to others.”

Wallace knew the protesters were priceless to him in stoking passions and drawing media attention. “They on our payroll,” he joked.

George Wallace had unsurpassed skills as a popular agitator, but even he would have to admire how Donald Trump parlayed a canceled Chicago event where supporters and protesters shoved and punched one another into wall-to-wall media coverage and an advertisement for his alleged stalwartness against the forces of anarchy.

Trump bears a striking resemblance to Wallace, another entertaining, anti-establishment bomb-thrower who became — to the shock of respectable people — a kind of tribune of the American working class. For all his ugliness, Trump isn’t, like Wallace, a segregationist fueled by his opposition to civil-rights legislation and federal power. But he is a voice of rough-hewn populism that hasn’t had such potent expression since the Alabama governor ran for president, finding more support than anyone thought possible. (Stephan Lesher’s biography, George Wallace: American Populist, is the source for much of what follows.)

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Like Trump, the Alabaman was hated by his own party’s establishment, and widely discounted by political observers until his strength in 1968 as a third-party candidate became undeniable.

He drew enormous crowds, even in unexpected places. At the end of the 1968 campaign, he drew 20,000 in Boston and packed 25,000 people into Madison Square Garden.

#share#He was funny and had, in the words of Time magazine, “a histrionic flair for the crude, sardonic image.” He told hippie protesters, “You can come up here and I’ll autograph your sandals.” And taunted their hair, “There must be a barbers’ strike around here.”

He talked tough. He warned protesters getting in the way of his car that it would be “the last car they ever blocked.”

He was anti-intellectual. He lambasted “pointy-headed professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.”

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He hated the media (while soaking up as much coverage as possible). Journalists were “sissy-britches intellectual morons.”

He supported law enforcement to the hilt: “I am going to give the moral support of the presidency to the police and firemen.”

He relished the idea of cracking down on speech he disliked. He promised “to seek indictment against any college professor who calls for a communist victory [in Vietnam].”

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He was light on policy. He didn’t produce a platform until three weeks before the election in 1968, and it was full of meaningless platitudes.

He had no principled opposition to government, and in fact, touted programs he found congenial.

He had no hesitation in making absurdly paranoid accusations, such as that Richard Nixon was manipulating public opinion in 1968 through his control of pollsters.

#related#Like Trump, Wallace didn’t run a highly organized political operation — he lived off the land of his own native political talent and the fervent support of his fans. He relied on what one journalist called — in a formulation that could apply equally well to Trump — his “uncanny and total and undistracted instincts for the primitive dynamics of the American democratic system.”

Wallace was a hideous racist who appealed to racists, but also crystallized a deeper anger and discontent with a country that had gone soft and wasn’t winning anymore. He obviously wasn’t a statesman who took these popular passions and refined them, but a demagogue who exploited them and made them more base. The same is true of Trump.

Yet Wallace never came close to capturing a major party’s nomination and arriving at the doorstep of the presidency. With Donald Trump leading in the Republican contest, the real-estate mogul would probably have not just George Wallace’s respect, but his envy.

—Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2016 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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