As a political phenomenon, Donald Trump is not nearly as new and unprecedented as he seems. Within living memory, another populist firebrand lit up American politics, defying and outraging the establishment, running outside of conventional political channels, and exceeding every expectation of his electoral strength. His name was George Wallace.
Now, of course Trump isn’t a segregationist with the hideous racial attitudes of a George Wallace in his prime (although Trump does have an Archie Bunker outer-borough sensibility about him). But the style of politics and the working-class audience are largely the same, albeit refracted through the passage of five decades and the different livelihoods and personalities of the real-estate mogul and the Alabama governor.
What you hear in Trump, and Wallace before him, is the authentic voice of American populism, lurid and outraged, crude and entertaining, earthy and evocative.
Needless to say, George Wallace wouldn’t have known what a reality-TV star is. Whereas Trump is a rank political amateur, Wallace was all pol, all the time. Marshall Frady, a southern journalist who wrote a classic portrait of the Alabaman, describes how Wallace was bereft in an interlude in his early career when he wasn’t running for office — “haggard and dingy and sour.” He gave no sign of caring about anything besides politics, whether it was food (as long as it was slathered with ketchup) or money. As an old friend put it, “He ain’t got but one serious appetite, and that’s votes.” His diet of reading tended to be his own press clippings, although he did take up Anna Karenina. (His question about the book: “Why do you suppose that she threw herself under that train? You’d think she could have worked something out.”)
Wallace was relatively liberal on race in his early career, until his defeat in his first gubernatorial run, in 1958. Wallace’s infamous take on that loss to a race-baiting opponent was that he wasn’t “goin’ to be out-nigguhed again.” He wasn’t.
Wallace had a sense, like Trump, for the exemplary controversy that establishes or reinforces a brand. His most high-profile controversy was his iconic, shameful stand in a doorway at the University of Alabama. But what made Wallace truly a national player was his presidential runs — in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 — which tapped into political currents that few realized were there. It is in these populist crusades that we see and hear the unmistakable parallels with the Trump campaign so many decades later.
Like Trump 2016, Wallace’s first presidential campaign was a seat-of-the-pants operation bordering on a lark. He entered the Wisconsin Democratic primary in 1964 at the urging of a zealous supporter in the state, and hit a chord. The Democratic establishment was horrified and did all it could to shame and defeat him, and yet Wallace got a surprising third of the vote in Wisconsin and had strong showings in Indiana and Maryland.
Wallace had the wherewithal to operate entirely on his own wits and instincts. Frady writes of his 1968 run as an independent, when for a time it seemed he might be able to throw the presidential race into the House of Representatives, that it “required more originality, audacity, optimism, and dauntlessness than has ever been required of any other significant presidential candidate in this nation’s history, including Huey Long.” Or, one might add, until Donald J. Trump.
The Wallace style was lowbrow and amusing, and it thrived on conflict, much like that of Trump today. Journalists have repeatedly written stories about how Trump communicates at about a fourth-grade level. For his part, Wallace liked “to put it down where the goats can get it.”
In his first, failed gubernatorial campaign, he occasionally used relatively sophisticated words (e.g., “mechanization”). He wouldn’t make that mistake again. In his next gubernatorial campaign, he routinely denounced a federal judge whom he had clashed with as “a low-down, carpetbaggin’, scalawaggin’, race-mixin’ liar.” It became one of his crowd-pleasing lines. “The folks’d start punching and poking each other and grinning and all, waiting for him to get to it,” an aide commented.
In his inimitable way, Wallace was funny. He had, in the words of Time, “a histrionic flair for the crude, sardonic image.” He told hippie protesters, “When I get through speaking, you can come up here and I’ll autograph your sandals.” He mocked their long hair: “There must be a barbers’ strike around here.”
Consider this representative passage from a 1972 speech on busing:
Now, on this busing. I said many years ago, if we don’t stop the federal takeover of the schools, there’d be chaos. Well, what’ve we got? Chaos. This thing they’ve come up with of busing little children to schools is the most asinine, atrocious, callous thing I’ve ever heard of in the whole history of the United States. Why when President Nixon was in China, so I hear, he and Mao Tse-tung spent half their time talking about busing. And I hear Mao-Tse-tung told him, “Well, over here in China, if we take a notion to bus ’em, we bus ’em, whether they like it or not.” Well, Mr. Nixon could have told him that we about to do the same thing over here.
All the hallmarks of a Trump speech at one of his rallies are there — the conversational tone, the simplistic expression, the boastfulness, the exaggeration, the ridiculous innuendo and fabrication, all rendered in highly colorful terms. “His addresses everywhere were extended monologues rather than speeches,” Frady writes, “a hectic one-man argument without any real beginning, progression, or end.”
And he packed them in at rallies, even in unexpected places. At the end of the 1968 campaign, he drew 11,000 in Flint, Mich., and 20,000 in Boston. He filled Madison Square Garden with 25,000 people.
His events, like Trump’s, were routinely disrupted, and Wallace made the hecklers part of the show. “These are the folks,” he declared at a rally near Providence, R.I., 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.” He knew the protesters were priceless to him in stoking passions and drawing media attention. “They on our payroll,” he joked.
Wallace had as little interest in policy as Trump (often relying on the same kind of bromides), but he talked tough and cultivated a frisson of violence. He warned that protesters who attempted to block his car would find it was “the last car they ever blocked.” He bragged of how one supporter “floored every [heckler] that came by with his fist.” He said, “We’re going to take some of these students by the hair of the head and see if we can’t stick ’em under a good federal jail.” He talked of rioters’ getting shot in the head.
And Wallace connected, finding an unexpected constituency among urban ethnics and blue-collar workers in the North. He gave voice to voters who felt betrayed and ignored by their government and by elites. Wallace was hell on the “pointy-headed professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight” and journalists who were “sissy-britches intellectual morons” — everyone who supposedly knew better.
“We’re here tonight,” he told the audience at one rally, “because the average citizen in this country — the man who pays his taxes and works for a living and holds this country together — the average citizen is fed up with much of this liberalism and this kowtowing to the exotic few.”
At another: “This is a people’s awakening. Those pluperfect hypocrites in Washington don’t know what’s coming over you. Well, if they’d gone out and asked a taxi driver, a little businessman, or a beautician or a barber or a farmer, they’d have found out.”
He added, in as pure an expression of populism as can be mustered in a few words, “You’re tops. You’re the people.”
Whatever he was, George Wallace wasn’t a conservative. His opposition to federal power was clearly driven by his hatred of civil-rights legislation, not principle, and his economic program as governor was activist and liberal. He built schools, established a policy of free textbooks, supported a huge road-building project, and implemented anti-pollution measures. By the end of his first term, only Louisiana had a greater proportion of citizens on welfare. National Review denounced him as a “freeswinging populist emerged from the racist wing of the Democratic party.”
But Wallace captured something in his presidential campaigns. A Newsweek journalist wrote of “the mystical communion Wallace was developing with thousands, then millions, of quietly panicked Americans.” We want politics to be about uplift and inspiration, but fear and anger and resentment are human emotions, too. A talented demagogue will go out and find them and make them a political force that otherwise would have been ignored.
Wallace ultimately didn’t go anywhere. In 1968, he faded, weighed down by his own lack of seriousness. He picked as his running mate General Curtis LeMay, who couldn’t help musing about using nukes in Vietnam at a press conference unveiling him as Wallace’s selection. (LeMay was also demanding. He required that the campaign fly him around in a 727. Wallace quipped, “Goddamn, he’s either spending all our money or dropping atomic bombs.”) In 1972, back as a Democrat again, Wallace ran strong in early primaries before getting shot at an event in Maryland, confining him to a wheelchair the rest of his life.
Politically, Wallace was blunted, in part, because a legitimate concern that he had identified, law and order, became part of Richard Nixon’s agenda and his voters were folded into the “silent majority.” If Trump is to go the same way, he will have to be resisted, but also — especially on the issue of immigration — co-opted. American populism of the sort voiced by Trump and Wallace before him isn’t subtle or pretty. But attention must be paid.