George C. Wallace by Marion S. Trikosko; Donald Trump by Michael Vadon.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, is regarded as a new phenomenon on the American political scene. But the openly racist and xenophobic candidate—fomenting violence at his rallies and stirring up white nationalist anger if not merely reflecting it—has been a long time coming.
Trump’s effort to “Make America Great Again” bears a resemblance to the 1948 campaign of Strom Thurmond and the 1968 campaign of George Wallace—two men who also made blatant appeals to racism and railed against civil rights.
In 1948, Thurmond ran for the White House under the States’ Rights Democratic Party—also known as the Dixiecrats—in response to President Truman’s civil rights policies. Truman had sought federal protection against lynching and issued orders prohibiting discrimination in federal employment and ending segregation in the military, leading to the splintering of the Democratic Party.
“I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” Thurman said. Ultimately, the South Carolinian won four states and 39 electoral votes. And in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP, causing other Southern segregationists to follow suit.
Meanwhile, Alabama Governor George Wallace—the man who blocked the door at the University of Alabama and vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”—ran for president under the American Independent Party. His campaign attracted white Southerners and blue-collar whites in the North, and received the support of white supremacists. Like Trump, his campaign rallies were violent, with verbal attacks on the media and the beating of black protesters encouraged.
Wallace once said of protesters at a campaign event, as reported on NBC Nightly News on October 18, 1968:
“You got some folks out here who know a lot of four-letter words. But there are two four-letter words they don’t know: W-O-R-K and S-O-A-P.”
Wallace won five states in the 1968 general election, with 10 million votes and 46 Electoral College votes.
Trump is part of a decades-long process that began with the Republican Southern Strategy to woo disaffected whites who were resentful of the gains of the civil rights movement, ushering in the exodus of segregationists from the Democratic Party to the GOP. The dog whistle and “wink and nod” of Republican race card politics—giving crime, poverty, taxes and social programs a black face—has led to a more strident and extremist appeal to racism since a black man became president.
Trump has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the country. He wants to build a wall on the border to keep Latino immigrants—whom he referred to as criminals, drug dealers and rapists—out of the country. And his campaign rallies have devolved into racial hate fests, with violence that he incites, as Black Lives Matter protesters are beaten, kicked, punched and called the N-word by Trump supporters.
Like his predecessors, Trump channels the fear and pent up anger of low income, low information white voters. Trump directs them to blame their socioeconomic malaise on racial, ethnic and religious minorities—convenient scapegoats.
Donald Trump is much like a 21 century Strom Thurmond or George Wallace, but he is more dangerous because he is the frontrunner of a major political party. Now the Republicans who created Trump are trying in vain to stop him. And sadly, the media—addicted to the ratings that come with celebrity and reality show entertainment—continue to play along.
David A. Love is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Philadelphia.