The Fog Of History: The Wallace Factor

The Trump candidacy has political pundits scrambling to find historical precedents for his unexpected rise. They somehow think history has predictive powers when applied to current events. I strongly disagree. History can help us understand what’s going on but it can’t tell us what will happen to the Insult Comedian’s campaign. Even comparisons are difficult until actual votes are cast and delegates are won. Until that happens, anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen in the Republican Presidential race is full of shit.

The fashionable comparison/historical parallel to the Trump candidacy right now is George Wallace’s 1968 3rd party campaign. I’m not sure why the pundits are choosing to ignore his runs for the Democratic nomination in 1964, 1972, and 1976, but they are. That’s right, Wallace ran for President four times.

The 1968 Wallace campaign has been floated most recently by Rachel Maddow in an epic piece for her teevee show. The second segment even features NBC’s Presidential historian Michael Beschloss and his toupee:

I think Rachel’s comparison of Wallace and Trump is on firm ground when she discusses their stump styles. Both like to bash the press and engage hecklers with mockery and near incitements to violence. They’re both self-styled outsiders, a model for a Presidential candidate that was essentially invented by Wallace but imitated by more successful candidates such as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Another similarity between Trump and Wallace is that both excel at convincing their supporters of their authenticity and credibility even when making patently false claims. Both Trump and Wallace are fundamentally salesmen with broad streaks of charlatanism. For example, Trump was seen by many as something of a liberal when he first flirted with running for President in 2000. Wallace, too, was one of the more liberal politicians in Alabama until he lost his first Goober race in 1958. That’s when he became the “segregation now, segregation forever” George Wallace we remember.

One importance difference between Wallace and Trump is that the former was a genuine populist. Wallace came from a modest background and, like LBJ and Tricky Dick, had a chip on his shoulder when it came to people who went to fancy colleges or had inherited wealth. Trump, of course, is a rich kid with a bad haircut who claims to have hit a triple when he was born on third base. As the Insult Comedian himself might say, that’s a yuuuuge difference.

Unlike Trump, George Wallace was a proven vote-getter by 1968, nationally as well as in Alabama. In 1964, his name was on the ballot in some primary states, and he got between 33 and 43% against a then very popular Lyndon Johnson or his surrogates in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland. It was the first sign of the white backlash vote that would fuel Wallace’s 1968 campaign and elect Richard Nixon. In contrast, Trump has yet to receive a single vote, which is why I tear my hair out every time Rachel Maddow calls him the “prohibitive front-runner.” Please knock it off Rachel, I don’t have a lot of hair and you’re killing me.

I don’t entirely buy into the Trump-Wallace comparison. It’s hard to imagine the Donald repenting his racist and misogynistic views in the same sincere fashion as Wallace in the 1980’s. Wallace’s apologies for his segregationist past were so heartfelt  that he won his last term as Alabama Governor with strong support from African-American voters. In contrast, Trump believes that any admission of error is a sign of weakness and is strictly for LOSERS.

An interesting sub-plot to the Wallace-Trump comparison is how Bernie Sanders and some of his media supporters (especially his amen corner at Salon) are convinced that he is best positioned to pick up Trump “voters” (I use air quotes because nobody’s voted for the fucker yet) in a general election. The argument is that Sanders’ economic populism and outsider status is appealing to working class Trump supporters. I’m dubious; members of Team McGovern made the same arguments about Wallace’s primary voters in 1972, and McGovern was even more anti-establishment than Sanders. It didn’t go as planned: Wallace voters either stayed home or voted for Nixon. And they were used to voting for Democrats in 1968 as opposed to 2016 when they’ve been hating on Democrats for decades. Never underestimate the hawkishness of working class voters or their willingness to vote against their own self-interest. Sad but true.

I remain skeptical that the Insult Comedian will be the Republican nominee in 2016. I refuse to consider him the front-runner until actual voters cast ballots for him. At this point in 2004, Howard Dean was the Democratic front-runner and the Kerry campaign was on life support. Ditto the Republicans in 2008: McCain was in trouble and Mayor 9/11 was in the lead. Front-runners implode more frequently than people think. Remember President Dewey?

I’m never surprised when the name George Wallace comes up during a Presidential election cycle. He was the most influential losing candidate in our history: he sowed the seeds for the so-called Reagan revolution even though Wallace was progressive on many economic issues and moved to the Left after 1976. Ironies abound in our history.

That is all. Class dismissed.