Searching for a precedent for Donald Trump’s surprising success in last year’s US presidential primaries, many people looked back almost fifty years to George Wallace. Writing for the Daily Beast, for instance, Laurence Leamer called Trump Wallace’s ”cynical heir”.
Who was Wallace? He was the die-hard segregationist Governor of Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. (It was he who oversaw the infamous incident of state troopers beating up marchers who were trying to cross a bridge at Selma in 1965.) Disparaged as a holdover from a Jim Crow South in full retreat, Wallace came to national attention and caused consternation to Republicans and Democrats alike when, running as a third-party candidate, he managed to win six states (and 46 electoral votes) in the 1968 Presidential Election. More unexpectedly still, Wallace also proved able to win support outside his regional base: running as a Democrat in 1972, he won primaries in Florida and Michigan, as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland. He did this in part, like Trump, by casting himself as a straight-talking outsider fed up with the impositions of an unrepresentative Washington elite. Or in Jamelle Bouie’s words, “Wallace harnessed the fear and anger of millions of Americans with a pledge, in a sense, to take back their country.” His success, Bouie continues, came by “appealing to his followers in a base, almost visceral way.” Bouie cites Dan Carter’s biography of Wallace, The Politics of Rage, and his observation that the Alabamian appropriated his audiences’ affect, “probing [their] deepest fears and passions and articulating those emotions in a language and style they could understand.”
However attractive they may be, the comparisons between Trump and Wallace seem to have dried up, perhaps because of the one important difference between the two: Leamer and Bouie wrote assuming that, like Wallace, Trump ultimately had no chance; how wrong they (and we all) were. So where Wallace’s significance ultimately lies in the reactions that he coaxed out of others as (in Carter’s words) “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics” (474), now that Trump has actually won the presidency he much more directly has the chance to set the political agenda.
Moreover, where Trump famously has no real experience in politics, Wallace had little to none outside of it. As Carter notes, from his teenage years onwards Wallace had few if any other interests: of his time as an undergraduate he tells us that “in later life [Wallace] never mentioned one book, one course, or one professor who had shaped his intellectual development at the university. What he could remember was the precise vote on each of the half-dozen student offices he had sought” (49). Carter also makes it clear that Wallace forever effectively abandoned his wife and family for the chance to hobnob with fellow politicos or embark on yet another campaign. And when he himself was banned (by the state constitution) from running for a second successive term as governor, rather than quietly tend his garden he pushed his wife, Lurleen, into the spotlight to stand as a surrogate in his name: at what were nominally her campaign events, she would read the briefest of speeches before “the crowd roared as George Wallace bounced across the state, gave his wife a quick hug as she retreated to her seat, and launched into a fifty-minute” peroration of his own (282). He had to keep running, keep playing the political game. What’s more, “on the few occasions,” Carter tells us, “when he sat around the dinner table” with his children, he would tell them that “the only thing that counts [. . .] is money and power.” But Wallace himself, whatever the corruption of those around him, “never cared about money” (323). Power was everything.
As a result, though, politics as we usually understand it tended to fade away. For instance, Wallace had very little interest in actual governance: Carter’s conclusion is that for all the iron grip he had over state politics for so long, ultimately Wallace’s impact was minimal; he never really implemented any of his much-heralded programs for his white working-class and lower-middle class base. If anything his “one clear accomplishment,” we are told, came only during his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, when he “promised black supporters that they would be an integral of his administration, and he lived up to that pledge, appointing African-Americans to all levels of state government” (465). Indeed, in the long run the attention that Wallace had paid to national politics and his presidential ambitions over the previous fifteen years had made him something of an absentee landlord in his home state: Alabama continued to languish near the bottom of the rankings for education, public health, job growth, and per capita income. Wallace liked power, but he didn’t want to do much with it.
What is more, Wallace was barely interested in ideology–which perhaps makes his apparent apostasy from trenchant segregationist to penitent integrationist at the end of his life less of a shock. For instance, a Washington Poster reporter covering his 1968 campaign was surprised to find an “innocent–almost totally non-political–atmosphere” in the candidate’s entourage (340). He had little interest in intellectual expertise or prolonged discussion; he argued that experts had got the country into its current pickle in the first place and suggested instead that “maybe a fellow just ought to advise himself from the seat of his pants” (425). Not that this put anyone much off. Indeed, it was all part of his appeal: as Carter notes, “his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government” (472), and one might add in all governments as a whole. He could, then, like Trump portray himself as an outsider because what he offered was not politics as usual; in fact, it was not politics at all.
What Wallace offered instead, Carter tells us, was something closer to faith than rational conviction or considered calculation. His campaign rallies were “more like a revival than a political appearance,” observed the Associated Press during his 1972 run for office, featuring among other things a “foot-stomping rendition of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’” (424). But Carter adds that a Wallace speech mixed as much of the profane with the sacred. Above all, he gave his supporters a performance that touched their very soul as he (in words also quoted by Bouie) “prob[ed] his audiences’ deepest fears and passions and articulat[ed] those emotions in a language and style they could understand.” But perhaps to say he “articulat[ed]” these affects is to overstate the case, in that “on paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again” (346). He was as much a rock star–perhaps better, country music star–as a priest: “the energy flowed back and forth between Wallace and his audience in a performance molding rage, laughter, and sheer sexual energy into an emotional catharsis” (346).
What’s less clear, then, is whether Wallace was really a harbinger of the future (as the comparisons with Trump suggest) or a throwback to the past. On this point, Carter equivocates. His book’s overall thesis is, after all, that Wallace’s surprising success on the national stage led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the transformation of the Democratic Party, Reagan’s populist appeal to the disaffected working class, and ultimately (by extension) to what we see now with Trump: he was “the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution” (12). But equally Carter’s documentation of Wallace’s failures tells another story: that the Alabamian hitched his wagon to a social sector in deep long-term decline; that he was Dixie’s last hurrah; that he was indeed the end of the line for a style of politics that depended on barn-storming rallies and the cultivation of extensive personal contacts.
Interestingly, how you answer this question of whether Wallace incarnated an emergent or a residual force in American culture depends in large part in how you assess the role of television in his political trajectory. On the one hand it was his surprisingly congenial presence on major network shows such as “Meet the Press” that made him a national figure in the first place; on the other, he was “one of the last grandmasters of the kind of foot-stomping public speaking that characterized American politics, particularly southern politics, in the age before television” (345) and in fact TV was too often his downfall, not least because (as when footage of the brutality at Selma was rushed to broadcast on that same day’s evening news) it demanded forms of transparency that were anathema to his good-old-boys style.
But much the same questions could be asked of Trump. After all, Donald is a reality TV star whose relationship with the medium is at best vexed, if not outright antagonistic, and whose own campaign was very nearly brought down by unguarded comments made when he’d forgotten or not realized that its cameras and microphones were recording. Trump seems not to like television all that much, however much he is apparently addicted to it, which is perhaps why he took the unusual step for a sitting president of holding a campaign-style rally last week in Florida. More broadly, even now many of us find it hard to imagine that the future will be Trump, which is why there is so much talk of impeachment or possible resignation, and therefore associated anxiety about the figures who sit in the president’s penumbra (and could one day take over) such as Mike Pence or Steve Bannon.
It would be nice to think that by looking at history and studying a figure like George Wallace (or whatever other precedent we imagine set the scene for the present) we might get answers to the question of what happens next. Sadly, the worthy goal of “learning from history” is never so simple: the past is always as full of uncertainty as the future.