As we search for some historical mooring to our present madness, I am getting a question from a lot of people these days:
Is President Trump the new George Wallace?
For those of you maybe too young to remember, Wallace was probably the best known race-baiter of his time. If you don’t know the name, you probably have seen him. He’s often the angry, bigoted, white politician featured in Civil Rights documentaries.
I covered Wallace throughout his colorful career. While he’s often best known for his stints as Governor of Alabama, he also ran for president four times, three as a Democrat and once, in 1968, as an independent when he carried five southern states and won 46 electoral votes.
Wallace, like Trump, understood that appealing to white resentment could generate support across the country. He had strong bases in the north and midwest as well as the south. He, like Trump, worked to exploit racial suspicions, fears, and hate for his own political purposes at the expense of the nation’s best interests.
But where I think Trump and Wallace differ, was that Wallace was in the end a politician. He was more complicated, less self-aggrandizing, and capable in the end for more nuance. He spoke of compassion for the poor generally, for education, and for better health care. He apologized and repented late in life after he was badly crippled by an assassin. None of this is to diminish the damage he did, but even at Wallace’s worst, he did not seem to threaten the entire system of the U.S. government.
Furthermore Wallace was a creature of the 1950s and 60s, when the nation as a whole was far less racially tolerant. He was a symptom as much as a cause. He was a force of hatred that had to be defeated but he never rose to the presidency. He was thus a malignancy that never fully metastasized.
Another major difference was that while Wallace often ran as a Democrat, many of his fellow party leaders firmly denounced his racist rhetoric. A sharp cry from today’s GOP.
But another similarity worth considering, with both Wallace and now Trump, millions of Americans responded with a firm determination not to let this man define our country. Wallace’s vision was defeated, in the polls and by history. We will see what happens to Trump.
What was the south like in George Wallace’s time? Here are a few excerpts from my coverage of the civil rights movement as a young correspondent with CBS News, including Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama.