Donald Trump has always been known as an egotistical, pompous New York businessman who craves the media spotlight. But if you unravel the forces at work behind his support as a politician, Trump most resembles a old time Southern demagogue, George Wallace, not some kind of New York business genius who has more bankruptcies and scams under his name than ex-wives.
It’s obvious. Trump’s appeal begins and ends with disgruntled whites, (mostly male) and mirrors the overt racial politics of the white South 50 some-odd years ago. Those of us old enough to remember George Wallace have heard this all before. I lived in Mississippi for decades and remember Wallace and his hate-speech quite well. Trump’s and Wallace’s supporters are virtually interchangeable.
Of course, there is plenty of racism in the rest of the country, but the Deep South was ground zero, until Wallace. He was almost able to make it work nationally. Trump has studied and improved upon his playbook as a huckster-turned-politician.
As the economic fortunes of working-class white men have waned over the past generation, resurgent racism filled the political vacuum. From coal miners to steel workers, the demise of their lifestyle is due to corporate profits, not immigrants or trade policy. If China didn’t have so many poor people who would work for pennies then automation and new technology would have replaced them.Trump has merely exploited and fused nativism and racism with the acumen of the con man he embodies (see: Trump scams on, well, everything with his name on it) in ways Wallace wasn’t able to pull off, using his ” YUUUGE” businessman credentials that are as fake as his scam university.
Southern politics and Trump’s gateway
Southern state and local politics has never strayed far from extreme racism, but until Trump, it did not have a skilled national huckster. Blueblood Republican presidential nominees like Mitt Romney and the Bushes, John McCain, Robert Dole, were all the direct opposite of right-wing populism, but when both McCain and Romney lost to Obama, a black man, with middle-eastern sounding middle name, it was the last straw. This year’s Trump revolt is the result of long-simmering white resentment and the GOP’s promises made but never kept to the white, racist base in favor of the GOP business elite. After all, it’w where the party gets its money, ot from poor and middle-class whites; all they bring are the votes.
Since Nixon first successfully devised the Southern Strategy, the Republican Party has deployed it with amazing consistency…until Trump.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have become the party of multi-ethnic inclusiveness—supportive of immigrant groups and newly asserted rights demanded by the gay, lesbian, and now transgender community, as well as to demands to complete the movement for equal rights for blacks and women. But these are the conditions that created the perfect conditions for Trump, whose criticism of P.C. politics blends anti-black, anti-foreign, and anti-modern sentiments. The America that his base wants to “make great” again is a white America—the America that mirrors segregated South.
Ironically, it’s the GOP’s insistence on government austerity and low taxes for the wealthy that has decimated the middle-class, both white and black, just as the Dixiecrats had done before Wallace.
The 1970s looked hopeful as it ushered in a generation of Southern Democratic governors who presided over biracial governing coalitions of racial liberals with economic moderates. As recently as 1992, Democrat Ray Mabus in Mississippi, of all places, was that sort of governor. Mabus actually received about 40 percent of the white vote in the 1987 Mississippi Governors election.
But those days are over, giving way to a KKK resurgence. Most of the decent-pay jobs back then are now low-wage jobs. Traditional industries that paid well, like textiles and furniture, all but collapsed and faced automation or moved to China—a favorite topic for Trump to pummel at every free-media opportunity.
By the beginning of the new millennium, most Southern whites had moved resolutely to the Republican Party. Southern Democrats became a black party, and gone were the long-serving Dixiecrat Senators James O. Eastland (MS) (a leading Senate opponent of integration while Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee for 22 years), John C. Stennis(MS) (a leading hawk), Strom Thurmond, and Robert Byrd.
“White Democrats in the South are gone,” says Hodding Carter III, the firebrand journalist and former spokesman for President Carter and is now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). With the rise of the Tea Party, ripe for a post-Obama Donald Trump, the racism has become unambiguous once again.
Racism was the key to preventing an alliance of poor whites and poor blacks, “back in the day,” that could’ve threatened white elites. In the late 19th century, nearly all blacks and a good portion of the white working class were marginalized with a variety of political voter suppression devices; chief among them was the poll tax. A political strategy that focused on poor whites aiming their frustrations at blacks to prevent the coalition was perfected.And by 1910, virtually every black elected official was purged from the former Confederacy, and nearly all black voters were effectively disqualified from voting at all.
Trump and the GOP have returned once again to the same dual strategy of voter suppression and the politics of racial resentment. The quintessence of insult to the American white supremacy was the election of the nation’s first black president, which brought to the fore all of the disrespect and obstructionism that Barack Obama’s administration has endured.
“By 2010, there was full horror that a black man was now president and a full-fledged liberal,” says Hodding Carter…It brought back all the atavistic, Old South fears.”
Remember, long before Trump began bashing immigrants, he stoked the myth (birtherism) that Obama was born in Kenya, a proven lie, but catnip for those he was planning to attract as his base.
But the 20th-century politician from whom the Trump base was modeled, was Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. Wallace delivered the White House to Richard Nixon in 1968 by mounting his most successful bid for President. Wallace, leader of the American Independent ticket, garnered 13.5 percent of the vote and carried five states with 46 ballots in the Electoral College.
The political punditry of the time was astounded by Wallace’s shocking strength in the North. His support among blue-collar workers cost Democrat Hubert Humphrey in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, where Wallace votes surpassed Nixon’s margin over Humphrey. A mid-September AFL-CIO poll showed roughly one in three union members supporting Wallace, and a Chicago Sun-Times poll showed that Wallace had the support of 44 percent of white steelworkers in Chicago.
As the civil-rights movement was gaining momentum, Wallace re-positioned himself to lead the white “resistance” and famously declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He adeptly rerouted racial rage into hatred of “government meddling”. This theme later manifested in the politics of Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party because it conjoined Southern racial resentment to the anti-government economics of the corporate right-wing.
Make no mistake, Trump’s voters are the sons and daughters of the Wallace voters. Every modern Republican presidential candidate started with a white base in the South. What is new is Trump has successfully taken the white politics of the South to the national stage where all others failed and tries to lend legitimacy with his bogus “successful businessman” act.
Republicans have deployed the same tactics since Nixon, but quietly and behind the scenes, (see: Romney’s infamous 47% gaffe). Missisippi’s ex-governor Haley Barbour was, after all, a long chairman of the RNC and the GOP Governors Association. But Trump took it to a whole new level.
Southern Politicians paved Trump’s way
Trump echoes such famous Southern politicians as Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, and West Virginia’s KKK Senator, Robert Byrd. And like Trump, they savored the fact that they were not concerned with issues—because issues other than race were irrelevant in traditional Southern politics. Instead, they focused on providing a noxious, racist form of entertainment for the white working class—exactly like Trump.
It was accepted that blacks drained the resources that whites provided, just as Trump now claims about a different shade of darker-skinned Americans.
The avoidance of issue specifics is also a Trump hallmark. Primary opponents struggled in futility to understand why it didn’t matter that Trump was void of facts or policies. For the Trump constituency it’s clearly not about conventional issues. It’s all about the white working class sense of unresolved grievance and the scapegoating of blacks and immigrants. As were his predecessors, Trump is all ethos (“trust me”) and pathos (“fear them”).
In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash, Republicans seized the opportunity to challenge every principle of government, and used sweeping anti-government rhetoric. The right’s devotion to privatization, their adherence to budget cutting for anything other than defense, or big business welfare (subsidies), and above all, their determined resistance to taxing the wealthy, was an assault that took a toll on the country and empowered the Old South attitudes. Race, once again, became the focus of the politics of division. No, Trump did not cause the resurgence of racial politics, but he recognized its usefulness, intensified it, and took it mainstream like no one before him.
The parallels between the attacks on voting rights,between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, and since Obama was elected is unavoidable.
Since 2011, the Republicans have moved with strategic and emboldened intensity to limit the vote of key Democratic constituents—the elderly, minorities, and the young, assisted by a partisan, activist Supreme Court until the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. Doubling down, the GOP steadfastly refuses, for the first time in U.S. History, to even consider the President’s Supreme Court replacement nomination, and has delayed passing so many federal judgeships during the Obama administration that judicial dockets are a complete logjam, demoralizing the entire federal judicial system.
In 2011, after the GOP gained control of the House and Senate, nineteen states passed 25 laws to make it harder for people to vote. Heritage Foundation President, and former South Carolina Senator, Jim DeMint recently admitted, that it was a coordinated strategy to suppress voter turnout among groups that favor Democrats. In a radio interview, DeMint said, “It’s something we’re working on all over the country, because in the states where they do have voter-ID laws you’ve seen, actually, elections begin to change towards more conservative candidates.”
It may be hard to imagine Trump, a New York self-proclaimed billionaire and reality television star, as heir to the politics of governors Bilbo and Wallace. But this is the base he leads. And the fuel for this change is, as always, financial hardship; which is why the GOP has tried so hard to undermine the economy for Obama’s entire tenure. They need the angry white vote more than ever, and they desperately need the Bernie Sanders supporters to reject Hillary Clinton.
The Democrat’s challenge is to prevent Trump from successfully taking his Southern strategy national, as Wallace had begun to do. Rarely have the differences between the two major political parties been so clear, and so significant, and a presidential election so obviously pivotal to America’s future.