WASHINGTON (AP) — If President Donald Trump putting race at the forefront of his re-election campaign rings familiar, that’s because another White House hopeful did the same half a century ago — and saw the strategy resonate with many Americans.
George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama as a Democrat in 1962 and vowed to safeguard “the great Anglo-Saxon Southland” while famously declaring, “I say, segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.”
The onetime bantamweight boxer ran for president six years later, and, as Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey, Wallace won nearly 10 million votes on his own American Independent Party ticket, capturing Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi and one electoral vote in North Carolina. Those 46 total Electoral College votes remain the most recent won by any third party candidate in U.S. history — Texas tycoon Ross Perot garnered nearly 20 million votes in 1992, but didn’t win any states.
Wallace’s visceral populism was built on raucous rallies and the belittling of opponents under the slogan “Stand Up for America.” He once declared of those participating in the riots then sweeping the nation’s cities, “Bam! Bam! Bam! Shoot ’em dead on the spot,” and energized many poor and working-class whites in the South and Midwest who felt disillusioned with both parties.
Trump’s supporters delight in his refusal to bow to “political correctness” at his own rallies. The president also gleefully deploys demeaning nicknames for opponents, has called some immigrant gang members “animals” and mused about using the death penalty on drug dealers — all while vowing to “Make America Great Again.”
Deeper similarities can be found, however, in Trump condemning Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore’s majority-black district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and suggesting that four Democratic congresswomen of color “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” as if they weren’t U.S. citizens.
Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany rejected the comparison, saying it “is absurd on its face and a desperate attempt from the fake news to distract from President Trump’s record of accomplishments for black Americans.”
“The facts tell the story,” McEnany said in a statement Tuesday that also detailed how unemployment and poverty rates have fallen for African Americans during the Trump administration, how funding for historically black colleges and universities has increased and the president’s signing into law of a sweeping criminal justice reform measure.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said Trump’s attacks often have more to do with hitting back at critics like Cummings, who has decried the administration’s immigration policies, than longer term political strategy. But he said, “Is there a part of the country that responds to white resentment politics? I think there is.”
“The country is so divided,” Mackowiak added. “Even if you want to be a uniter, I don’t think it’s possible.”
Wallace’s 1968 presidential bid came against the turbulent backdrop of the Vietnam War and riots, though. It was also when Nixon began deploying what became known as the “Southern Strategy,” which used less overt opposition to desegregation to woo disaffected white southerners, many of whom supported Wallace that year but later backed Nixon, eventually becoming the backbone of enduring Republican success in the Deep South.
Trump also may be onto something. The Pew Research Center found in May that 8 in 10 Republicans feel too many people are easily offended over language — and even about 4 in 10 Democrats said the same.
Still, Dan T. Carter, a retired University of South Carolina professor and author of “The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, The Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics,” said that, as a presidential candidate, Wallace actually didn’t use race as directly as Trump is now doing. Instead, he talked in euphemisms about opposing the civil rights movement.
“In some ways it’s cruder,” Carter said of the president’s rhetoric. “Trump seems to think he doesn’t have the burden that Wallace had, a southerner where everybody knew his background.”
Indeed, before running for president, Wallace was best known for standing at the doors of the University of Alabama to oppose integration in 1963. Before he was a 2016 presidential candidate, however, Trump stirred racial animus by trumpeting the “birther” movement suggesting that Barack Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii, implying that the nation’s first black president was not eligible to hold the office.
Wallace ran for president four times, including in 1972, when he was shot while campaigning in Maryland by would-be assassin and 21-year-old busboy Arthur Bremer. Wallace was paralyzed from the waist down and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He was re-elected to a fourth and final term as Alabama governor in 1982, after publicly saying he’d been wrong about race. Wallace died in 1998.
As he’s done with other issues, meanwhile, Trump has responded to charges he’s racist by lobbing such attacks back at opponents, calling Cummings himself racist. Top administration officials say his criticisms were valid and not racially motivated.
To be sure, Trump isn’t the only president to evoke racist sentiment.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that African Americans smelled, Woodrow Wilson screened the 1915 pro-Ku Klux Klan film “The Birth of the Nation” at the White House and Lyndon Johnson and Nixon regularly used racist epithets while in office. And Wallace, too, wasn’t tilling entirely new political ground: Then-South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond won four states and 39 electoral college votes with the States’ Rights Party, whose main platform was segregation, in 1948.
Yet Wallace stands out. Some of the Democrats trying to deny Trump a second term have already made the comparison. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has said that the president is “very similar” to Wallace and former Vice President Joe Biden declared that Trump was “more George Wallace than George Washington.”
Despite that, Carter said he doesn’t think Wallace “has any real potency today to be a real negative or positive figure.”
“He’s just a kind of shorthand,” he said, “To remind, particularly older Americans who do have some vivid memories of Wallace, that this is not a good thing. This didn’t hold up too well.”