Trump's Rallies Are More Viscerally Racist Than George Wallace's
August 2, 2019
By Kevin M. Kruse
President Trump’s political rallies are certainly a spectacle, but a spectacle we’ve seen before. In both style and substance, the president’s campaign appearances bear strong resemblances to the rallies held a half-century ago by Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama.
There are a number of similarities between the two politicians’ rallies. But there is one significant difference — and it shows how Mr. Trump remains a greater danger and poses a graver threat to peaceful political discourse, especially as we enter a presidential election campaign.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Wallace presented himself as the political champion of aggrieved working-class and middle-class whites. As governor, he embodied the cause of segregationist resistance, literally standing in the schoolhouse door to block the first black students at the University of Alabama and figuratively standing against what he called the “civil wrongs bill.”
Yet in his repeated campaigns for the presidency between 1968 and 1976, despite today’s consensus to the contrary, Mr. Wallace didn’t make open appeals to racism. Instead, he couched opposition to the civil rights movement — both his own opposition and that of whites in the North and South alike — in new terms. Taking aim at liberals in government and leftist protesters in the streets, Mr. Wallace presented himself as the champion of ordinary Americans besieged by both. He promised then, as Mr. Trump has now, to restore “law and order” to a troubled nation.
A former bantamweight boxer, Mr. Wallace thrived on the combative nature of politics. In the political ring, he lashed out at hippies, beatniks, civil rights “agitators,” “pointy-headed intellectuals,” both “briefcase-toting bureaucrats” and “bearded bureaucrats,” “lazy” welfare recipients, “anarchists and communists,” atheists, antiwar “radicals and rabble rousers,” and street thugs whom liberals, he said, believed had “turned to rape and murder because they didn’t get enough broccoli when they were little boys.”
While he lacks Mr. Wallace’s background in boxing, Mr. Trump has adopted a similar stance in his own rallies. He’s claimed some of Mr. Wallace’s specific phrases as his own — most notably the call for “law and order” — and more generally has stoked the same fires of resentment and racism.
Mr. Wallace’s words electrified crowds of working- and middle-class whites. “Cabdrivers and cattle ranchers, secretaries and steelworkers, they hung on every word, memorized the lines, treasured them, savored them, waited to hear them again,” noted an Esquire profile. “George Wallace was their avenging angel. George Wallace said out loud what they nervously kept to themselves. George Wallace articulated their deepest fears, their darkest hates. George Wallace promised revenge.”