A time was coming, the poet wrote, when the best will “lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Brilliant augury, but Yeats might have been a century out in his timing.
Enter Donald Trump. The real estate mogul turned political demagogue is the worst U.S. presidential candidate since George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate in 1968 after failing to win the Democratic nomination. Trump is the new Wallace.
Fellow presidential candidate Marco Rubio said over the weekend what was on a lot of people’s minds: that before this primary season is over, someone could die. Rubio lamented that “all gates of civility are blown apart” and that America has become a country “where everyone hates each other” and “imbalanced” people are engaging in the process.
Think about that Wallace/Trump continuum. Like Trump, Wallace ran a hate-campaign against his rivals, eventual Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, and anti-war candidates George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Front-runner Richard Nixon carried the banner for the GOP.
Wallace’s campaign was thinly disguised as the protection of states rights. In fact, it was a bigoted rejection of civil rights for all Americans, and a circling of the wagons around racial segregation. It was Wallace who infamously said “If some anarchist lies down in front of my automobile, it will be the last automobile he will ever lie down in front of.”
Fast forward to Donald Trump. There is an eerie echo of Wallace’s violent and incendiary demagoguery. Trump has not only encouraged his followers to “knock the crap” out of anti-Trump protesters at his rallies, he also promised to pay the legal bills for anyone who assaulted his detractors.
When asked about his February 1, 2016 statement to that effect, Trump declared that he had “no regrets” about urging his followers to resort to violence. How could he? The candidate himself told a protester in Las Vegas that he, Trump, would like to “punch him in the face.”
It didn’t take long for rhetoric to catch up to reality. In a Trump rally in North Carolina, a 78-year-old Trump-supporter, John McGraw, sucker-punched a black protester as he was being led out of the arena by security guards. McGraw, who is now charged with assault and disorderly conduct, later said on TV “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.”
Trump’s response? He was looking into paying McGraw’s legal fees because he “obviously loves his country.”
Since then, violence has been a fixture of Trump rallies, bringing in the police, occasionally with pepper spray, to disperse anti-Trump demonstrators in places like Kansas City. In Chicago, a full-blown riot may have been averted by Trump cancelling an event in the Windy City.
There is another comparison between George Wallace and Donald Trump. One of the important areas of support for Wallace back in 1968 was extremist groups like the White Citizens’ Councils. Though he did not recruit them, neither did he reject their support.
Sound familiar? When he isn’t quoting Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Trump has been tacitly accepting the support of people like David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
In one of the most cynical examples of playing dumb that Americans have ever seen from a public figure, Trump tried to pretend that he didn’t know anything about Duke’s past after he had received his endorsement.
When pressed by Jake Tapper of CNN on this transparent lie, Trump kept up the charade. “You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about.”
Do you know anyone else who is worried about sullying the reputation of the KKK or doesn’t know a thing about them?
Both candidates also ran on anti-Washington, pro-law and order platforms. Wallace sneered that U.S. foreign aid was “like throwing money down a rat hole.” He never missed an opportunity to invoke the police as the proper answer to the “anarchy” of the anti-Vietnam war movement.
Similarly, Trump routinely portrays ‘Establishment Washington’ as the downy nest for fools, chokers, losers, and “horrible” negotiators who have sold the country down the river. He wants to wall out Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and ban all Muslims from the United States because they “really hate” America.
As for the police, hardly a rally goes by without Trump paying tribute to them and complaining about how “horribly” they are treated and how much he loves them.
And then there is the “entertainment” factor in both the Trump and Wallace campaigns. It came down to Wallace’s bombastic use of language in attacking his favourite targets — members of the establishment whose meddling in states’ rights fuelled his hyperbole, those people, and of course protesters.
The press followed his every move because he was explosive television. Sound familiar in 2016?
Wallace attacked members of the Supreme Court as “limousine hypocrites”, after they ordered the de-segregation of Southern schools as a result of the Alexander vs. Holmes County Board of Education case. When protesters he described as “hippies” called him a fascist, Wallace’s retort was pure Trump. “I was killing fascists when you punks were in diapers.”
In one speech, Wallace referred to protesters outside his Cincinnati rally as “little pinkos” who would be overwhelmed when his own supporters took to the streets.
Trump’s attacks on the political establishment and those protesting his candidacy have been vulgar (who really wants to know the size of a President’s Johnson), crudely funny, and more often than not, utterly untrue — in other words, entirely in the vein of the racist Wallace.
After former presidential candidate Mitt Romney trashed Trump as a failed businessman, citing Trump Steaks, Trump Water, and Trump Magazine as a few examples of his incompetence, Trump struck back.
He called a press conference in which he attempted to show these businesses were still operating. There was a problem; the steaks he touted as Trump steaks were bought from a local butcher, and the magazine he brandished over his head was not the one that Romney had correctly said had gone out of business. It was all a show and CNN’s Anderson Cooper called Trump on his deceptions.
Like Wallace, Trump also specializes in personal attacks on his opponents and detractors. Trump suggested in one debate that Rubio had wet his pants, he was so afraid of standing next to — and taking on The Donald. Trump also told one protester to go home and get his “mommy” to put him to bed. More recently, he has called for protesters not to be merely ejected, but arrested.
Finally, here is the most dangerous point of comparison between Trump and Wallace. Both struck an undeniable nerve with voters. Though he was the governor of Alabama, Wallace’s triple-K-rated campaign did not appeal only to southern rednecks. It also resonated with blue-collar white voters in northern states who were feeling alienated and left out.
In the end, Wallace confounded critics with his performance in the 1968 election. He won just under 10 million popular votes and an astonishing 46 electoral votes — the only non-traditional candidate to win a state’s electoral votes.
Like Wallace, Trump’s vote is resonating in every part of the country. In the deep south, only Col. Saunders has more support. Trump is not only winning in Mississippi, but also Michigan. So far, neither heavy spending by Super Pacs or denunciations from the Republican Establishment have dented his popularity. Tuesday, with its five states up for grabs, including Florida and Ohio, could tell the tale.
There is only one part of the Wallace/Trump comparison yet to be worked out. In 1968, Wallace ran as a third-party candidate after he lost the Democratic nomination. It was as the presidential candidate of the American Independent Party that Wallace made his run.
If Trump is blocked from winning the Republican nomination for president, he has already mused about launching a third-party candidacy. The difference with Wallace and Trump is that Trump is in contention.
And so to the last lines of Yeats’ great, prophetic poem: “And what rough beast/its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Author: Michael Harris