Since Donald Trump has become the presumptive GOP nominee, a key question has been, will he be able to sustain his popularity through November? Will a campaign based on rallies, repetitive insults, sophomoric humor, personal feuds and bumper-sticker answers to perplexing problems, entice 51 percent of American voters to choose him? Or will voters grow bored with his routines and begin to fear his erratic behavior, just as they did with the 1968 practitioner of the “Politics of Rage,” George Wallace?
Very much as we’re seeing today, a political revolt was brewing in the 1960s among white working-class folks. These disgruntled voters, who were the foundation of the electoral victories of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy, felt alienated by the Democratic Party's radical ideology and the constituencies it embraced. “Before the 1960s,” political analyst Peter Brown has observed, “fairness had meant that a person received what his sweat earned him. The family that emerged from Ellis Island to work six days, twelve hour shifts in sweat shops, deserved to move up. It had played by the rules. Just so, the less industrious did not deserve to do so well.” These voters who lived by that code were frightened by what they perceived to be a new doctrine of fairness in the Democratic Party that meant not equality of opportunity but equality of outcome.
These old-line Democrats were not only concerned about the economic future of their children and grandchildren, but they feared the fabric of society was coming apart at the seams. They were appalled by rampant neighborhood crime, racial unrest, riots and looting, drug abuse, pornography, growing teenage pregnancies, the youth counterculture, welfare cheaters, quotas, the erosion of traditional values and the declining respect for the American flag at home and abroad.
As the ‘68 election approached, unrest in the nation's cities and campuses, the failure of the “Great Society” and the “War on Poverty” to ameliorate inner city tensions, and a sense of futility about the Vietnam War caused many white voters to look for leadership that addressed those concerns.
This evolving attitude played into the hands of the self-proclaimed Southern populist, George Wallace, the Democratic Governor of Alabama.
Wallace had made his national debut when in his 1963 inaugural address he had pledged “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Later that year he made more headlines when he kept his pledge to “stand at the school house door,” and tried to block the admission of two African-American students to the University of Alabama. The national media wrote him off as a crank, failing to understand that this Southerner, racist though he was, had keen political antennae and, as early as 1964, had sensed a mood change in the American people. To test the political waters, he entered the 1964 Democratic primary in Wisconsin against President Lyndon Johnson.
The pundits were certain that, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, Johnson’s popularity was unassailable, so when the results of that April 7th primary were tallied they were stunned by the results: Wallace received 33.8% of the vote, and he went on to receive 29.8% in the Indiana primary, and 42.7% in the Maryland face-off. Wallace “backlash” votes came primarily from Italians and Poles in Milwaukee, mill laborers in Gary, and steelworkers in Baltimore. While the media preferred to write off these protest voters as racists, Wallace and smart pollsters thought otherwise. They detected a growing anger among white middle-class voters, who believed that their way of life and the ideals that guided them were threatened with extinction.
Feeding on this fear during the next four years, Wallace transformed himself from a regional racist into a national populist. Calling for a return to the traditional lifestyle that had existed prior to the fad of radicalism, Wallace lectured audiences on the sanctity of the family, the virtues of hard work and self-reliance, and on the preservation of neighborhoods.
Wallace decided to skip the ‘68 Democratic Party primary route and created the American Independence Party. Running on the slogan, “Stand Up for America,” he told disgruntled voters that a vote for him was a vote against everything they thought was wrong for America. And in his speeches, he gave them plenty of red meat.
Riots, Wallace declared, were the work of “activists, anarchists, revolutionaries and Communists” who should “be thrown under a good jail.”
He flailed “briefcase carrying bureaucrats trying to run your lives” and assailed judges “who made asinine busing decisions.” Another favorite line, “We don’t have a sick society, we have a sick Supreme Court.”
If an anarchist lay down in front of his moving car, he bellowed, “that's the last automobile he'll ever want to lie down in front of.”
Speaking in Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, cities ravaged by rioting and looting, he told his audiences: “We don’t have riots in Alabama. They start a riot down there, first one of ‘em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all. And then you walk over to the next one and say ‘All right, pick up a brick. We just want to see you pick up one of them bricks, now.’”
As for rising crime, he condemned “pointy headed intellectuals who couldn’t park a bicycle straight” but insisted on coddling criminals “because their daddies never carried them to see the Pittsburgh Pirates.”
Wallace did more, however, than just rail against leftist ideologues and government bureaucrats. In his new book on the 1968 election, American Maelstrom,
political journalist Michael Cohen points out that Wallace “played to the nation’s ideological contradictions” by “calling for an expansion of the elements of the welfare state that benefited whites….”
Wallace’s populist platform promised a 60 percent increase in Social Security benefits, expanded Medicare coverage, and more federally-funded public works programs to create greater job opportunities for construction workers.
Wallace was striking a chord with the little people — farmers, truck drivers, steel workers, waitresses, mechanics, clerks, pipefitters, beauticians, barbers and cops and firemen. “A vote for the little governor,” he would tell them, “will let the people in Washington know that we want them to leave our homes, schools, jobs, businesses and farms alone.”
In a profile of Wallace in Harper’s magazine, liberal political columnist, Tom Wicker, captured the impact of the Alabaman’s campaign. He wrote, “George Wallace may speak for some large unknown number of Americans — five million, ten million, more?—not necessarily racist, not necessarily reactionary, not necessarily stupid or vicious or ignorant, but human, concerned, determined.”
The public opinion polls reflected his rising popularity. In April, 9 percent of voters said they would vote for Wallace; 16 percent in June and in mid-September, he hit 21 percent. Twenty-five percent of labor union members in Pennsylvania said they would vote for him; 49% of Michigan automobile workers were pro-Wallace; Wallace support hit 32 percent in Connecticut and in Maryland, 35 percent.
Wallace’s opponents, Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey, feared in early fall that Wallace’s strategy to carry 17 Deep South and Border states totaling 170 electoral votes, might just succeed and throw the election into the House of Representatives.
But suddenly in early October, the air started leaking out of the Wallace balloon. This happened for two reasons: the ineptitude of the Wallace campaign and the good horse sense of the American people.
The Wallace campaign was run by a small close-knit team from Alabama. They managed to get his Independent Party on the ballot in fifty states, but afterwards they had no grand strategy or ground game for the general election and did not possess the ability to design and execute one. The candidate was also flawed. He was a one-man band who couldn’t stand cultivating other political leaders or asking them for their support.
Hence the campaign depended on rallies where the candidate could be the center of attention bloviating behind a bullet-proof podium. And that faulty strategy contributed to Wallace’s downfall.
Wallace rallies became a traveling political circus. “A Wallace speech,” historian Dan T. Carter wrote in The Politics of Rage, “exuded the kind of non-analytical emotional response that media advisers had always sought to evoke.”
Wallace inspired anger and stirred hostile reactions from supporters and hecklers alike. In fact, Wallace wanted hecklers to perform at his rallies. Organizers actually distributed tickets to protesters. When they erupted, Wallace would point to them and shout, “These are the kind of folks that people are sick and tired of in this country, all over the U.S. All I can say is that these anarchists in the country better have their day now because after November 5th, you’re through.”
Anti-Wallace agitators including student radicals, yuppies, Trotskyites and Black Power activists clashed with pro-Wallace people from the political fringe — John Birchers, neo-Nazis and Klansmen.
There were cries of “Wallace is a pig, hey-hey, don’t let Wallace make this a police state” versus “Go-Go Wallace,” “Take a bath you dope addicts.” Fists fights would break out and the police were needed to break up the brawls.
Also, Wallace used reporters as foils at his rallies. He would point to them standing in the back of auditoriums, taunting and ridiculing them and blaming them for unfair coverage.
Another event that rocked the Wallace campaign was his September 30 press conference announcing the selection of retired four-star general, Curtis LeMay, as his vice presidential running mate. LeMay, who oversaw the Berlin airlift and reorganized the Strategic Air Command, was known as “Bombs Away” LeMay. At the press conference, he said, “…. we have a phobia about nuclear weapons. I think there may be times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons.”
The misconduct at Wallace rallies and growing concerns about the “bombsy twins,” Wallace and LeMay, entrusted with the black bag that held nuclear codes, stopped the Wallace campaign in its tracks.
Wallace’s repetitive antics began to wear on the American people and his appeal diminished the more they saw and heard him on the nightly news. In late October one woman told political analyst Samuel Lubell, “I wanted to vote for Wallace just so the politicians will wake up and realize that people won’t go along with what we have now. But I’ve found out a lot about him and I’m afraid he might win.”
While millions of blue-collar voters enjoyed hearing Wallace’s verbal assaults against leftist egghead professors and bureaucrats and even through they gave him standing ovations at rallies, they felt uneasy when it came to actually casting a vote for this “shoot from the hip” candidate.
By mid-October, polls were already reflecting Wallace’s declining support, particularly in densely populated blue-collar urban areas. Some of Wallace’s supporters went back home to the Democratic Party, but most transferred to Nixon.
On November 5, 1968, Richard Nixon was elected the 37th President of the United States, receiving 43.42 percent of the vote versus Humphrey’s 42.72 percent and Wallace’s 13.53 percent. The Electoral College totals were Nixon, 301 votes; Humphrey 191, and Wallace carried 5 southern states for a total of 45 electoral votes. Of the 9.9 million votes cast for Wallace, 55 percent came from the states of the Old Confederacy.
In 1968, over 90 percent of the voting population was white and 70 percent of them was blue-collar. Also, a large subset of white voters, who in the 1970s and 1980s became Nixon Democrats and then Reagan Democrats, were members of the “Greatest Generation”—World War II veterans. At the end of the war in 1945, there were 16.1 million U.S. soldiers and in 1968, 14.7 million were alive.
With that huge pool of white voters — about 70 million, George Wallace’s politics of resentment attracted only 9.9 million of them. That’s a lot of votes, but obviously not nearly enough to win an election.
The 1968 Wallace campaign should serve as a cautionary tale to Donald Trump. Like 1968, the election of 2016 will be a watershed. Like 1968, new political and social forces are building towards a showdown with status quo politicians. Like 1968, there is a large subset of white voters fed up with elected leaders whom they believe have sold them down the river and are out of touch with their economic and cultural concerns.
The key difference between 1968 and 2016, however, is the voting demographics, and that change does not bode well for Trump.
In 2016, the white vote is projected to be down to about 70 percent and white blue-collar voters will be only 33 percent. That’s a huge drop since 1968.
As for World War II veterans, 95 percent of them have gone onto their heavenly reward. It is projected that by the end of 2016 the number living will be down to approximately 555,000.
Just as there were not enough angry blue-collar white voters to put Wallace over the top in 1968, there certainly are not enough in 2016 to elect Trump.
Trump is pipe-dreaming when he claims he’ll be competitive in the deep blue states of California and New York. And if he continues offending Hispanics and women, he will lose key swing states — Florida, Virginia, Colorado — and blow Arizona, a reliable red state.
If Romney couldn’t win the 2012 election with 27 percent of Hispanics, 26 percent of Asians and 44 percent of the women’s vote, Trump can’t win if his share of those voting blocs drops by 20 or 30 percent.
Right now, the numbers don’t add up for Trump. And if he continues his one-man band campaign, he will not only go down in ignominious defeat like soul-mate George Wallace, but severely damage the GOP brand, and be remembered as a political alchemist whose prescriptions to cure America’s ills amounted to nothing more than puerile bromides.
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