As the presidential primaries bleed into an American spring that’s sure to be unlike any other in recent political memory, one thing has remained bewilderingly consistent: Donald Trump has made the Republican Party his chew toy, and like a stubborn beagle who just found your favorite pair of socks, he isn’t letting go. Whether the boorish billionaire wins or loses the GOP’s presidential nomination, he’s already made his bug-splatter-like mark on the American national windshield, and it’s gonna take a hell of a lot scrubbing to clean off.
Plenty of commentators (including your’s truly) have placed Trump within a rich tradition of American demagoguery. Few comparisons, however, have been more apt than the striking similarities between The Donald and Deep-South reactionary George Wallace, who ran for president during the 1960s and 1970s on a platform of reactionary racism, crude anti-intellectualism, and economic populism.
Wallace threw his own political monkey wrench into the Democratic Party primaries during a time of disruptive social change to the American racial and economic status-quo. But like Trump, Wallace was more than just a demagogue, he also channeled legitimate resentments that crackled throughout the voting populace. Wallace tried to harness those resentments for political gain without ever really addressing the source of the anger he self-righteously appropriated to build one of the great “outsider” campaigns in modern U.S. history. Trump has done much the same.
The political media has already had a field day with the Trump-Wallace connection. The Daily Beast’s Joy-Ann Reid, for example, notes that, “like Trump, Wallace rose steadily and improbably in the polls, with consistently high ratings for ‘saying it the way it really is’ and ‘standing by his convictions,'” while studiously courting white resentment of Civil Rights and economic decline. Politico’s Jack Shafer observes that, “Wallace wrote much of the playbook that Trump is operating from today,” because like Trump, the Alabama governor was “a genius at tapping the insecurities—real and imagined—of his constituents.”
Yet one of the best reviews of the way Trump echoes George Wallace comes from Dan Carter via the New York Times. Carter is the author of The Politics of Rage, still the definitive book on Wallace’s rise, fall, and subsequent influence on the conservative movement. “Hostility to the civil rights movement was only a part of Mr. Wallace’s rhetorical repertoire,” Carter writes, “he was a ‘populist’ of sorts, defending good, hard-working (white) Christian Americans” against “bearded hippies, pornographers, sophisticated intellectuals who mocked God, traitorous anti-Vietnam War protesters, welfare bums, cowardly politicians and ‘pointy-head college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.'” In other words, Wallace drew political strength from white working-class griefs that were as much economic as they were racial (in U.S. history, there’s no separating race from class).
Trump is doing much the same, and like Wallace before him, we neglect a huge aspect of both men’s appeal if we dismiss them as mere demagogues. To be sure, Trump, like Wallace, deals first and foremost in demagoguery, but demagoguery only gets you so far if it isn’t responding to grievances that a lot people deem legitimate.
Consider the 1968 presidential election, when Wallace made his biggest mark on the American political landscape via his rage-filled, independent campaign. The bloviator from Alabama scored big political points from segregationists by framing the Civil Rights Act of that year, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson, as a tyrannical assault by the federal government on southern states’ rights. Moreover, the antiwar movement, led by a seemingly privileged coalition of communist intellectuals and dirty, pot-smoking hippies gave Wallace plenty of material with which to rack up his “everyman” bona-fides and appeal to patriotic, white working-class constituencies.
But 1968 was also the tail-end of an era that witnessed significant economic expansion, particularly in manufacturing. Thus, the end of the 1960s signaled a long downward spiral in durable manufacturing jobs that began in the 1970s, accelerated in the 1980s, bottomed out in the 1990s, and shows no signs of recovering in the 2000s.
In a 2003 examination of U.S. job expansion patterns, Erik Wright and Rachel Dwyer note that durable manufacturing was “the pivotal sector within which jobs in the middle of the employment sector were located.” During the long expansion of employment during the 1960s, durable manufacturing accounted for 27 percent — 4.7 million jobs — of total job expansion. By the end of the 1960s, however, job growth in manufacturing — a sector that traditionally employed the white constituencies that Wallace courted — had already shown signs of fraying at the seams. Wallace knew this, and he knew that declining opportunities coupled with racial anxieties stoked by the Civil Rights movement made for ripe demagogic pickins.’
Here’s Wallace speaking at New York’s Madison Square Garden in October, 1968:
The pseudo-intellectuals and the theoreticians and some professors and some newspaper editors and some judges and some preachers have looked down their nose long enough at the average man on the street: the pipe-fitter, the communications worker, the fireman, the policeman, the barber, the white-collar worker.
Wallace spoke to the anxieties of forgotten blue-collar (and white-collar) workers, people dealing with a hard-to-pin-down, yet strangely persistent feeling that their way of life, their opportunities as “traditional” Americans were slipping away, and that more educated Americans could have cared less. Wallace didn’t come right out and blame shifts in the economy for these feelings, but he knew that those feelings were there, and he provided plenty of scapegoats, especially the federal government.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, and America’s long decline in manufacturing employment accelerated, here was Wallace talking about the inflation that was beginning to eat away at average workers’ salaries and savings:
The Democrats sometimes blame big business, and the Republicans sometimes blame labor…but the blame for inflation is on the Government of the United States. They have brought about inflation running these multibillion-dollar deficits, putting this money into circulation that devalues the dollar in a man’s wallet and in his bank account.
Wallace’s solution to the problem of inflation and unemployment was, not surprisingly, more free-market fairy dust. Wallace, like today’s conservatives, blamed the government for private-sector shifts that privileged capital over labor, foreign investment over domestic development, and inflation-slaying over wage expansions.
Meanwhile, as Wallace raged against Big Government, the 1970s continued their assault on working and middle-class jobs. In March 1973, nonfarm workers in manufacturing represented 24 percent of the U.S. economy. By 2007, this figure was down to 10 percent. In the 1970s and 1980s, the shift from manufacturing to service jobs hit the industrial Northeast and Midwest the hardest. Wright and Dwyer write that by the 1990s, durable manufacturing had shrunk to a mere 12.8 percent of American jobs (down from 27 percent in the 1960s), resulting in a “deep trough in employment expansion” from which a huge number of working and middle-class Americans have never recovered. Job growth since the 1990s has been largely concentrated in low-wage service jobs at the low-end of the job structure, and high-tech and finance jobs at the high-end.
For many white Americans, the story of American opportunity since the late 1960s has been one of precipitous decline, egged on by the uppity agitations of blacks, browns, gays, women, and other groups demanding equal rights. Enter Donald Trump.
Like George Wallace, Trump offers a lot of fake solutions to real problems, relying on demagoguery and prejudice to cover up his paper-thin policy proposals. Yet even Trump is willing to throw aggrieved American workers a bone now and then, more so than George Wallace ever was. Just take a look at some excerpts from Trump’s Super Tuesday 2016 victory speech:
We’ve lost our manufacturing. Millions and millions of jobs, thousands and thousands and thousands of plants, manufacturing plants, warehouses. I tell the story often about a friend of mine who is in the excavation business and he always orders Caterpillar. And recently, he ordered Komatsu tractors from Japan because they’ve cut the yen. They’ve devalued the yen to such an extent that it was virtually impossible for Caterpillar to compete. And I don’t want that to happen. That’s not going to happen. They shouldn’t be allowed to do it.
I have great respect for China, but their leaders are too smart for our leaders. Our leaders don’t have a clue and the trade deficits at $400 billion and $500 are too much. No country can sustain that kind of trade deficit. It won’t be that way for long.
We’re going to lower taxes substantially for the middle class. The middle class has been forgotten in our country. It really helped and really probably was the predominant factor in making our country into a country that we all love so much and we’re all so proud of, but we’ve forgotten the middle class. So we’re going to lower taxes.
When discussing the various sources of American working and middle-class decline over the last several decades, Trump, like Wallace before him, offers up some standard right-wing solutions such as cutting taxes and slaying inflation, but he acknowledges that unfair trade deals really have hammered millions of American workers. It’s no coincidence that Trump absolutely dominated the Michigan GOP primary, a state devastated by lopsided trade deals.
Indeed, The Donald may largely speak to white American workers through the prism of bigotry, xenophobia, and genuflection towards the rich, but he is still SPEAKING to them, something that both the Republican and Democratic parties haven’t done for quite a while. Heck, Trump is out-Wallacing George Wallace. As Leo Martin, a 62-year-old machinist and Trump supporter from New Hampshire put it, “the Republican Party has never done anything for the working man like me, even though we’ve voted Republican for years.”
Right-wing populism doesn’t thrive in a vacuum. As ugly as it is, it nonetheless responds to real structural changes in the American economic and social fabric. When elites across the ideological spectrum ignore these changes, when they choose to downplay how the dynamic nature of American capitalism leaves scores of Americans behind, they open the door for the Wallaces and Trumps of the world. Needless to say, the resulting consequences can be yooooooooooge.