Could George Wallace be the most significant political figure in the past half century of American politics?
In an era that encompasses such giants as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, it sounds absurd. But consider: Without Wallace there would have been no Reagan Revolution, no "Contract with America," no Fox News, and most of all no Donald Trump.
We're inclined to see Trump's meteoric rise as a recent development — a case of the right man tapping into the right group of disaffected (white working-class) voters at the right moment. There's a lot of truth to this. But the shape and style of that appeal has deeper roots that reach all the way back to the populist insurgency Wallace led in 1968.
The story begins back in the early 1960s, when the Democratic Party was, roughly speaking, an amalgam of Northern liberals, blue-collar union members, and Southern segregationists. As John F. Kennedy and especially Lyndon B. Johnson championed civil rights, the segregationist segment of the party rebelled. George Wallace led their exodus from the Democratic Party in 1968 in an independent third-party bid for the presidency.
We're inclined to view Wallace through an exclusively racial lens. That's mostly right, and certainly how he made his name — as the bigoted Alabama governor who in 1963 stood defiantly in a schoolhouse doorway as a symbolic protest against federally mandated de-segregation.
But by 1968, with the anti-war movement, counter-culture, and surge in violent crime beginning to alarm large swaths of middle America, Wallace touched a broader and deeper nerve, expressing a widespread culturally populist revulsion among a certain segment of white Americans. It was most pronounced, and most racially charged, in the Deep South, where Wallace won five states in the general election (his home state of Alabama, plus Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana).
But Wallace's appeal wasn't limited to Dixie. In addition to walking away with over a quarter of the vote in Florida and Virginia, Wallace managed to win 14.5 percent in Maryland, 13.3 percent in Delaware, 11.8 percent in Ohio, 11.4 percent in Indiana, 10 percent in Michigan, 9.1 percent in New Jersey, 8.5 percent in Illinois, and 8 percent in Pennsylvania.
In late October 1968, the Wallace campaign even managed to attract 20,000 supporters to a jam-packed rally at Madison Square Garden in the heart of liberal New York City.
What message did these millions of voters respond to? It wasn't “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Wallace's campaign slogan was "Stand Up for America." His self-styled "politics of rage" defended "our fine American people" against "the bureaucrats and intellectual morons trying to manage everything for them." He spewed contempt at hippy protesters, calling them lazy and dirty, and threatening to run them over with his limousine.
On foreign policy, Wallace combined vociferous anti-communism with indifference to the fate of Southeast Asia, pledging to withdraw from Vietnam if victory didn't prove achievable within 90 days of his inauguration, and suggesting that foreign aid was pouring money "down a rat hole." At the same time, Wallace's running-mate, retired U.S. Air Force General Curtis LaMay, mused about the possible efficacy of using nuclear weapons against the Vietcong.
No candidate before him had gone so far on a message of scalding cultural alienation and grievance. We are the virtuous ones. They are the corrupt, the stupid, the incompetent, the filthy, the presumptuous, the arrogant. They think they're superior and look down on us. But we know better. They are the fools. We are the real America, America at its best, and the redemption of the country depends on us.
Nixon began the process of luring Wallace's supporters to the Republican Party. It was called the "Southern strategy," but once again, the effort was more than a bid for electoral dominance in one region of the country. It was a broader attempt to form a nationwide electoral coalition that included working-class whites across the South and Midwest.
What Nixon began, Reagan consolidated. The Wallace voters and their children (sometimes literally and often figuratively) have been a crucially important part of the Republican Party ever since.
Crucially important in an electoral sense, that is. When it comes to policy, Wallace's descendants have been very much junior partners, with their concerns taking a distant back seat to the priorities of other members of the coalition — especially big business and the foreign policy hawks (neoconservative intellectuals).
For years, as their anger and resentment has been encouraged and provoked by talk radio and Fox News, they've accepted this arrangement. But no more.
Bernie Sanders likes to talk about leading a “political revolution” that would advance democratic socialist goals, but so far it hasn't materialized. It's on the right that America is witnessing a genuine revolution — with the ghost of George Wallace attempting nothing less than a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.
It's important to recognize that this isn't a reenactment of 1968, when Wallace ran as an independent, outside the structure of the two parties. Had Trump run for president as an independent, he might have done quite well and created all kinds of problems for the GOP by attracting large numbers of its voters. The Republican Party would have felt the need to move in Trump's direction to lure those voters back. But the party itself wouldn't have been broken in two — any more than the Democratic Party was shattered by the defection of the Wallace voters in 1968.
What Trump is attempting is potentially far more destabilizing.
By leading a Wallace-inspired insurgency from within the Republican Party itself, Trump has set in motion a process that could result in the ouster, expulsion, or voluntary exile of much of the party's current bureaucratic, political, and intellectual establishment. This process has already begun, with a series of leading conservative pundits already declaring or implying that they will never support Trump, and some indicating they would vote for Hillary Clinton instead.
Meanwhile, The New York Times has reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has developed "a plan that would have lawmakers break with Mr. Trump explicitly in a general election." For the Republican leader of the Senate to lead an open rebellion against his own party's standard-bearer would be an astonishing development. But of course, not everyone would go along. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) seems game to join an insurrection against Trump. But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has already joined Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and Gov. Paul LePage (R-Maine) on the other side, offering endorsements of the presidential frontrunner.
The moment Trump's victory in the primaries becomes assured, this process of choosing sides will accelerate rapidly. Some indeterminate number will stay behind, understanding that they will need to join the new Trumpified Republican dispensation — or else resign themselves to accepting a newly subservient role as the junior partners in the coalition.
Those who end up on the outs will face a different choice altogether: join the Democratic Party, work to retake the GOP, or form a new third party in the hopes of keeping the old "conservative movement" ideology alive and electorally viable in a different guise.
However it all shakes out, the Republican Party will never be the same.
Somewhere, George Wallace is smiling.