I can’t help it. Like Bloomberg journalist Al Hunt, every time I watch Donald Trump campaign, I am reminded of the George Wallace 1968 American Independent Party presidential campaign and his 1972 Democratic presidential primary candidacy.
The message of the late Alabama governor George Corley Wallace in both campaigns was unabashed racism, under a spurious “law and order” slogan. The message of Donald John Trump in the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination is almost identical to the Millard Fillmore “Know Nothing” American Party message of 1856: Nativism and xenophobia. The Trump message also contains additional healthy Twitter doses of misogyny (his slander of the highly celebrated Fox journalist Megyn Kelly as a “bimbo”) and bigotry (his pejorative references to the marriage of Jeb Bush and his Mexican-born wife, Columba).
In the cases of both candidates Wallace and Trump, the messages were directed to the darker impulses of the American spirit. The specific targeted constituency was white working class voters.
Fortunately for our nation, Trump, like Wallace, will never come close to being elected.
Wallace never really had a chance for the Democratic nomination in 1972, despite his victory in the March, 1972 Florida primary and his victories in the Maryland and Michigan primaries after the May, 1972 assassination attempt that left him paralyzed for life. That was the year of the ascendancy of the movement Left wing of the party, led by that year’s presidential nominee, George McGovern.
At one time during the 1968 campaign, however, there was talk among the pundit class that independent candidate Wallace might win enough electoral votes in the South to deprive both Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey and Republican candidate Richard Nixon of an electoral college majority, thus resulting in the U.S. House of Representatives having to decide the election, with each state having one vote.
Three factors limited Wallace’s electoral vote total, enabling Nixon to win the White House in 1968. The first was Wallace’s selection of trigger-happy Air Force General Curtis LeMay as his running mate. The second was Nixon’s highly effective message to potential white working class Wallace voters: “Do you want to make a point or do you want to make a change?” Finally, by late October, 1968, Wallace had run out of money.
I have never changed my view that Donald Trump’s performance in the Cleveland debate sowed the seeds of his ultimate political demise. The pundit class, by and large, has totally misunderstood the significance of the post-debate polls.
These polls do show Trump with a virtually equal percentage of Republican supporters after the debate as before. Yet upon a closer examination of the underlying data, one discovers a significant post-debate decline in Trump’s favorable to unfavorable ratios, most notably among women and centrist GOP voters.
Republicans want to nominate a presidential candidate in 2016 who can win. Donald Trump is without doubt unelectable. National polls show him to have a net deficit among Hispanic voters of negative 55 percent. When Democratic and independent women voters are polled, his gender gap, already substantial with regard to Republican women voters, will widen exponentially. Yes, Donald Trump, there is a price to pay for your sexist language, whether used against Rosie O’Donnell or Megyn Kelly.
While rank-and-file GOP voters will desert The Donald in the primaries due to the electability factor, movement conservative voters, except for extreme nativist Trump supporters, will opt for Ted Cruz. Cruz is a genuine movement conservative, while Trump is anything but.
The Donald refuses to commit to defund Planned Parenthood, and prior to his candidacy, he had for over a decade supported abortion rights and strict gun control. Second Amendment and pro-life organizations will recognize that Trump is not their guy and Cruz is.
Finally, as noted by leading conservatives Stephen Moore and Larry Kudlow, Trump is not a free trade conservative, but a protectionist in the mode of Herbert Hoover. His claim of similarity to Ronald Reagan is laughable. In the end, the GOP presidential race will be a contest of Jeb Bush, the candidate of the Center-Right, and Ted Cruz, the candidate of the Right. Trump will be sidelined by Cruz early.
Since I have been making an historical comparison between George Wallace and Donald Trump, I should note one significant difference: Late in his life, George Wallace recanted and renounced his racist messages of his governorship and presidential campaigns.
This should not have come as a surprise. George Wallace began his career as a staunch supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. He refused to participate in the Dixiecrat walkout from the 1948 Democratic National Convention and maintained his loyalty to Harry Truman. For years, as a state judge, Wallace had a reputation of being far more fair to black litigants than other Alabama jurists.
Wallace’s embrace of racist views was a matter of political opportunism. In 1958, supported by the NAACP, he ran in the Democratic primary for governor of Alabama and lost to John Patterson, the then Attorney General of Alabama, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. After the election, Wallace confided to a friend “I’ll never be out-niggered again.”
As in the case of George Wallace and his racist messages, Trump’s embrace of nativist messages has been a matter of political opportunism. Unlike the case of George Corley Wallace, however, we will never here a recantation and apology for such messages from Donald John Trump.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.