When History Rhymes: Wallace And Trump

I’ve been working my way through Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie. This part about the support for segregationist 1968 presidential election candidate George Wallace seems relevant (boldface mine):

The governor of Alabama, who famously stood in the schoolhouse doorway to defend segregationand who swore never to be “out niggered” in politics, was busy rattling the stale presumptions of both major parties. As an independent candidate in 1968, Wallace drew together the segregationist South with anti-liberal northernrs concerned about blacks moving into their neighborhood, fearful of the riots, and feeling simply forgotten….

Separating George Wallace’s race baiting from his “stand up for the common man” theme is as difficult as untangling race from class in U.S. history, but his blue-collar rhetoric spoke to themes that no one else on the national stage addressed. Among northern wage earners like Burton, Wallace’s populist anti-elitism, anti-crime, and anti-busing messages worked best, but his overt embrace of segregation, his snarling rhetoric, and petty resentments failed. In a typical stump speech, Wallace effectively stirred the pot of populist anti-elitism that had been simmering in American politics since Andrew Jackson:

Now what are the real issues that exist today in these United States? It is the trend of pseudointellectual government where a select elite group have written guidelines in bureaus and court decisions, have spoken from some pulpits, some college campuses, some newspaper offices, looking down their noses at the average man on the street, the glass workers, the steel workers, the auto workers, and the textile workers, the farm workers, the policemen, the beautician, and the barber, and the little businessman, saying to him that you do not know how to get up in the morning or go to bed at night unless we write you a guideline.

At the heart of the Wallace phenomenon was ambiguity about his cause. As one trucker explained, “I’m for either him or the Communists, I don’t care, just anybody who wouldn’t be afraid of the big companies.”

…The DayGlo “This family WILL NOT Be Bused” sticker on the Burton’s screen door was a complicated thing. Many anxious old liberals and impatient New Leftists dismissed votes like Dewey’s as clear racism, but his political choices cannot be dismissed so simply. Raised poor (the first indoor running water he had was when he moved from southern Illinois to Detroit as a teenager), Dewey nonetheless profited from generations of segregated housing patterns, silent white privilege, and occupational segregation. Still, he felt open to black people as both leaders and neighbors. He touted his black union local leader as “the best president we’ve ever had” and claimed that he would welcome anyone into his neighborhood…His protest against liberalism had as much to do with control of his life, the fate of his family, and his modest and tenuous place on the social ladder as it did anything else.

While history doesn’t repeat, it does rhyme. A fair amount of Trump’s support is, without a doubt, based in misogyny and racism. But there are less than perfect people who are voting their frustrations:

As prelude, we give you a possibly apocryphal story about presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. At a rally, a woman shouted, “Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!” To which Stevenson responded, “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”

…Just to be clear, so there’s no misunderstanding: voting for Trump out of frustration is really fucking stupid. If you’re down and out, Trump isn’t going to help you.

That said, before we assume all of these crossover voters are horrible bigots (I’m sure some are–lo, there are assholes and they walk among us), remember that they didn’t switch during two elections of a black president. Granted, they might not be on the bleeding edge of the whole intersectionality thing. Still they didn’t switch parties when faced with Obama. Youngstown, OH has been hit hard by the Great Recession and incomes have never recovered–and they didn’t have much to recover from in the first place….

At some point, the politics of hopelessness, of ‘we don’t suck as badly as those other guys’, of ‘fuck you, who else are you going to vote for?’ backfire. People will lash out, often destructively. I just hope it doesn’t screw over Democrats, especially state and local office holders.

We shouldn’t pander to bigotry at all. But there are votes here to be had on economic issues, if we are willing to go get them. Like it or not, we do need a majority, especially in down ballot races.

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