As Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s controversial campaign rhetoric has ratcheted up, he has been drawing comparisons to former segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace, but does that make Sen. Ted Cruz, who has emerged as his chief rival in the Republican race for the 2016 nomination, the new Richard Nixon?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. In 1968, Wallace and Nixon were in many ways pursuing the same disaffected voting bloc from the right. Wallace was doing it as a insurrectionist independent candidate, while Nixon was running as the mainstream standard bearer of the Republicans. Both men campaigned on law and order and a kind of restoration of conservative values, but while Wallace was unafraid of embracing racially coded language and imagery, Nixon, who had a considerably more moderate record on race, was careful to pitch his message to the so-called “silent majority.”
When the 1968 results were tallied, they were closer than some might have predicted — in part because Wallace may have siphoned off some of Nixon’s support, particularly in the Deep South. By 1972, when Wallace mounted a presidential campaign as a Democrat, then-President Nixon was determined to hold what have now become stalwart red states. “What he was really worried about was that Wallace would end up running as a third party candidate,” Professor Dan T. Carter, author of “The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics” told MSNBC on Wednesday. He employed what has been popularly known as the “Southern strategy,” which he had begun to pursue in earnest in ‘68, which translated to making tacit racial appeals to the region’s white voters with an emphasis on “state’s rights.” Nixon won in a landslide in ‘72 and carried every single Southern state — most of which have remained firmly in the GOP column ever since. According to Carter, Nixon’s victories were due in part to his “house-taming” of Wallace’s rhetoric “making it more respectable while staying safely to the right of any Democrat.”
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Still, Wallace’s ability to influence Nixon’s political strategy was still being felt once the 37th president was already in the White House. When Wallace made the busing desegregation policy a centerpiece of his 1972 campaign, Nixon delivered an Oval Office speech reiterating his opposition to the program, in what may have been an effort to neutralize Wallace’s nascent candidacy. When Wallace was derailed by a would-be assassin’s bullets two months later, Nixon privately decried him as a “Goddamn demagogue”and “a hate monger,” but he never underestimated the former Alabama governor’s political acumen.
Flash forward to today, Cruz shows a similar deference to Trump, even when the ex-reality show star has attempted to bait him into public squabbles. When most of his rivals strongly condemned Trump’s suggestion that there needed to be a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, Cruz simply said he disagreed with the proposal. And he has made no secret about the fact that he hopes to capture Trump’s considerable fanbase should he drop out of the race.
Not unlike Wallace, Trump has been viewed as a potential third-party threat (although as recently as Tuesday, he pledged to back the Republican nominee). And although Carter cautions that Wallace and Trump are dissimilar in many ways, they both enjoyed popularity with their supporters for “talking straight,” projecting toughness, and repudiating political correctness. On the flip side, Carter points out that both candidates faced overwhelming opposed by a significant portion of the electorate.
Cruz, like Trump is viewed as one of the most conservative candidates in the race, but his background as a U.S. senator with an undeniable facility with the issues could make him a far more attractive option for establishment party leaders who fear what an unpredictable Trump could mean at the top of the ticket. “[Cruz] would probably be more acceptable for conservatives who are put off by the bombastic nature of Trump and his careening back and forth from one position to another,” Carter told MSNBC.
Still, if Cruz were to win his party’s nomination, he may emerge as the candidate most inexorably linked to Trump. He has praised him more than any of his peers and has even floated the possibility of contracting the real estate mogul to build a border wall intended to dissuade undocumented workers from entering. He has made himself beholden to the billionaire’s whims in a way that Nixon never dared do with Wallace. Despite some barbs over the past week, Cruz and Trump were positively chummy on the debate stage Tuesday — but, if indeed the competition coalesces into a two-person race, it will be interesting to see if one capitalizes by co-opting the other.