“ … He is not the kind of man who ought to be president of the United States.”
That's not a quote from a rival of the current Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump — although it very well could be. Instead it’s a declaration made in 1972 ahead of the Florida primary race that year by then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Edmund Muskie about one of his competitors for the nomination, the polarizing Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Wallace would go on the win that state in a landslide, despite vocal opposition from party leaders. Had a would-be assassin’s bullet not derailed his candidacy shortly thereafter, Wallace might have become a formidable Democratic presidential contender, albeit one with considerable caveats.
There is much about Trump’s candidacy that is unprecedented — yet he is not the first presidential candidate whose controversial, racially tinged rhetoric has put his own party so on edge that the specter of open revolt has been raised at the prospect of that candidate capturing the nomination.
Several pundits have pointed out the parallels between Trump’s run and Wallace's unsuccessful 1972 candidacy. Both men were widely perceived as potentially dangerous demagogues as they emerged amid a crowded primary field by speaking in politically incorrect terms about "the other." In Wallace’s case, he was propelled by the unpopular school busing policy to curtail racial segregation, promoted by Democrats and grudgingly accepted by Republican President Richard Nixon. Trump's ascent began with his relentless emphasis on stopping illegal immigration, which has since evolved into heated rhetoric about the Muslim community in America.
Not unlike Wallace, Trump has become a serious thorn in the side of his own party. Wallace was a Democrat whose social conservatism and retrograde racial views were far outside the mainstream of his party, and yet appealed to a distinct subset of his base — blue collar, lower-income whites. That was the very group his more liberal rivals were failing to woo, and the voters most needed at the time to win in a general election.
Trump's recent remarks have also appealed to a core of Republican voters who are white, less educated, and earn less than others in the party, according to a recent poll from CNN/ORC. But the comparisons between Wallace and Trump don’t end there.
According to Jody Carlson’s 1981 book “George C. Wallace and the Politics of Powerlessness,” Wallace, like Trump, was also urged to sign onto a loyalty oath promising he would support the eventual Democratic nominee and not run as a third party candidate. Unlike Trump, Wallace did not.
Wallace was not taken seriously despite consistent strength in the polls, and he forced his Democratic opponents to compete among themselves to be viewed as a more electable Wallace alternative. But in a crowded field not unlike the GOP’s 2016 roster (Democrats fielded 11 candidates that year,) Wallace’s larger-than-life persona overshadowed many of his competitors.
“Wallace knew exactly whom he was talking to and what they were worried about. It is not surprising that so many people felt that there was a mystical connection between audience and speaker. And that he inspired such devotion,” Carlson writes about Wallace’s appeal as an orator. “Wallace made them feel visible and important; they knew he was their champion, and that he would tell the government in Washington that they didn’t like the way they were being treated.”
And not unlike Trump, Wallace's supporters were so enthralled by his message they didn't seem to care if Wallace was slim on specifics or variety. “On paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again,” writes historian Dan T. Carter in his 1995 book "The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics."
Today, Wallace's name is synonymous with segregation. His infamous stand in front of an Alabama schoolhouse to prevent black students from integrating in 1963 is seared into political history, as is his fiery declaration of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” during his inaugural address for governor that same year. But throughout his career, Wallace also tapped into a populist economic sentiment and a dissatisfaction with the federal government, which has long been a bedrock of conservative politics and which Trump is capitalizing on today. Wallace’s electoral support was a hybrid of traditional Democratic coalitions and social conservative movements, a combination Ronald Reagan would use in coasting to victory as a Republican less than 10 years later.
Still, there is a cautionary tale here for Republicans. Although Wallace eventually finished third for the Democratic nomination, his initial success opened up the race of any number of insurgent candidates to rise to the top. Sen. George McGovern, a far left antiwar progressive from South Dakota, might have not stood a chance if it weren’t for the panic over a potential Wallace nomination. In retrospect, McGovern would be remembered as one of the least-mainstream general election nominees in history but, in 1972, he appeared far less divisive than Wallace. After a bitterly fought primary, McGovern lost to Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. general electoral history.
If Trump doesn’t prevail next year, and a supposedly more mainstream yet no less conservative candidate like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz does by flying relatively under the radar, the GOP could be setting itself up for a rude awakening in the fall.