In a recent campaign speech, former Vice President Joe Biden charged that President Donald Trump’s rhetoric was more akin to George Wallace than to that of George Washington. I think Biden may owe the late Governor Wallace an apology.
In January 1963 a young Wallace inaugurated his leadership in the state of Alabama with now-famous words calling arch-segregationists to arms: “I draw a line in the dust, and I toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. And I say, ‘Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever.’”
A few days after the speech, a group of ministers published an open letter to hardline segregationist politicians like Wallace in the Birmingham News warning that their inflammatory rhetoric would only increase racial turmoil and likely inspire violence. The same group of ministers later admonished Martin Luther King Jr. toward patience rather than protest, inspiring King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Wallace did not heed their first letter. Later, in three runs for the presidency, as direct appeals to race were falling out of fashion, Wallace appealed to voters outside the South by employing similar sentiments in code words or what has come to be called “dog-whistle politics.”
“Trump is the natural outcome of a southern strategy that was begun the year after Wallace’s inauguration.”
Yet in the last weeks of his life and knowing his time was short, Wallace wondered out loud about the eternal destiny looming ahead of him.
“I think I’m going to hell,” he said to an aide.
“Governor, you’re not going to hell,” the aide blithely offered. “You’re a born again Christian. You’re going to heaven.”
Still questioning, Wallace pensively replied, “I don’t know. Back then I said things that killed people.”
Donald Trump rode to political power on words even more inflammatory and vitriolic than those of the early George Wallace. Does anyone in America think Donald Trump can even begin to overcome his narcissistic megalomania, rise to the moral occasion, acknowledge the danger of his rhetoric, admit a mistake and adopt more conciliatory language? He may still be able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes, but softening his attacks on brown and black people seems not to be part of his strategy or his psychological makeup.
Wallace at least had the moral capacity to re-evaluate himself; Trump does not.
Trump is the natural outcome of a southern strategy that was begun the year after Wallace’s inauguration, when Senator Strom Thurmond became the first southern politician to forsake the Democratic Party to become a Republican. That same year a senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, was nominated by the Republican Party for president, espousing “states’ rights” in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Four years later Richard Nixon’s campaign adopted the approach and named it the Southern Strategy.
Ronald Reagan perfected it by launching his 1980 general election campaign with a speech on states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney had been murdered in 1964.
“To continue to support Trump is to tolerate – even bless – a man who has long since proven his racist bona fides.”
George H. W. Bush sensationalized it with a southern campaign manager named Lee Atwater, who applied it with enthusiasm in the famous Willie Horton television ads. On his deathbed, succumbing to cancer, Atwater, like Wallace, would poignantly regret his tactics.
In the 1990s Jesse Helms engineered Republican gains in North Carolina with TV ads exploiting white anger against affirmative action.
The George W. Bush campaign in the 2000 South Carolina primary put flyers under windshield wipers suggesting that John McCain had fathered a black child.
Mitt Romney adopted it – more quietly – but never repudiated it.
Among Republican presidential nominees only John McCain distanced himself from the strategy when he defended the Christianity and Americanism of his opponent, Barack Obama (for which McCain was excoriated by the right-wing media).
By now, the R after their names, has begun to stand for Racist, as Republican Party members’ mouths have frozen into a permanent pucker from kissing up to the Sultan of the Southern Strategy, Donald Trump. Both from the political strategy he has adopted from Republican fathers like Lee Atwater and the racially questionable business practices he inherited from his father, Trump is the apple that fell very close to the Republican and racist tree.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that everyone who votes Republican is a racist. However, to continue to support Trump is to tolerate – even bless – a man who has long since proven his racist bona fides.
By applying this despicable strategy with absolute abandon, Trump is cynically and deliberately dividing our country beyond recognition for political gain – and, in blatantly violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, personal financial gain. Consequently, the R’s (Republicans and/or racists) have gotten the president they deserve.
However, unlike those Birmingham ministers in 1963, who at least counseled moderation, and unlike Wallace himself, who repented of his harmful words and deeds, today’s evangelical Christian Americans overwhelmingly have either remained silent or quietly cheered the R’s president on.
Meanwhile, Buffalo Springfield’s protest song of the 1960s rings hauntingly true: “There’s a (white) man with a gun over there. . . .”
May God help America!