Some people get angry when I and others compare Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to George Wallace. What they’re forgetting, or perhaps never knew if they’re too young, is that Wallace didn’t run for president in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 as a segregationist, though he was one; he ran as a populist defender of blue-collar workers against elitism and an intrusive federal government.
“I am in this race,” Wallace said in a Fourth of July speech in 1964, “because I believe the American people have been pushed around long enough and that they, like you and I, are fed up with the continuing trend toward a socialist state which now subjects the individual to the dictates of an all-powerful central government.”
What’s somewhat astonishing about Trump’s seemingly unwavering appeal to the same demographic that supported Wallace is that he has none of Wallace’s common-man bona fides. Trump was born into a rich family that gave him everything he needed to succeed, including millions of dollars to establish his own real estate business. Wallace was born dirt poor into a family of farmers in Clio, Ala., where he played with black kids as a child.
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The first time I was supposed to meet Wallace, I didn’t. Or rather, I wouldn’t. It was 1972. I was home from my freshman year at a college in Kansas and had a summer job in the audiology lab at Spain Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham. Wallace was brought there for therapy after being paralyzed by a gunman in an assassination attempt in May in Laurel, Md.
Wallace was also fitted with a hearing aid in the audiology lab, but I didn’t see him there. As his stay at Spain neared an end, however, someone came up with the idea of holding a reception so all the hospital workers could meet the governor personally. I wasn’t the only black employee who had to do some soul-searching about being cordial to the man who had stood in the door of the University of Alabama in a vain attempt to keep it segregated.
I didn’t have to worry about any retribution from a boss who might not like my doing anything that reflected poorly on him. But I went to the reception area anyway, mostly out of curiosity to see what Wallace looked like. I got into the long line; but with only about a dozen people between me and Wallace, I stepped out. He kept shaking hands. I walked away.
It wasn’t too many years later that I did meet Wallace, more than once, as a reporter for United Press International in the 1980s covering events where he was the speaker. I remember him cupping a hand around his deaf ear when he was asked a question he didn’t want to answer. I don’t remember shaking his hand. With a notebook and a pen in mine, I probably never did.
Despite the two men’s different backgrounds, it’s easy to see why Trump appeals to the same type of voters as Wallace. Wallace had a knack for expressing the frustrations of white, mostly working-class men who saw themselves as victims of an intrusive government that they felt was forcing them to be more open-minded about people and ideas that they didn’t like. Trump’s midnight tweets may lack the bite of a Wallace stump speech, but they achieve the same goal.
Wallace rallies, like Trump’s, often became violent when demonstrators who didn’t drink his Kool-Aid showed up. Trump followers, like Wallace’s, praise him for being politically incorrect and telling it like it is, no matter who might be offended. Wallace enjoyed the support of church people, just as the religious right has jumped aboard the Trump bandwagon based on his claim to be pro-life.
Wallace never became president. But in 1968, like Trump today, he made a lot of people nervous. As an independent, Wallace won 10 million votes, 13 percent of all those cast, and carried Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. He ran as a Democrat in 1972 and won the Maryland and Michigan primaries, but his campaigning ended the day he was shot. With Wallace confined to a wheelchair, his 1976 campaign fizzled.
Trump is going to do better than Wallace, if the polls are right, and that is disturbing to me. Trump reminds me of Wallace. But at least Wallace, speaking at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, apologized in 1979 for his racist politics. “I have learned what suffering means,” he said. “In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain. … I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.”
Trump, in contrast, admits no wrong, apologizes for nothing and stokes the anger of his supporters to exploit them. That his campaign remains viable this close to Election Day is not only due to Trump’s appeal among certain voters but to the vulnerability of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who may be one of the most qualified candidates for president this nation has ever had but continues to be hampered by appearing to be as conniving as Trump.
Trump shouldn’t win. He must not win. His election would be a travesty. I can just see him tripping through the White House’s halls with that trademark Trump smirk on his face, conjuring memories in my mind of Wallace when he walked the halls of the Alabama governor’s mansion vowing, “Segregation forever.”
Harold Jackson is the editorial page editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.