Donald Trump's startling ascendancy is primarily seen as a manifestation of nearly a half-century of white working and lower middle-class economic decline and status anxiety rooted in economic globalization, changing demographics, and the improved opportunities for non-whites and women in American society. The trauma of 9/11, failed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession and domestic terror, which have impacted all Americans, added 21st century fears, all of which are now amplified by right-wing talk radio, cable television and the internet.
These factors allegedly culminated in an entirely new political culture, enabling a vulgar, ignorant, proto-fascist, celebrity billionaire to openly embrace white nationalism, xenophobia and misogyny and possibly become President. However, I believe this ideological cocktail might have succeeded to a significant degree, if embraced by any Republican candidate since the Lyndon Johnson's civil rights agenda flipped the Democrats' "solid South" Republican.
What if George Wallace, for example, was the Republican nominee in 1968, instead of Richard Nixon? Blue collar workers were not losing jobs to Asia. Unemployment was low, unions were strong and wealth and income inequality not nearly as skewed as now. There was no significant feminist movement, let alone the Equal Rights Amendment, Roe V. Wade, rape shield laws or sexual harassment suits.
Peaceful civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests were, however, happening, and there had been urban riots in some major cities. However, the ever-calm Walter Cronkite was the dominant voice in broadcast media. Rush Limbaugh and Fox's Network's political agenda were unimaginable under the then existing Fairness Doctrine requiring television and radio licensees' programs to balance political points of view. The internet did not exist.
Wallace was the poor man's Trump. He was a segregationist, but courts, not voters, ended Jim Crow--- de facto segregation in housing, schools, and jobs still exists. He pledged to leave Vietnam in 90 days if we didn't win, as people increasingly turned against the war. He never attacked Medicare and Social Security---just the civil rights struggles, anti-war demonstrators and hippies. He demanded "law and order."
How did Wallace fare in 1968 as a third party candidate? Would that have changed if he was the GOP nominee? Wallace got 13 percent of the vote and won in five southern states. But, he took blue collar votes from Hubert Humphrey in Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan and Wisconsin. He was supported by a third of AFL-CIO members, despite the powerful union's leadership vigorously supporting Humphrey, one of the most pro-working class Democrats ever to run for President.
Had he run as the GOP standard-bearer, Wallace would have won the entire South, as Goldwater did in 1964. But, like Trump and every other Republican nominee since Eisenhower, he would have taken the white working-class and a significant portion of the college-educated as well. Trump, it is rarely acknowledged, is still edging Clinton among white college-educated males and is doing better with college-educated white women than Clinton is doing with non-college-educated white men. Maybe Wallace would have lost to Humphrey, but still gotten well over 40 percent of the vote.
While Trump is openly bigoted, the Republicans have only been successful in elections since 1968 because of dog-whistles communicating they are the white people's party and, beginning in the 1980s, that of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Without such appeals, albeit in code, to "states' rights," "law and order," or "family values," they would always have a losing hand: laissez-faire economics and government services limited to the military and local police.
Not all, or possibly most, of Trump's supporters (or Wallace's in 1968, had he run as a Republican), could be classified as rabid bigots. Perhaps half, about 20-25 percent of the US population. But, most critically, an equal percentage will simply vote for whomever the GOP nominates. High party loyalty is also true for Democrats, but they don't nominate bigots.
The non-prejudiced Republicans might abhor lots of the things Trump says, or what Wallace would have said as GOP nominee. But, corporate owners, managers and small businessmen worry more about keeping their taxes low---corporate, personal and estate. They also detest business and environmental regulations, increases in the minimum wage, and any other impingement on free-market economics. Moreover, they fear a Supreme Court majority which might overturn Citizens United and make "disciplining" candidates harder. Do GOP Senators deny the human impact on climate change? Senator Al Franken thinks it's true for only 10 percent of them. Desperate to avoid being "primaried" by a well-funded opponent often make candidates support donors' interests regardless of their own beliefs.
Another large bloc, the Christian right, supports Trump even though he could be an atheist when not running for President, and is not homophobic (Roy Cohn was his mentor). Republican officeholders typically cater to their desire to turn the country into a theocracy when it comes to legislating against sex, censoring culture and policing women's bodies. Democrats rarely do.
Finally, there are low-information voters swayed by conspiracy theories involving Democrats. President Obama has been viewed as a Muslim, born outside the U.S., and a dangerous radical "palling around" with Bill Ayers, one of the founders of the Weathermen. Their equivalent among Democrats might believe 9/11 was an inside job, but Democrats running for office don't.
Nothing fundamental separates the Republican electorate today from that of fifty years ago. What has changed is that the Republican Party made winning primaries the essential path to the nomination. Thus, someone like Trump, whose flamboyance meant he did not have to rely on raising donor money to get media exposure, could win. This was especially true when running against a legion of flawed opponents who excluded him from their circular firing squad and eliminated each other.
We are fortunate an earlier version of Trump, or the man himself, was not nominated many times before. But luck does not last forever. Once in power, Trump, like the dictatorial demagogues he admires, could marginalize his merely opportunistic supporters and empower the white nationalists who adore him. Or, beyond feeding his ego, simply pursue whatever bizarre and/or dangerous idiosyncratic goals he embraces on a given day.
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