Ah, nostalgia. Donald Trump’s unremitting weirdness and vulgarity (which, at first, were so startling as to be cringe-worthy, but which, over time, have congealed into “business as usual”) has harkened us back to the days when a national figure could boldly and unapologetically launch a presidential campaign based solely on the advocacy of racial segregation.
Of course, we’re speaking here of former Alabama governor, George Wallace. The year was 1968. America was in turmoil. Wallace sought the presidency as a third party candidate, running on the AIP (American Independence Party) ticket with vice-presidential candidate Curtis LeMay, a deranged ex-Air Force general who wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam.
Wallace was not only a white man from a white-dominated state, but “whiteness” itself was his profession. He was a crusader for “whiteness,” a champion of “whiteness,” a veritable Johnny Appleseed in the proliferation of “whiteness.” For Governor Wallace, “white” was more than a skin color. It represented a belief system.
Fun Fact: Alabama was the last state in the country to repeal its miscegenation (banning interracial marriage) laws. It didn’t get around to it until 2000. Prior to that, a black man marrying a white woman in Alabama was not only frowned upon, it was illegal.
Back to Wallace. Anyone who listened to his fiery speeches 50-odd years ago, has to recall his use of the incendiary phrase, “the mongrelizaton of the white race.” Indeed, that was Wallace’s signature message: The citizens of these United States must join together to prevent the mongrelization of the white race. Scary stuff.
But what makes Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign so memorable isn’t that he was some cracker governor of a former slave-state spewing undiluted racism, or that his words were so full of hate. Rather, what makes it memorable is the fact that, while running on an unabashedly “white is right” platform, he received the third-most Electoral College votes of any non-traditional candidate in history.
Wallace received a whopping 46 Electoral College votes. Only the Civil War-era John Breckenridge (with 72) and Teddy Roosevelt (with 88) received more. And in the years since TR got those 88 votes, way back in 1912, no “outsider” except one has come close to getting what Wallace got, and that fellow happened to be another segregationist—Strom Thurmond, a States’ Rights Democratic (Dixiecrat) candidate, in 1948. Thurmond received 39.
What about Ross Perot who, in 1992, managed to amass an impressive 19 million popular votes? Clearly, Perot had struck a chord with disenchanted constituents. So how many Electoral College votes did Perot get? Answer: zero. How many did Ralph Nader ever get? Answer: zero. Alas, how many did the “insider” Democratic anti-war candidate George McGovern get, in 1972, running against the pro-war Richard Nixon? Answer: 17 (to Nixon’s 520).
So what’s the lesson here, if any? Could it be that something as raw and deep-seated and recidivistic as racial enmity can be depended upon to prevail over a pro-reform, pro-labor, or unambiguously anti-war platform? Not a pretty thought. But neither is Donald Trump.