Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

The genealogy of American demagoguery

Getty Images/Globe staff illustration

On a warm October evening, more than 15,000 people gathered in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The main event that night would not be a heavyweight fight, nor were the Knicks or the Rangers in town.

The crowd waited excitedly beneath 12 outsized American flags as country pickers serenaded them with renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Dixie.”

These ditties were interspersed with cries of “Go back to Africa!” and “White power!” while the omnipresent protesters, primed for their role in the evening’s proceedings, chimed in with “Pig! Pig! Pig!” and “Two-four-six-eight, we don’t want a Fascist state!”

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Outside the arena, shoving matches and fistfights broke out repeatedly as Birchers, Nazis, and Klansmen tussled with Trotskyites, Yippies, and Black Power activists. Confederate battle flags were flown, then wrested away and set aflame to chants of “Burn, baby, burn.” Cries of “Sieg Heil!” were matched by chants of “Commie faggots!” Rocks and soda bottles, from both sides, pelted the cops, who were trying, without much success, to keep order.

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With the crowd inside at a fever pitch, the guest of honor arrived under the watchful eye of hundreds of police officers. He was greeted by a sound so overwhelming that even the jaded political journalists who had seen and heard it all were momentarily stunned. “It was uncontrolled release of frenzied, pulsating passion that seemed almost more sexual than political. . . . It may have been the loudest, most terrifying sustained human din ever heard in New York,” said one reporter. This was the hate-filled equivalent of The Beatles at Shea Stadium.

It might sound like a description of the latest Donald Trump rally. But rather, it describes a remarkably similar political movement that laid the groundwork for Trump’s political ascendancy this year: that of George Wallace, the former (and future) Alabama governor, who ran as a third-party candidate in 1968.

On the most surface level, Trump, a billionaire who brags of his business acumen and his wealthy friends, could not be more different from Wallace, who regularly described himself as “a former truck driver married to a dime-store cashier and the son of a dirt farmer.”

The parallels are not in the men’s personal stories, but rather in the divisive, angry, fearful, anti-elitist, and resentment-laden politics that they used to spark their presidential aspirations. George Wallace won just 13 percent of the popular vote in 1968, but he birthed to this nation the idiomatic language of antigovernment populism — a language that would be utilized by countless Republican politicians over the next four decades. Trump represents the logical culmination of that rhetorical tradition, but perhaps also its final denouement as a politically effective feature of American politics. Trump and Wallace are two sides of the same coin, but one man represents a beginning and the other the end of the line.

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Indeed, the similarities, in both style and substance, between Trump and Wallace are profound.

At a time that the federal government’s efforts to expand racial integration were upsetting the foundation of white advantage, Wallace reserved his strongest broadsides for the “theoreticians” and “bureaucrats” with their “federal guidelines” threatening to integrate neighborhoods, desegregate schools, and undermine union seniority. As crime rates escalated across the country, he railed against “pseudo-intellectuals” who excused arson and murder by “saying the killer didn’t get any watermelon to eat when he was 10 years old.” As social mores changed, he complained about the “hes who look like shes” and said of a group of antiwar protesters who’d laid down in front of President Lyndon Johnson’s limousine, “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of.”

Forty-eight years later, Trump has focused his venom on a new set of political targets: the illegal immigrants, “streaming over the border” who he says are rapists and murderers; and the Muslims he wants to ban from entering the United States to protect Americans against potential terrorism.

His toughest critiques, however, are for foreign countries, like Mexico, Japan, and China that, he says, are “ripping America off” and the American politicians, too corrupted, too stupid, and too weak to stand up to them.

Just as Wallace railed against the countries America was “handing out foreign aid” to “while nobody helps us out in Vietnam,” Trump complains about America taking care of Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Japan — and getting nothing in return.

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On Vietnam, Wallace would tell his supporters that the only way to end the conflict there was the use of overwhelming force . . . kind of like a modern politician who thinks the United States should “bomb the shit” out of its opponents.

Wallace also employed overwhelming force on his critics. “All you need is a good barber!” he yelled at the dozens of hecklers in the crowd. “Why don’t you come down here . . . and I’ll autograph your sandals!” As inevitable fights broke out at his events, he offered no quarter. “Well, you came for trouble and you got it.”

Today, Trump offers a more direct response to his frequent protesters, “I’d like to punch them in the face.”

But more than just two era-stretching demagogues with similar political rhetoric, what truly unites Wallace and Trump is their ability to expertly voice the fears, resentments, and anxiety of their supporters.

Trump’s backers almost on cue extol their candidate’s willingness to “tell it like it is.” As one young Trump backer said to me in South Carolina, “He doesn’t care. He’ll say anything.” Another in Las Vegas spoke enthusiastically of the fact that Trump repeats all the things he’d been “yelling at his TV for the last seven years.”

Back in 1968, George Wallace’s wife, Lurleen, talked about her husband in similar terms, “When he’s on ‘Meet the Press’ they can listen to him and think, ‘That’s what I would say if I were up there.’ ”

A strong sense of alienation dominated American politics in 1968, but neither the antiwar movement nor Black Power activists represented the largest and most influential bloc of disconnected voters. Rather, it was those who felt their lives were being negatively affected by black advancement, urban disorder, and diminished economic prospects.

These were the Americans — and often traditional Democratic voters — who looked at Washington and saw leaders who appeared to be profoundly uninterested in their plight. Wallace spoke the most directly of any of the candidates to their concerns. Indeed, until the nation’s unions launched a full-scale effort to highlight Wallace’s antilabor record in Alabama, some fall surveys of union members in Rust Belt states showed him polling just slightly behind the Democratic nominee in 1968, Hubert Humphrey.

As the legendary political journalist Teddy White put it, they represented the “ignored, unheard and unlistened to.” They constituted both haves and have-nots — those who believed they had been left behind and those who’d made progress into the middle class and didn’t want to fall back. These were the Americans most deeply affected not only by rising black prosperity but also by the growing disorder of urban America.

To be sure, plenty of Wallace voters held deeply prejudiced views of black Americans (more so than the supporters of any other candidate), but many also viewed racial integration in largely parochial, zero-sum terms, in which one group’s gain meant another’s loss.

These voters bear remarkable similarity to Trump’s modern base of support — overwhelmingly white, not college educated, racially intolerant, hostile toward immigrants, dismissive of social progress, and facing bleak economic prospects.

According to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, Trump enjoys a four-to-one advantage among voters who “strongly agree” that “immigrants threaten American customs and values.” He also enjoys a healthy advantage among those who believe “women who complain about harassment cause more problems than they solve.”

But the one characteristic Trump supporters share, more broadly than all others, is that they “somewhat” or “strongly agree” that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does.”

Just as Wallace spoke to the alienated white lower class voters of 1968, Trump speaks directly to many of the alienated, lower class voters of 2016. And, contrary to their political affiliation, Trump’s voters might be Republicans, but they are not necessarily conservatives.

For example, Trump bests his nearest rival, Ted Cruz, among GOP voters who have liberal views on economic issues. He does better with those who “strongly support tax increases for the wealthy,” back labor unions, endorse an increase in the minimum wage, and support single-payer health care. The same was true of Wallace supporters in 1968 — and of the candidate himself.

Wallace ran as a third-party candidate under the banner of the hastily created American Independent Party. Its platform called for more job training for “all Americans willing and able to seek and hold gainful employment”; more federal monies for transportation, education, and even the space program; a significant increase in Social Security benefits; and more support for health care for the elderly. The civil rights leader Julian Bond would later say, only partially in jest, that Wallace confused him, “because he’s a liberal on a great many questions, except race.” The crucial distinction, of course, was that Wallace supporters endorsed a generous welfare state, just one that served their needs and not that of black and brown Americans.

Wallace backers could not be pigeonholed as traditional conservatives. Indeed, the Wallace vote did not represent an anti-big-government ballot in the way that we think of such things today. Rather, it was specifically focused on the fear that the federal government’s increased focus on helping black people took benefits away from whites — kind of like elderly white Americans voting Republican in 2010 because they wanted to keep the government’s hands off their Medicare.

That message, albeit in sanitized form, would be adopted by two generations of Republican politicians and would ensure that Wallace’s legacy would live on far past his failed candidacy in 1968. Indeed, one could argue that the biggest mistake Republicans make today is embracing the tenets of conservative dogma and straying from the Wallace playbook of harsh rhetoric, combined with a pragmatic, generous approach to policy matters.

Of course, Wallace’s political success would be rather limited in 1968. Though he polled in the low teens as late as September, his numbers steadily declined from that point forward. It was a byproduct of his increasingly over-the-top rhetoric, the campaign mayhem that followed him on the trail, and the traditional flight of voters from a third-party candidate who can’t win.

For voters who liked Wallace’s message but didn’t want to throw away their votes, they had another option: the GOP candidate, Richard Nixon, who took many of the same positions as Wallace but presented them in a way that was less extreme and less off-putting. Nixon might have focused on law and order and used harsh tones, but unlike Wallace, he wasn’t suggesting that the best way to stop a riot was to “hit someone on the head.”

The anti-elitism, the antigovernment populism, the cultivation of white resentment and alienation, which Wallace used to great effect, and, of course, the dog-whistle racism would become the rhetorical template for Republican politicians ever since. Wallace won only 10 million votes, but he birthed the GOP’s modern political narrative. In that sense, Trump owes much to the foundation Wallace put down nearly five decades ago.

What’s most extraordinary about Trump, however, is that he’s enjoying his success from inside one of the two major political parties. It’s a tribute to the “success” of Republicans in embedding the key tenets of Wallace-ism into their political appeals. As the right’s new-media guru Richard Viguerie once put it: “We talked about the sanctity of free enterprise, about the Communist onslaught until we were blue in face. But we didn’t start winning majorities in elections until we got down to gut-level issues . . . like busing, abortion, school prayer, and gun control.”

The problem, of course, for the GOP is that now they are stuck with it. Trump will likely be the GOP nominee, but by appealing to a narrow subset of Americans, the vast majority of whom are Republicans. His kind of Wallace-esque rhetorical bombast is a losing message in a national campaign. Trump’s national polling speaks to this. He remains a deeply unpopular figure among Democrats, among independents, and even a healthy minority of Republicans.

After 1968, Republicans got away with adopting a more palatable and less confrontational version of Wallace’s language because there was a critical mass of resentful and angry white voters who could be cultivated to win national elections — and who had been trained by Wallace to hear the GOP’s dog whistles. There weren’t nearly enough black, Hispanic, or less angry white voters to push back on it. That’s not the case today.

If by some miracle, Trump is elected president, one can call it George Wallace’s victory — 48 years later. But in the more likely scenario that he loses, it will represent a last gasp of Wallace-ism and an implicit recognition of the notion, voiced after 2012, that Republicans must either moderate their message, particularly toward Hispanic voters, or risk becoming a minority party, incapable of winning national elections in an increasingly diverse America.

The irony is that if Republicans are looking for a model for how to do that, they can look no further than . . . George Wallace, who in the twilight of his political career, turned his back on the racism and segregation — and embraced his black constituents — in order to maintain his political career in Alabama. It’s a worthwhile reminder that even in the most outwardly corrupted souls, there’s still hope for redemption.

Michael A. Cohen’s new book, “American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division,” will be published in May. The above piece includes material from that book. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.