May 30th, 2020
“Sure, I look like a white man. But my heart is as black as anyone’s here.” – George Wallace
My dad voted for George Wallace. It might have been in 1968. or maybe it was in ’72. Probably my father voted for Wallace in both elections, but I don’t know for sure. It’s hard to remember things from that long ago.
I was just kid back then. I grew up in West Allis, Wisconsin. It was/is a blue collar suburb of Milwaukee. At that time it’s residents were mostly Slavic and working class. No blacks living there at all. None. Zero. My dad’s family and his friends were economically very left wing, but extremely conservative on social issues. I remember, after the 1967 riots in Milwaukee, my dad and his brothers talking about buying guns to “keep the niggers out”.
Fifty years later, George Floyd is murdered by a cop, and cities are burning again.
And the ghost of George Wallace haunts the White House.
I’ve been reading a book from Hunter S. Thompson called Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. It is Thompson’s account of his experiences as a journalist covering the race between Nixon and McGovern. Thompson also talks a lot about Wallace in the 1972 election campaign. His comments are both illuminating and bizarre. Hunter is Thompson was to journalism what Frank Zappa was to music.
For example, Thompson says this about a Wallace rally at Serb Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in April of 1972:
“For the next two hours I was locked in a friendly, free-wheeling conversation with about six of my hosts who didn’t mind telling me that they were there because George Wallace was the most important man in America. ‘This guy is the real thing,’ one of them said, ‘I never cared anything about politics before, but Wallace ain’t the same as the others. He don’t sneak around the bush. He just comes right out and says it’.”
“It was the first time I’d ever seen Wallace in person. There were no seats in the hall; everybody was standing. The air was electric even before he started talking, and by the time he was six or seven minutes into his spiel, I had the sense that the bastard had somehow levitated himself and was hovering over us. It reminded me of a Janis Joplin concert. Anybody who doubts the Wallace appeal should go out and catch his act sometime. He jerked this crowd in Serb Hall around like he had them on wires. They were laughing, shouting, whacking each other on the back…it was a flat out fire & brimstone performance.”
Thompson calls a Wallace rally an “act” and a “performance”. What does that remind you of? A MAGA rally, maybe?
Here’s another quote from Thompson:
“That may be the handle. Maybe the whole secret of turning a crowd on is getting yourself turned on by the crowd. The only candidate running for the presidency today who seems to understand this is George Wallace.”
Who in politics today only lives for his rallies? Who, during our time, turns on the crowd by getting turned on?
In his book, Thompson writes at length about the 1972 Democratic primary in Florida. There was a slate of eleven candidates, and Wallace got 42% of the vote. The losing Democrats, immediately after the election, condemned Wallace as a bigoted racist. They implied that all those Floridians who voted for Wallace were also bigoted racists.
There is evidence that Trump is a racist. There is not evidence that all of his supporters are. Trump, like Wallace, has tapped into a deep, visceral fear in the white working class. These people are worried about health care. They are worried about keeping their jobs and supporting their families. They are worried about losing their identities. Some, but clearly not all, of this angst is legitimate. Trump, like Wallace, attracts these followers, not because they are ignorant or stupid, but because they have been ignored and slighted by mainline politicians. Hillary considered these people to be “deplorables”. Obama said,
“It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
People know when they are being held in contempt.
That’s when we get George Wallace or Donald Trump.