Watching the escalating ugliness and violence surrounding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, I’m sure I’m not the only one recalling George Wallace and the chaotic 1972 national election.
That year, it was the Democrats who were fractured and in disarray after the party favorite—Ted Kennedy—declined to enter the race against the incumbent Richard Nixon, then at the height of his popularity. Wallace, an arch-segregationist while serving as governor of Alabama, charged into the field, melding a rancorous populism with a strident anti-busing message in a package that resonated with the disenchanted white working-class voters, who later became known as “Reagan Democrats.”
By May 15th of that year, Wallace had won three primaries and was on the verge of taking two more. Then, while shaking hands outside a shopping center in suburban Laurel, Maryland, he was approached by a mentally unstable young man named Arthur Bremer—and unemployed busboy and janitor—who drew a snub-nosed .38 and shot Wallace five times. He survived, but was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Three others were wounded, including a Secret Service agent who was shot through the jaw.
Wallace won two more primaries from his hospital bed and, at the convention that nominated George McGovern, had the third highest delegate count—hundreds more than Hubert Humphrey.
The Vietnam War, the continuing movement for civil rights and the emergence of the Counter Culture made the 1970’s an intensely polarized era, but let’s face it: It had nothing on this one. Americans today are more intensely divided than they have been at any time since the eve of the Civil War. This moment, moreover, has more in common with the 1860’s than it does 1972. With the exception of the diehard racial supremacists, people in the 70’s thought of their political opponents as mistaken, perhaps callous or unthinking. Today, individuals on both sides of the red/blue divide believe those on the other side are out to destroy the country and put them at permanent disadvantage. There is no compromise in such an atmosphere, only antagonism; no concession of good will to the other side, just paranoid vitriol
These are the dark waters in which Trump has fished for votes from the beginning of his candidacy. He has poked the embers beneath every simmering resentment until they flamed anew. He has introduced first the language of the street and schoolyard to the political platform and, more recently, the physical bullying.
This is a guy whose idea of fire-fighting equipment is a gas can—and many of his supporters love it, reveling in the “permission” to respond in kind.
After being forced by protestors in Chicago Friday to cancel a campaign rally, Trump—with no evidence whatsoever—charged that the demonstrators were organized supporters of “the communist Bernie Sanders.” A day later in Dayton, Ohio, when Trump’s security detail had to protect him from a many attempting to charge the platform, the candidate proclaimed the man, apparently involved with Black Lives Matter, was a member of ISIS. The evidence? Trump’s aides were taken in by a fraudulent YouTube video. “All I know is what I see on the Internet,” the candidate said. That we can believe.
There is no excuse for physically disrupting a political meeting or preventing candidates from speaking. The violent tone of Trump’s rallies, however, began with his followers and he has encouraged it every step of the way. It’s all part of the macho, street-wise bully boy personae he projects from the podium. His backers have forcibly ejected African American protestors from his rallies.
In Cleveland Saturday, Trump’s fans surrounded black protestors shouting, “”Go back to Africa,” and calling the demonstrators “savages.” Pointing at the African-American group, a Trump voter spat, “It’s not their country.” Walking past a group filming the demonstration, one Trump supporter gave the Nazi salute and shouted, “Go to Auschwitz, go to fucking Auschwitz.”
Trump takes no responsibility for the tone of his campaign. Quite the contrary, in fact.
In a speech Friday, he claimed it takes too long to eject protestors from his rallies because, “Nobody wants to hurt each other anymore. There used to be consequences. There are none anymore.” Perhaps to encourage more “consequences,” Trump says he is considering paying the legal expenses of one of his supporters accused to assaulting a protestor.
Asked Sunday morning by Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, “Do you accept any responsibility for creating this atmosphere?” Trump replied, “I don’t accept responsibility.”
The violent tone of Trump’s rallies began with his followers and he has encouraged it every step of the way. It’s all part of the macho, street-wise bully boy personae he projects from the podium.
Later, Trump called for the arrest of protestors, “I hope these guys get thrown into a jail. They’ll never do it again. It’ll destroy their record. They’ll have to explain to mom and dad why they have a police record and why they can’t get a job. And you know what? I’m going to start pressing charges against all these people, OK? … The only way that we’re going to stop this craziness is if we press charges. Because then their lives are going to be ruined.”
It is wearily predictable that Trump neither calls for the arrest of his supporters who turn to violence, nor seems capable of framing the rule of law as anything but a form schoolboy retribution.
He set the tone for his subsequent campaign by beginning it with a slanderous attack on Mexican immigrants. In fact, apart from their mutual admiration for each other’s style, one of the things Trump and Vladimir Putin have in common is their dehumanizing “weaponization” of immigrants.
In Putin’s case, he’s used military intervention in Syria to send ever greater waves of refugees from that country into the European Union, destabilizing its internal arrangements, encouraging the emergence of the illiberal democracies of the Visegrad Group—Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The refugee crisis has forced the EU to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Trump, meanwhile, has used the weapon of anti-immigrant sentiment not only to drive the Republican Party even further to the right, but also to attract into his campaign the sort of unsavory elements who continue to harbor the vilest racial antagonism, which they barely camouflage with darkly convoluted ruminations over the so-called “national question.” Physical coercion is an essential prop of illiberal democracy and now, it too, has become an increasing attribute of the Trump campaign.
When the names we associate with a presidential candidate are George Wallace and Vladimir Putin, we ought to ask ourselves the depth of the hole into which we’re slipping. This is a more deeply and savagely divided country than it was in 1972 and—with more guns than people—it is certainly a better armed one.
Unless heads far cooler than those in evidence prevail, somebody is going to get hurt—probably killed—before this election is through.
Photo Credit: IAN MAULE/Tulsa World