It’s George Wallace’s World Now

Wallace never won the presidency, but the base he mobilized has found a home in today’s Republican Party.

George Wallace and Donald Trump
Joe Raedle / Getty / AP / The Atlantic


he Republican Party has been taken over by an unscrupulous populist demagogue. His loyalty is to himself, not to his party or any ideology. He glories in violating political norms. He trashes liberals and government bureaucrats but has no use for limiting the government’s powers—at least, not his own powers. He has no problem with deficit spending, provided he can direct it to his base. He plays on white grievance and inflames racial division, while bragging that many black Americans support him and complaining that liberal bullies play the race card to shut him up. He gleefully attacks intellectuals and experts as enemies of America and common sense. He is not above calling his opponents traitors and hinting that they should be dealt with violently. In a crisis, as at present, he is a genius at finding others to blame. And the more he shocks and blames, the more his supporters love him for speaking forbidden truths and standing up to condescending elites.

The politician I speak of is, of course, George Corley Wallace.

As I write these words, President Donald Trump is bungling the worst crisis of his presidency, and of our era. He is failing to promulgate any kind of coherent strategy to cope with the coronavirus; he is maundering senselessly about injecting disinfectants into people; firm majorities of the public disapprove of and distrust his handling of the pandemic. Yet despite all of that and more, he is solid with Republicans and is likely to get at least 45 percent of the two-party vote in November. Some of his supporters, of course, will back him because of who he is not (a Democrat), but many will back him because of who he is—or, rather, who he emulates.

Today more than ever, Trump’s outrageous style, unprecedented rule-breaking, and sheer weirdness make him seem a radical discontinuity, a bizarre anomaly who came out of nowhere. Although that interpretation is not entirely wrong, it is not really right, either. Equally true, if not more so, is that Trump is a radical continuity, merely the most florid and successful avatar of a white-populist movement that has built strength and solidarity over more than half a century, mostly under elites’ radar. In that sense, Trump’s base—the base that catapulted him from reality TV to the most powerful office in the world—does not really belong to the Republican Party. In fact, it does not even belong to Trump. Rather, he is renting it—or perhaps it is renting him. Either way, he is not the first in the series, and he won’t be the last.

“We can foresee that unless something changes in American political culture and civil life,” says Dan Carter, a historian and Wallace biographer, “we’re doomed to deal with Trumps, whether they’re this Donald Trump or future Donald Trumps, for the next generation.” Thank George Wallace for that.

Wallace, a four-time presidential candidate and longtime governor of Alabama (both on his own account and with his wife serving as his surrogate), made his national name as an outspoken segregationist in the early 1960s. But, like Trump, he was more an opportunist than an ideologue, embracing segregation only after losing a 1958 gubernatorial race to a segregationist and vowing, infamously, to “never be out-niggered again.” His first presidential campaign, as a Democrat in 1964, fizzled when Barry Goldwater entered the race. In 1968 Wallace ran again. The Democratic establishment had sidelined him, so he ran under the banner of his own American Independent Party and won an impressive 13.5 percent of the popular vote.

In 1972, with the help of new rules that weakened party insiders’ grip on the nominating process, he tried again, this time as a Democrat. He had five primary wins under his belt (including Michigan) and was ahead in the popular vote and the delegate count when, in May at a campaign rally, a would-be assassin’s bullet took him out of the race. Undeterred, he made yet another run in 1976, alarming Democratic insiders who saw him as toxic to the party’s base and a sure loser to President Gerald Ford. By clearing the field for Jimmy Carter to defeat him in Florida, they managed to block him (in the process boosting Carter to the White House).

That was Wallace’s last race, but his politics and constituency, once organized, have proved durable. His message and style resemble Trump’s in so many respects that listing them all is a challenge. True, there are differences. Wallace, unlike Trump, was a genuine populist who hated rich people. He didn’t talk about immigration and trade, which were not big issues in his day, and he was a Vietnam hawk rather than an opponent of what Trump calls “forever wars.” But the similarities are much more numerous and striking.

Like Trump, Wallace was no doctrinaire conservative or liberal. “I’m not against spending money—I believe in spending money,” he said, in a typical 1968 stump speech. Ideologically, like Trump, he was a magpie without a coherent policy agenda or any particular interest in developing one. As Dan Carter told me, “I don’t expect politicians to be running a seminar, but both Wallace and Trump shared a muddled set of policies that seems more a cry of angst than a program.”

Like Trump, Wallace knew that fear is the demagogue’s friend. He jabbed at what Trump would later call “American carnage” hard and often, decrying “the breakdown of law and order” and blaming it on elites and what today we call political correctness. “You can’t talk about law and order unless they want to call you a racist. I tell you that’s not true and I resent it and they gonna have to pay attention!”

Both parties’ establishments, he claimed, micromanage everyone’s life and hold ordinary people in contempt. “They wanna tell you how to do, and those that write guidelines, some of ’em have pointed heads and can’t even park a bicycle straight,” he said. “They’ve looked down their noses at the average man on the street too long. They’ve looked down at the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker.”

Ordinary politicians might knuckle under to the establishment and conventional wisdom, but not him, not ever! The voters, he said, wanted “men with backbone who do not go kowtowing off to our enemies in a show of spineless weakness.” He was not above accusing anti-war opponents of treason and toying winkingly with violence, hinting (according to Dan Carter) that he might shoot protesters and mow down liberals with his limousine.

Did highfalutin editorial writers call him dangerous or sick? “I tell you who’s sick. It’s some of the leadership in this country that’s sick.” Was he called a bigot? “When they say you and me are racist and a hate-monger and a fascist, it’s because they can’t logically argue against the position we take. And so they write us off.”

And was he outrageous? Good! In a world of double-talk and hypocrisy, he was the only straight shooter. “I say we ought to be honest with people, and that’s the reason I believe that people of all races are eventually gonna support this movement, because they’d rather have somebody honest talking.”

Whether running as a Democrat or an independent, Wallace promised, above all, defiance. He and his followers would “shake the eyeteeth of the liberals in both national parties.” (In those days, liberal Republicans still existed; but to Wallace’s constituency, the whole establishment was liberal.) And, he told his followers, they could win even without a majority. “Not that we don’t have a majority viewpoint, but it is a political fact that you can win on less than a majority.” Donald Trump would later prove Wallace right, first in the 2016 Republican primaries and then in the general election.

Wallace, unlike Trump, never became president or captured a major political party. Where he did succeed was in identifying, organizing, and mobilizing a constituency which, demographically and attitudinally, maintains remarkable continuity with Trump’s constituency today. “I don’t think there’s a very significant difference between Wallace voters and Trump voters,” Ashley Jardina, a Duke University political scientist and the author of the book White Identity Politics, told me. The numbers bear her out.

In 1971, Irving Crespi of the Gallup Organization combined six preelection polls from 1968 to produce a detailed analysis of Wallace’s base. Regionally, Wallace’s support was disproportionately southern, secondarily midwestern, and weak on the East and West Coasts. Still, Wallace was not merely a regional candidate, because support for him was predicated on the same demographics and attitudes everywhere, not just in the South.

What predicted support for Wallace? For one thing, he was strongest in rural places and weakest in big cities. The smaller the community, the greater the support. Protestants rallied to him, especially in the South. He did well with alienated independents. He found more support from men than from women. All the same things are true of Trump’s base. The only significant difference is that age worked for Trump but against Wallace, who attracted younger voters.

Perhaps most politically significant in today’s context is that Wallace’s support was firmly rooted in the white working class. His support, like Trump’s, was strongly predicted by socioeconomic status and especially education. Middle- and lower-middle-income groups and voters with only high-school education—people who worked in factories and on farms—were his stalwarts. And the strongest predictor of all was a college degree. “The white stratification system tended to bifurcate into two major segments—an anti-Wallace educational elite consisting of all those who had attended college regardless of income and a relatively pro-Wallace segment consisting of those who had only gone to grade school or high school and of manual worker families,” Crespi wrote.

Trump owed his 2016 victory to an avalanche of support from noncollege white voters, demolishing Hillary Clinton among the white working class by a staggering 39-point margin. “This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980” (when the data series began), according to a Pew Research Center report in 2016. Trump cashed in the promissory note that working-class voters gave to Wallace. As a result, education is now the great divide of U.S. politics, spectacularly vindicating a prediction Crespi ventured in 1971: “On this basis, we can speculate that the future strength of a Wallace-led national third party may be determined not so much by trends in conservative versus liberal strength as by any growth of conflict between educational strata in all regions.”

Conflict between educational strata in all regions: the Trump phenomenon in a nutshell.

Of course, Wallace’s base and Trump’s share one other important similarity: whiteness. Which raises the question of race—central to Wallace’s appeal, and also to Trump’s.

Although some are inclined to label Wallace and his base, as well as Trump and his, flat-out racist, the story is not so simple. By 1968 Wallace had pivoted away from overt segregationist and racist appeals. He loved to brag about the African American support he received as governor. Though he was a master of racially coded appeals (for instance, in talking about crime), he played less to racism per se—that is, to racist ideology or antipathy toward black people and minorities—than to white aggrievement and resentment. Race, Carter said, was “the drumbeat behind the whole thing, but this was just part of a growing alienation on the part of working-class Americans. Even in the 1960s, there was already this sense that somehow they were being abandoned.”

Out-and-out racism is rarer today than in Wallace’s time and is something most Trump supporters are not guilty of. Research by Drew Englehardt, a political scientist, finds that Republicans’ warmth (expressed affinity) toward black people has increased during the Trump years—but has been outpaced by a still-greater warmth toward white people. Racial resentment, says John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, “was one of the things that was distinctive about support for Trump relative to earlier elections. It appears to be what the campaign of 2016 brought to the fore.” But Trump’s appeal seems to have been less to hostility against black Americans and minorities as such than to a sense that society is unfair to white Americans. Call that phenomenon “white grievance.” White grievance, in turn, solidifies what Jardina calls “white identity”: white people seeing themselves as a social group that must pull together to defend its embattled status.

Scoring high on indicia for white identity is a strong predictor of voting for Trump. Moreover, Jardina said, “The strongest predictor of whether a white person possesses a sense of racial identity is whether they went to college. Whites with a college degree are far less likely to identify as white.” And people who identify strongly as white were common in both parties as recently as the mid-2000s, Jardina said, but they began sorting into the Republican camp in the Obama years.

Connect those dots, and they imply that working-class status, low educational attainment, white identity politics, and Republican affiliation are merging. The Wallace vote is consolidating in Republican ranks.

Given what we know of the Wallace vote’s past, what else can we say about its present and future? For one thing, it is a formidable bloc of voters. In his heyday, according to polling in 1968 and 1972, a fifth to a quarter of the public supported Wallace. Judging from Gallup’s finding that about a quarter of the public approves “strongly” of Trump’s handling of the presidency and a third approves of Trump “as a person,” Trump’s base of core fans and admirers today looks to be comparable or a bit larger, in the neighborhood of 25 percent to 30 percent of the public. Moreover, about 30 percent of whites identify strongly as white, according to Jardina. They don’t all vote for Trump, but most do.

So today’s version of the Wallace bloc is large, probably comparable to the white evangelical vote (with which it somewhat overlaps). It is far from a national majority, but another thing we know is that, just as Wallace claimed, his brand of identitarian populism can win without a numerical majority. The 2016 election showed that an energetic minority facing a divided or disorganized opposition is enough to win a party, which is enough to win the country. Events since then have shown that the Wallace vote can maintain its grip on the party by primarying any resisters, a powerfully effective threat at a time when the primary is the only real contest that many incumbents face.

We also know that the Wallace movement was not a one-off, or even a two- or three-off. It erupted in Patrick Buchanan’s insurgent 1992 and 1996 Republican presidential bids. In 1992, recall, Buchanan previewed Trump’s hostility to immigration and free trade, stole the Republican spotlight with a searing convention speech that declared a “cultural war,” and contributed to the defeat of an incumbent Republican president. In 1996, shortly before winning the New Hampshire primary, Buchanan chortled over the chaos he was causing. “This is too much fun, this is too much fun—we’ve got them all on the run,” he told a boisterous rally. “The establishment in Washington is shaking in its boots at what’s going on here,” he said. “All the peasants are coming with pitchforks.” The Wallace vote erupted again in 2008, when Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, mocked intellectuals and elites in contemptuous tones that could have come straight from Wallace’s own mouth.

What Wallace and Buchanan could not do was win the White House. Partly for that reason, power in the Republican Party remained in the hands of the establishmentarian Bush and libertarian Reagan wings, which believed they could manage the Wallace faction while holding it at arm’s length. Now, of course, the Wallace vote manages the Republican Party instead of the other way around.

How long that will be the case is impossible to know, but we should prudently assume that the Wallace movement will emerge from the Trump era transformed and strengthened by its spell in power: more organized, sophisticated, determined, and feared than ever before. We should prudently assume, in other words, that the Wallace movement will be a major force in American politics long after Trump has left the scene. It will generate candidacies, attract money and talent, and be catered to by mainstream politicians. The days when it could be elbowed aside or contained or controlled are over.

We also can’t yet know whether Trump will bring the Wallace vote durably into the Republican fold or whether the movement will remain true to its roots as a political third force—anti-establishment in its credo, disruptive in its influence, and opportunistic in its partisan attachments. It has materialized variously as Republican (Trump and Buchanan), Democratic (Wallace), and independent (Wallace, again). Wallace voters have captured the Republican Party, but whether it has captured them remains to be seen.

Either way, political analysts—emphatically including me—erred grievously by underestimating the importance and durability of Wallace and his movement. In hindsight, his influence over the direction of Republican politics is at least the equal of Barry Goldwater’s libertarian insurgency, Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” and the Reagan Revolution. If you had to boil the history of the modern Republican Party down to a single sentence, you could do no better than this: Barry Goldwater got in a fight with Nelson Rockefeller and George Wallace won.

“They gonna have to pay attention!” You can’t say he didn’t warn us. We’re paying attention now, and somewhere, George Corley Wallace is smiling.