“Something bad is happening,” Donald J. Trump recently said to voters in New Hampshire, “Something really dangerous is going on.” He was ominously referring to Muslims and mosques. With the primary season now beginning, we are about to learn whether Trump can get the votes. In any case, there is no doubt about the role he has chosen for himself: he is the candidate of fear. Not only that. He has also channeled the resentment and anger of working-class white Americans, whose economic security vanished decades ago and whose cherished values (God, Country and Family) are supposedly mocked by the liberal elites.
The high-priest of these very liberal elites, The New York Times, discussed Trump’s New Hampshire rally, and a few others, in a December piece. The authors of the article wrote: “The dark power of words has become the defining feature of Mr. Trump’s bid for the White House to a degree rarely seen in modern politics.” This, however, is a historical mistake. If we date the start of modern politics to the year 1946, we can easily find dozens of local and national candidates for public office who used “the dark power of words” with great success.
One has only to think of senator Joe McCarthy and of his infamous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, 36 years ago. Waving a piece of paper in front of his audience, McCarthy said: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [State Department employees] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” McCarthy went on to repeat these accusations on several more occasions, that there were 57, or 81, or 10 communists in the Department of State. But he never produced any solid evidence about even one of them.
McCarthy’s career ended in disgrace only a few years later. Different was the case of Richard Nixon, who started his meteoric political rise in California, with his campaign for the US Senate in 1950. In that election, Nixon said that his opponent, Democratic candidate Helen Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear,” where “pink” really stood for “red”, aka “communist.” More substantially, he stated in a radio address that Douglas was “a member of a small clique which joins the notorious communist party-liner Vito Marcantonio of New York, in voting time after time against measures that are for the security of this country.” Just two years later, Nixon was elected vice-president on the Republican ticket, and in 1968 it was his “Tricky Dick” style that would propel him to the White House (however causing his downfall six years later).
Ever since Watergate, Nixon has been perceived as the quintessential cynical politician, but the man who defeated him in the presidential election of 1960 was no altar boy either. In October 1960, John F. Kennedy spoke about a supposed imbalance between American and Russian nuclear forces, quoting Gen. Maxwell Taylor: “We are now threatened with a missile gap that leaves us in a position of potentially grave danger.” In fact, the situation was precisely the opposite, with a large American advantage both in the quantity and quality of nuclear weapons – a fact that was well known to Kennedy. The “missile gap” dominated the last phase of that Presidential campaign and was a factor in Kennedy’s razor-thin victory (0,17% of the popular vote).
All these politicians successfully tapped into the deep fears the American psyche harbored in their time. But if there ever was one candidate who mastered this to a rarely matched level it was Alabama governor George Wallace in the 1960s and 70s. According to his biographer Dan Carter, it was Wallace who “offered to those frightened and insecure millions [white Americans] a chance to strike back – if only rhetorically – at the enemy.” And Wallace’s enemies were the same that Trump mentions today: Washington, the media, and minorities (“protesters” then, immigrants now).
Like Wallace, Trump also makes a priority of “Law and Order” issues, and boasts a hyper-machismo that appears grotesque to many Americans, but to millions of small-town voters is entertaining and politically refreshing. Wallace loved to say: “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.” More recently, Trump had his supporters cheering him when he proclaimed: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” In a different occasion, he said: “We cannot afford to be so nice folks (…) Actually, if someone hits me, I’m going to hit them so hard… oh, you have no idea, we are going to hit them back ten times harder than they have, which is what we should be doing with ISIS and everybody else”. Actually, this statement by Trump looks a lot like Wallace’s “Hell, we got too much dignity in government now, what we need is some meanness.”
In many ways, these two candidates couldn’t be more different from one another: a billionaire Trump, a politician of humble origins Wallace. A New York businessman the former; a Southern segregationist the latter. And yet, Trump like Wallace understands better than his opponents two key factors of modern American politics: first, there is a large demand for politicians who are not afraid of saying “outrageous” things, for candidates as showmen; second, there is a very large constituency of working-class whites who have been hit hard by unemployment, wage stagnation, and by social, economic and cultural uncertainty.
Wallace in 1968-1972 and Trump today have shown an uncanny ability to connect with these voters. Despite their inability to produce any reasonable, viable policy proposals, their rhetoric strikes a chord with the American people: Donald Trump will not become President but he is only the most recent one of a long list of demagogues who are as American as apple pie.