Wallace In '16

Wallace in '16,Whether You Like It or Not

By Jim Knipfel

After losing his first bid to become governor of Alabama in 1958, George Wallace told an aide he'd lost because his opponent had "outniggered" him. While Wallace had talked about improving the roads and schools, his opponent, John Patterson, had run a Klan-backed race-baiting campaign at a time when blacks in Alabama didn't have the vote. Wallace, at the time a liberal judge with a bizarre reputation for treating blacks and whites equally in his courtroom, vowed he "would never be outniggered again." In his next run, he transmogrified into a fierce and outspoken segregationist, hired a speechwriter with Klan connections, and railed against blacks at every opportunity. He won in a landslide.

Over a political career that lasted until 1976, Wallace would serve five terms as Alabama governor and make three failed bids for the White House. He came to the attention of the rest of the country in 1963 after standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama, ostensibly to block the entry of four black students after desegregation became the law of the land. Over the course of the decade he would become a symbol of Southern racism during the Civil Rights movement. While in office, he also refined and perfected the arts of opportunism, cronyism, graft, kickbacks, dirty tricks and smear campaigns. Although he and Nixon were bitter rivals, they had far too much in common not to learn and borrow quite a bit from one another.  The man who once told his family the only two things in life that mattered were money and power "and I don't care about money" was also a masterful political strategist.

When Alabama's state charter barred him from serving a second consecutive term as governor, he had his wife Lurleen run instead, and she won in a landslide. When the mood of the country began shifting around him, he adjusted his language, switching out blacks for hippies and pinkos, replacing segregation with state's rights, and in so doing became a hero to disenfranchised whites on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Helping his cause considerably was the fact he was far more eloquent a speaker than most Northerners would have expected. And realizing he likely couldn't outright win the '68 presidential election, Wallace ran as a third-party candidate, figuring he could at least split the electoral vote, forcing both Nixon and Humphrey to become his bitch if they wanted to win. Almost worked, too.

Without getting into all the gritty details of one of the few legitimately Shakespearean figures in American political history -- including the 1972 assassination attempt that left him paralyzed and his later repentance for all the evil he'd wrought -- let's just say that even more than Nixon, Wallace was the principal architect of what we've come to understand as standard contemporary political behavior.

Problem is, nobody today does it very well. When Wallace took on a role like "angry Southern racist" he played it real. He was a pugnacious and charismatic firebrand, even if he didn't honestly believe a thing he was saying. You look at this lot today, and they're so patently contrived and trite, artificial and dull, their "personalities" and "style" the sloppy product of a team of handlers and marketing people. Just listen to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders pretending to be "excited" about something. Their political expediency and opportunism are obvious and predictable, and we've long since simply come to accept corruption and smear campaigns as par for the course.

Of the current lot, no one has been studying the Wallace playbook more carefully or successfully than Donald Trump, though even he's not pulling it off terribly well. It's easy and cheap to compare Trump and Hitler, but if you look closely it becomes obvious the real model is Wallace. Hitler, after all, believed what he was saying. Look back at Trump's earlier campaigns (and threatened campaigns), listen to the things he was saying then, and it's clear that after those failed he caught a whiff of the national zeitgeist like none of his opponents has. He changed his tack, tapping into disenfranchised white anger in exactly the same way Wallace did, and for exactly the same reasons.  It's as contrived and artificial as anything any of the others are saying and doing, it's transparently false and clumsy, but nobody seems to notice so long as he keeps promising to give it to those dirty immigrants and Muslims.

Still, were the George Wallace of 1968 to reappear today, he could eat this whole crew of candidates, Trump included, for breakfast.

Published February 3rd, 2016

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.