Human beings do not like to be pushed around. They don’t like to be sneered at. They don’t like to be treated as “less than.” They like to be treated as equals, and they don’t like to be treated as stupid and pointlessly reactionary. They don’t like to be treated as jungle animals, and they don’t like to be treated as knuckle-dragging cavemen.
When either side does this, there’s going to be some considerable pushback.
I saw this happen for the first time in 1968. George Wallace was the explicitly racist governor of Alabama. He told the voters he would do anything to keep the University of Alabama from being integrated. He actually for a few minutes stood in the door of the admissions office at Alabama to keep federal marshals from registering a black woman student.
This was obviously wrong and even evil. But it sent a message to white voters throughout the country who were fighting a genuinely troublesome idea called school busing. The message was that Washington bureaucrats are coming to do mischief — as they saw it — in their neighborhoods and George Wallace would stand up for them.
This sent shock waves through the nation. Very soon this angry demagogue from rural Clio, Alabama, was winning or coming in second in Democrat primaries in every corner of the nation — from Massachusetts to Maryland to Michigan to Wisconsin to Oregon.
The white working class voter had found its hero.
Wallace did not get the Democratic nomination in ’68, but he did well enough to get funding for a major third-party drive in 1972. And, again, he was doing well.
His message had shifted a lot from ’68. Now, he was talking much less about race and much more about federal intrusions in local affairs.
But the voters knew what he was saying: he was saying that the pointy-headed intellectuals and bureaucrats in D.C. and New York could not be trusted. He, George Wallace, a man who had been a Golden Gloves champion and was unafraid to fight with his hands, would take on the snobs and would work for them.
A would-be assassin named Arthur Bremer ended a phenomenal primary season ’72 by shooting Wallace at a parking lot of a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland. After that, Wallace was paralyzed and out of power politics.
He actually went through a major spiritual conversion in the mid 1970s and entered a black church in Montgomery and begged for forgiveness for his racism. And because of the spiritual generosity of the people of that church, he was forgiven by them.
He was gone, but the GOP had learned a big lesson. The white working man did not take a lot of prodding to be pried loose from the Democratic Party. A little hint, just the merest trace, just a sniff, of racial feeling, a huge dose of anger at the bureaucrats and the snobs, and soon the white union man and woman were voting GOP.
This lesson was learned by RN in his colossal landslide in 1972 as he adopted what came to be known as “the southern strategy.”
Eight years later, Ronald Reagan explicitly adopted the southern strategy by starting his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, home to some deeply awful racist incidents in 1964.
That strategy won spectacularly for Reagan. It was enthusiastically adopted by Bush 41. He basically accused poor Michael Dukakis of working purposefully to help a nonwhite rapist and murderer do his awful work.
Only when he was opposed by a genuine southerner who sounded like a backwoods country boy — even though he had gone to Yale Law School — was he stopped. Interestingly enough, he had renounced the southern strategy while Mr. Clinton picked it up enthusiastically.
Bush 43 won with his multi-millionaire country-boy charm and good looks. Plus, he was chief of the war against the terrorists.
Mr. Obama, a man with only limited experience in government, won by a unique set of circumstances: he was part African-American, which motivated a very high turnout of black voters. He took office right after a catastrophic mishandling of economic policy which pushed the U.S. extremely close to another Great Depression. He faced an extremely peculiar vice presidential candidate on the GOP side. But he also was able to motivate many liberals to vote by a sort of implicit promise to them that they would no longer be considered secret white racists if they voted for him.
He won, and then he beat the lowest-energy GOP headliner ever, Mitt Romney, basically by reassembling his 2008 voting blocs and by being a vastly more charismatic candidate.
Then, over the last eighteen months, we have had a stunning development in which the southern strategy was reborn from the GOP. And at the head of the GOP was not a segregationist from southeast Alabama, but Archie Bunker himself, a hard hat construction worker from Queens, New York, same place where Archie Bunker was from.
This Archie Bunker was rich, or said he was rich. But he had the same basic outlook as a latter day 1970s hard hat would have. He was a “dese” and “dose” street guy, only rich. And he made it clear that his heart was not with the beautiful people of D.C. or Manhattan, but with the working man of Scranton or Dearborn or Grand Rapids or Pittsburgh.
Once again, the brilliant insight of George Wallace was deployed: the country is still predominantly white. They are sick of being stigmatized as racists. They are sick of being sold out on trade deals. They all have cousins in the police force. They don’t like the justice system being called “systemically racist” when it no longer is.
They are sick of seeing the liberals blasting them as deplorable for owning guns and hating them for believing in God. They don’t want a judge telling them their ten-year-old daughter has to use the same toilet as a homeless man. They’re not crazy about gays. They know they are under assault in terms of their values.
They saw Donald Trump as richer than they were — and they loved him for it because they wanted to be rich, too — and they thought that here was a golden-haired man ready to get into the arena for them.
It was exactly the same as with George Wallace and Richard Nixon in ’72 and Reagan in ’80. The white working family felt pushed into a corner culturally and economically and only one tough guy was at hand to fight for them with the same gutter tactics their opponents used. That was Trump, a character right out of The Godfather — but he was their Godfather.
They didn’t want a President who apologized for America. They didn’t want a candidate who said the police — their blood — were Nazis. They wanted someone on their side.
Just for me, I don’t think it was much about trade pacts or walls. It was about condescension and a new form of racism that turned the old forms of racism on their heads, but was racism all the same.
So… now we have Mr. Trump, and let’s start again about what America is and will be if Mr. Trump can do anything remotely like what he promised. As we say in the recovery movement, more will be revealed.