Politically attuned Americans of a certain vintage are undoubtedly watching the escalating violence and hysteria surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign events and remembering things they saw nearly a half-century ago.
Reading an advance copy of Michael Cohen’s upcoming book on the 1968 presidential election, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, took me right back to that famously turbulent year. Check out this description of an appearance by George Wallace at Madison Square Garden:
Outside the arena shoving matches and fistfights broke out repeatedly as Birchers, Nazis, and Klansmen tussled with Trotskyists, Yippies, and Black Power activists … Rocks and soda bottles, from both sides, pelted the cops, who were trying, without much success, to keep order …
With the crowd inside at a fever pitch, the guest of honor arrived under the watchful eye of hundreds of police officers. George Wallace was greeted with a sound so overwhelming that even the jaded political reporters who had seen and heard it all were momentarily stunned. “It was uncontrolled release of frenzied, pulsating passion that seemed almost more sexual than political … It may have been the loudest, most terrifying sustained human din ever heard in New York,” wrote Robert Mayer in Newsday. “Wallace at MSG was the dark-side equivalent of the Beatles playing Shea Stadium.”
And that’s just the crowd before the candidate stirred them up.
Then, with the traditional airing of grievances, the sermon began. Wallace fired broadsides against the “pseudo-intellectuals” and “theoreticians,” the “anarchists,” “the liberals and left wingers,” the “he” who looks like a “she,” and the professors and newspapers that “looked down their nose … at the average man on the street.” His pledges to “let the police handle” the country’s rising crime problems and end the practice of “busing your children where they don’t want to be bused” were met with boisterous and sustained applause. “All you need is a good barber!” he yelled at the dozens of hecklers in the crowd. “Why don’t you come down here … and I’ll autograph your sandals!” As yet another fight broke out in the balcony, Wallace offered no quarter. “Well, you came for trouble and you got it!”
This was not a particularly unusual Wallace appearance. Huge crowds typically attended his events (“twenty thousand greeted him at Boston Commons”) and got what they had come for. Angry and bigoted taunting of reporters and demonstrators as well as fisticuffs between pro- and anti-Wallace forces were the norm.
The “grievances” Wallace aired weren’t always the same as those now exploited by Trump, but there’s some overlap in law-and-order rhetoric, rabid anti-elitism, and Jacksonian hostility toward no-win wars (Wallace ‘68 was finally undone by his choice of “mad bomber” Curtis LeMay as his running mate, a man who just couldn’t suppress his enthusiasm for nuclear weapons). The most powerful parallel, however, is perhaps the most dangerous: the joy of the crowds over the sheer demagoguery of their candidate. Polls invariably show that the quality Trump supporters value most is that he “tells it like it is,” with aggressive contempt for “political correctness” (code for not offending women and minorities, generally speaking). Here’s Hunter Thompson talking with Wallace supporters in Wisconsin in 1972, during the campaign cut short by the candidate’s shooting a few weeks later:
For the next two hours I was locked in a friendly, free-wheeling conversation with about six of my hosts who didn’t mind telling me that they were there because George Wallace was the most important man in America. “This guy is the real thing,” one of them said. “I never cared anything about politics before, but Wallace ain’t the same as the others. He don’t sneak around the bush. He just comes right out and says it.”
It, of course, was the need for a great national purging of the uppity blacks and the spoiled, protesting students and the simpering liberal professors and politicians and media folk.
The most important difference between Wallace’s act and Trump’s is the context. In 1968 the Alabaman was running on a third-party ticket with the chief objective of throwing a close Humphrey/Nixon contest into the U.S. House of Representatives, giving Wallace some serious leverage. That would be a remote plan B for Trump, who is the front-runner for a major-party nomination. That’s not a very comforting realization for those who instinctively believe in human progress.