Trump and the George Wallace Tradition of Foreign Policy

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George Wallace's foreign policy profile was blown away by his nuke-happy running mate, Curtis LeMay.Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s act when it comes to domestic policy is pretty familiar, if not always predictable: Figure out what the most conservative white working-class people want. And so Trump stands in a long line of “populist” demagogues peddling a powerfully divisive rhetoric of resentment toward the combined power of liberal elites and minorities. The way he plays that politics often reminds people of the famous race-baiter George Wallace, whose raucous rallies in his presidential campaigns of 1964, 1968, and 1972 were often uncannily like Trump’s today.

When it comes to foreign policy, though, Trump’s trumpet seems to blow a somewhat more unfamiliar note. Or does it? At Reason, Jesse Walker compares the mogul’s global outlook to George Wallace’s and finds a lot in common.

But he has to look long and hard. That is because Wallace’s international views, at least when he was a general-election candidate in 1968, were almost entirely obscured by those of his militaristic running mate, former Strategic Air Command chief General Curtis LeMay, who (as Walker reminds us) in the course of one disastrous press conference pretty much ensured the Wallace-LeMay ticket would never again stray into a discussion of foreign policy. Even as Wallace kept trying to break in and reinterpret LeMay’s remarks or change the subject, the “mad bomber” insisted on schooling reporters about the relatively benign nature of nuclear weapons. Investigations after nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll, LeMay cheerfully disclosed, had shown that “the crabs were a little hot, but the rats were bigger, fatter, and healthier than ever.” Wallace may well have seen his presidential chances go up in a mushroom cloud.

But when Wallace did address international affairs, he sounded less like Curtis LeMay and, well, a lot like Donald Trump. Reviewing Pete Hamill’s account of a Wallace speech on Vietnam, Walker found a lot of Trumpian themes:

There’s the declaration that he wouldn’t have gotten us into this mess in the first place. There’s the focus on foreign aid, and there’s the idea that the U.S. is being ripped off by its alleged allies. There’s the hand-waving promise to consult the best experts. There’s the double reference to flexing Washington’s military muscle (“make full use of the country’s conventional weapons”) and achieving peace (“to quickly end this war and bring our boys home”). And of course, there’s the disdain for radical protesters. There were reasons here to believe the speaker might be more dovish in practice than his internationalist opponents, and there were reasons not to be sure. It wasn’t a speech for doves, and it wasn’t a speech for global crusaders either. It was a speech for nationalists.

You get the sense that if Wallace had somehow become president, some terrible things would have happened to the Vietnamese — but not for long.

In fact, what both Wallace and Trump seem to reflect is what has often been called the Jacksonian tradition of foreign policy. Here’s how Peter Beinart described it in a column on Trump:

[Jacksonians] have little interest in the “Hamiltonian” project of prying other countries open to American commerce or the “Wilsonian” project of spreading democracy and liberty across the globe. But when attacked, especially by what they consider dishonorable foes, Jacksonians believe that “wars must be fought with all available force. The use of limited force is deeply repugnant.”

This ethic is central to the way that Americans—especially Jacksonian Americans, who dominate the Republican base—tell the story of America’s major wars.

You try to stay out, but if provoked, you go in with maximum force and kill everything in sight. Then you go home. It’s a way of looking at the world that’s just as intrinsic to white working-class Americans as hostility to minority-group “takers” or hypocritical and supercilious elites.

And it’s another way in which Donald Trump walks the same twisted path George Wallace trod before him.

The two men could not have been much different in background. Wallace grew up on a farm in Alabama, and though he was by no means ignorant, he was and remained provincial, and was an authentic representative of the crackers he led. Trump grew up rich, somehow acquired the worldview of people far below his family’s station, and he’s gotten much closer to the conquest of national political power than Wallace — a man whose career probably peaked the day after he was shot on the 1972 campaign trail — ever did.