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How An Alabama Governor Helped Give America Donald Trump

Fifty years ago, George Wallace used race-based populism to try to Make America Great Again — and nearly succeeded

In 1968, Hillary Clinton registered as a Democrat, Bernie Sanders moved to Vermont, and Donald Trump graduated from Wharton. A man also ran for president on a third-party ticket, carried five states, and won nearly 10 million votes, and changed American politics forever.

The first time George Wallace -- a native Alabamian and, at the time, a relatively liberal jurist by Southern standards -- ran for governor as a Democrat, his opposition had the support of the Ku Klux Klan. Wallace lost, because, in his words, he’d been “outniggered.” And, Wallace said, “I will never be outniggered again.” He wasn’t.

George Wallace was a populist, and he knew that what the popular majority of Alabamians responded to most was racism. Racism got white voters to the polls and into the streets. “You know,” Wallace once told a supporter, “I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."

He won the governor’s race in 1962 as a Democrat. He said in his inaugural speech that he would ensure better funding for Alabama schools, higher wages for Alabama’s farmers, and a brighter future for Alabama’s senior citizens. But he also said that he would reject the “tyranny” of the federal government’s efforts to integrate public institutions following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Wallace would stand up for everyday Alabamians against Big Government because “the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright man.” He said this, noting that he stood in the very spot Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America, a country founded on the institution of slavery. The heel of tyranny, apparently, was for use on black people only.

“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth,” he told the crowd that day, six years before his presidential bid, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He would toss this gauntlet literally while governor, blocking the path of two black students during their attempt to enroll in classes at the University of Alabama. He would do so again and again, putting Alabama on one side and the rest of the country, civil rights leaders, and the federal government on the other. The "establishment" and the media and D.C. elites didn’t understand everyday Alabamians, but George Wallace did.

Wallace ran for president in 1968, but did so as the nominee of the American Independent Party. He had left the Democratic Party, which by this time had begun its transition from the party of segregationists to the party most able to speak to the needs of minorities after Democratic president Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Wallace’s platform was America-focused: He promised to increase money given to beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare and said that foreign aid was money “poured down a rat hole.” William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review magazine, and, in some ways, modern conservatism, called him a “country and western Marxist.

But George Wallace wasn’t a Marxist, and he wasn’t a conservative, either. He was, again, a populist. He didn’t want government to get smaller, he wanted government to get bigger and do more for white people — white people like him and the Alabamians he knew and loved.

Since his rise in Alabama politics began, Wallace had argued that the federal government was too focused on “Martin Luther King and his group of pro-communists.” In 1968, he told white Americans that if he were president, he could take the government back. He could make it better. He could, in so many words, make America great — and white — again.

It worked. It worked so well that to this day, George Wallace is the last non-Democrat, non-Republican presidential nominee to win electoral votes by popular vote. It worked so well that Richard Nixon was forced to develop his own “Southern Strategy” — aimed squarely at white racial resentment — to appeal to Wallace’s voting bloc. And that Southern Strategy permeated politics through the '70s, '80s, and '90s. It may have no longer been acceptable to say “nigger,” but it was just fine to argue about “states’ rights.”

Of course, Wallace was more direct than Southern strategists. In his 1970 campaign for governor, he printed ads declaring, “BLACKS VOW TO TAKE OVER ALABAMA,” featuring a photograph of a little white girl surrounded by seven black boys. He promised not to run for president again, but did just that in 1972, as a “racial moderate.” And he was gaining support right up until he was shot five times and left permanently paralyzed on May 15, 1972.

Wallace later apologized for his racist past, following his conversion to Christianity, and asked for forgiveness. But the damage had already been done. When Wallace died in 1998, a historian wrote, “George Wallace laid the foundation for the dominance of the Republican Party in American society through the manipulation of racial and social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the master teacher, and Richard Nixon and the Republican leadership that followed were his students.”

Donald Trump knows this, too. Donald Trump is not a conservative. Like Wallace, Donald Trump is a populist. And his most fervent and racially motivated supporters believe that millions of white voters will respond to his message of racial grievance, even now as they bemoan the “racial grievance industry.” White people aren’t being listened to, they think. No one is talking about what white people need. No one cares about what white people want. Donald Trump has a plan, though. One focused on limiting involvement in non-domestic affairs, and on improving the lives of working-class workers in Midwestern states. One that blames Mexican immigrants for rape and assault, and bars Muslims from entering the United States, and, like Wallace, doesn’t seem to mind white supremacists. In his view, the government doesn’t need to get smaller — it needs to get back to focusing on what white people need.

He could make American great — and white — again.