Not too long ago, Donald Trump's Republican presidential campaign was considered a joke with bad hair, but as we get closer to the primaries, the whole thing is starting to look less amusing. The sheer shock of his rise has been drawing comparisons to George Wallace's 1968 campaign, as the Rachel Maddow eloquently pointed out on Tuesday.
And Maddow is right, the Trump and Wallace campaigns have a lot of alarming similarities.
Back in 1968 Wallace ran for president as a third-party candidate, and he was already known for his infamous statements over desegregation."In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, 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," Wallace said in his 1963 inaugural speech as governor of Alabama.
When Walllace hit the campaign trail in 1968, it was more of the same. With his stump speeches railing against desegregation and the federal government he had a startling appeal that drew in millions of anxious angry white people who were unsettled by the chaos of the decade. During his campaign Wallace pulled in massive crowds who clamored to hear him sound off and say the things that millions of freaked out, angry white people longed to hear.
Trump does the same thing now. Like Wallace he's spent his months on the campaign trail making stump speeches against immigrants and Muslim Americans, foreign aid and anything else that would pull in insecure angry white voters who are once again alarmed by the changes they're seeing in the United States. Trump's appeal to voters is probably based more on personality and his deft showy declarations about immigration and Muslim Americans than it is on actual conservative principles. But there's one crucial difference between the Republican race in 1968 and 2016: Ted Cruz.
Back in 1968, the Republican candidates reacted to Wallace's ascendance as an actual third-party candidate with real concern that he would end up splitting the conservative vote and handing the White House to the Democrats. So candidates Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and even George H.W. Bush adopted gentler versions of Wallace's stances on integration and the federal government to appeal to those same alienated white voters. Nixon did it first and he managed to cobble together enough support to win the 1968 election.
Wallace still made a good showing, though. People turned out for him in 1968 and he carried five states, all Southern, garnered 13.5 percent of the vote and won 46 electoral votes. (He was poised to do even better in 1972 but his campaign was abruptly ended by an assassination attempt.) However, Wallace ultimately ended up leaving his mark on the U.S. political landscape in a more lasting way: The Wallace-influenced approach to race and social issues in 1968 became a part of the Republican party's identity from then on out.
The fact that Trump and Cruz are the top contenders for the presidential nomination today is arguably a result of the Wallace strain that infected the Republican party more than 40 years ago.
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In a lot of ways Trump's campaign reads like history is repeating itself, but there are some marked differences. When faced with Wallace's candidacy the GOP shifted to the right to appeal to the voters that had been flocking to Wallace, but that shift won't be necessary to get the Republican party in line with (and playing up to) the vein of fear and anger in so many voters that Trump has tapped into this time around. In fact, Trump's reality-TV version of a campaign has actually managed to make Cruz come off as a reasonable and viable presidential candidate, as we've previously noted, partly just because almost anyone would come off as a plausible alternative compared to the Donald. And once Trump is out of the picture that will leave the also-Wallace-like Cruz.
In fact, as Cruz has adjusted his speeches on the campaign trail to have more of Trump's bombastic style, he too has been compared to Wallace. In December Cruz even echoed Wallace's infamous statement's about segregation when he was asked about his position on giving undocumented immigrants citizenship. “My position is very simple. I oppose amnesty. I oppose citizenship. I oppose legalization," Cruz said. "Today, tomorrow, forever."
Sounds familiar, right?
Back in 1968 people turned out to support Wallace in droves and he changed conservative politics in a fundamental way over the course of his run. The question is, this time around how many people will turn out for Cruz?