Another Trip Back to 1972

Before there was a Tea Party on the right, there was George Wallace on the left. Or George Wallace in the party of the left. Or something. I’m not sure George Wallace can be explained exactly, except to say that what we’re seeing now with Trump and Carson and Cruz? Yeah, if you’re old enough, you’ve pretty much seen it before.

Ironically, though, it’s George McGovern who is going to play the role of Ted Cruz here. Of course, he’s also going to be playing the role of Bernie Sanders. It’s kind of confusing.

Let Hunter S. Thompson explain.

One of the crucial moments of the ’72 primary campaign came on election night in Florida, March 14th, when McGovern – who had finished a dismal sixth, behind even Lindsay and Muskie – refused to follow their sour example and blame his poor showing on that Evil Racist Monster, George Wallace, who had just swept every county in the state. Moments after both Lindsay and Muskie had appeared on all three networks to denounce the Florida results as tragic proof that at least half the voters were ignorant dupes and nazis, McGovern came on and said that although he couldn’t agree with some of the things Wallace said and stood for, he sympathized with the people who’d voted for “The Governor” because they were “angry and fed up” with some of the things that are happening in this country.

“I feel the same way,” he added. “But unlike Governor Wallace, I’ve proposed constructive solutions to these problems.”

Yeah, so, this is a nice gambit. Don’t alienate the yahoos because you might need them later. And, in any case, there’s a little secret about Trump George Wallace that most people don’t understand. Except, McGovern understood it, and Ted Cruz understands it, too.

First, though, the candidate has to be willing to appall his own supporters and the decent half of the media.

It was not what the ballroom crowd wanted to hear, at that moment. Not after listening to both Kasich Lindsay and Bush Muskie denounce Trump Wallace as a cancer in the soul of America…but Cruz McGovern wasn’t talking to the people in that ballroom; he was making a very artful pitch to potential Wallace voters in the other primary states. Wisconsin was three weeks away, then Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan – and Wallace would be raising angry hell in every one of them.

And here’s where the secret comes in.

Sanders’s McGovern’s braintrust, though, had come up with the idea that the Wallace vote was “soft” – that the typical Wallace voter, especially in the North and Midwest, was far less committed to Wallace himself than to his thundering, gut-level appeal to rise up and smash all the “pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington” who’d been f*cking them over for so long.

The root of the Wallace magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy – and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions: Taxes? Nigras? Army worms killing the turnip crop? Whatever it was, Wallace assured his supporters that the solution was actually real simple, and that the only reason they had any hassle with the government at all was because those greedy bloodsuckers in Washington didn’t want the problems solved, so they wouldn’t be put out of work.

Sound familiar?

Do you think maybe a lot of Trump supporters are less committed to Trump himself than to the gut-level appeal to smash the people who have been f*cking them over?

The ugly truth is that Wallace had never even bothered to understand the problems – much less come up with any honest solutions – but “the Fighting Little Judge” has never lost much sleep from guilt feelings about his personal credibility gap.

I don’t think Carson has lost much sleep over his credibility gap either, but let’s keep this as simple as we can. Read the following and just exchange Trump for Wallace and Republican for Democrat and see if it sounds right.

George Wallace is one of the worst charlatans in politics, but there is no denying his talent for converting frustration into energy. What McGovern sensed in Florida, however – while Wallace was stomping him, along with all the others – was the possibility that Wallace appealed instinctively to a lot more people than would actually vote for him. He was stirring up more anger than he knew how to channel. The frustration was there, and it was easy enough to convert it – but what then? If Wallace had taken himself seriously as a presidential candidate – as a Democrat or anything else – he might have put together the kind of organization that would have made him a genuine threat in the primaries, instead of just a spoiler.

Uh oh. Could be that Alfred J. Tuchfarber is correct and Trump’s polling lead 60 days out from the Iowa caucuses doesn’t mean a hill of beans. On the other hand, this Wallace chap is winning every county in Florida in our little narrative here, so let’s not count Trump out too soon.

McGovern, on the other hand, had put together a fantastic organization – but until he went into Wisconsin he had never tried to tap the kind of energy that seemed to be flowing, perhaps by default, to Wallace. He had given it some thought while campaigning in New Hampshire, but it was only after he beat Muskie in two blue-collar, hard-hat wards in the Middle of Manchester that he saw the possibility of a really mind-bending coalition: A weird mix of peace freaks and hardhats, farmers and film stars, along with urban blacks, rural chicanos, the “youth vote”…a coalition that could elect almost anybody.

And that is where our comparison between today and 1972 breaks down, because it’s a socialist running for the nomination of the other party who is working on the theory that a lot of Wallace rage is soft and not particularly partisan or ideological. It is only loosely attached to Trump who is, anyway, basically a clown act.

The problem for McGovern was that the coalition of freaks and hardhats was big enough to win him the nomination but too small and fragile to even compete in the general. Sanders’ theory of the case is that the overmatched McGovern coalition is really about the same thing (sans most of the hardhats) as the twice victorious Obama coalition. Demographic changes have flipped the odds. If Sanders can bring back in some of the disaffected hardhats, he could create a progressive revolution in this country based less on identity politics than on class consciousness.

Sounds a bit utopian, I know, but McGovern showed that it isn’t entirely insane to try.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.