The Sunday Edition

Donald Trump is not the first to terrify U.S. political elites in a presidential election - Michael's essay

In 1968, George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, ran as a third party candidate. Not unlike now, Americans were frightened, angry and utterly cynical about national politics. As Washington correspondent for The Globe and Mail, Michael had a front-row seat to another time of angry populism and anti-government rhetoric.
Reporters surround presidential candidate and former Alabama Gov. George Wallace at Metro Airport in Detroit, Mich., after the presidential candidate arrived to address a night rally at Cobo Hall. (The Associated Press/Preston Stroup)

The all-white campaign crowd in the town of Warren, Michigan was angry. Each time the racist presidential candidate fired yet another volley at the evils of big government, the crowd exploded in cheers.

When he characterized the national press as parasites and "pointy headed intellectuals," the crowd screamed its approval. Some threw rocks at the cluster of reporters standing near the stage.

When he said he would run over protesters in his presidential limousine after November, his audience gave him a cheering standing ovation.

The racist presidential candidate smiled and waved his arms.

No, it is not 2016 and no, the nominee is not Donald Trump.

It is 1968 and the demagogue of the hour was George Corley Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential nominee of the American Independent Party.

In 1968, I was the Washington correspondent for The Globe and Mail and the United States was ablaze.

Riots and fires raged across dozens of urban areas. Cops in every major city attacked young men and women protesting the hated Vietnam War.

Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in April. In June, Senator Robert Kennedy was gunned down in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles.

The sitting president announced he would not run for re-election, and the war continued to slaughter American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians.

Americans were afraid, afraid and angry. Riots in Newark, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington and Watts had exacerbated racial tensions.

Wallace's third party candidacy became a sounding board and a rallying point for millions of disaffected Americans.

It also became a direct threat to the establishment candidates: Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat, and Richard Nixon, the Republican.

I followed Wallace around the south, where not surprisingly, he was the favourite son.

What was striking was his popularity in the rust belt cities and small towns of the midwest, especially among young white men.    

Wallace talked about the same things Trump would talk about almost half a century later.

George Wallace and Donald Trump had little in common. But what both were able to do was to tap into dark wellsprings of anger, hatred, frustration.- Michael Enright

In times of turmoil and uncertainty, Americans tend to look for and turn to a dynamic figure who can calm their fears, assuage their frustrations and channel their anger and direct it at concocted enemies — hippies, minorities, bureaucrats, the rich, establishment politicians.

Trump is the latest incarnation of this heated populism.

But unlike Wallace who embraced policies his audiences could understand, Trump is always shifting positions to the point where few know where he stands on any given issue.

Unlike Trump, Wallace did not have an adulatory media publishing his every utterance. 

And unlike Trump, Wallace was not famous for being famous. 

That November, Richard Nixon was elected president. Wallace won nearly 10-million votes carrying most of the states of the Old Confederacy. Southern Democrats who would have voted for Humphrey went to Wallace instead.

Aug 9, 1968: Two supporters of American politician Richard Nixon at Miami Beach, where Nixon was nominated Republican presidential candidate. (Keystone/Getty Images)

George Wallace and Donald Trump had little in common. But what both were able to do was to tap into dark wellsprings of anger, hatred, frustration.

The Trump/Clinton campaign beginning after Labour Day promises to be one of the nastiest and dirtiest since 1968. 

In the famous words of Kurt Vonnegut: "The winners are at war with the losers and the fix is on. The prospects for peace are awful."

Click the button above to hear Michael's essay on the 1968 American election. 


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