One of the great puzzlements of modern presidential politics will forever be that, in the historically bizarre 2016 campaign, it took the Republican Party’s establishment elites three-quarters of a year to wise up to the fact that multibillionaire mogul and reality-TV entertainer Donald Trump was stealing their party right out from under their upturned noses.
Beginning on June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced that he was running for president, Republican elites and designated talkers were dismissing Trump’s candidacy as just an ego-driven, gaffe-o-rama sideshow. They assured each other and all the eagerly flapping media ears that Trump’s candidacy would inevitably self destruct — and soon. The multibillionaire tycoon and political neophyte would either bow out or flame out — and the celebrity-fawning news media would finally focus on the genuinely famous Republican officeholders and ex-officios who were clogging the campaign trails. After all, no candidate could possibly survive so many goofs, gaffes, false statements and flat-out lies as Trump was committing day and night.
There was, of course, another way of analyzing all of that. But it existed way below the Republican establishment’s radar. Luckily, it didn’t escape us: Trump’s newborn campaign was just a month old when faithful readers of this column discovered there might be an alternate way of analyzing this thing that wasn’t yet being called the Trump phenomenon. There was something about the things Trump was saying, how he was saying them — and mainly, how his huge crowds were reacting to them — that had reminded me of something I’d covered as a rookie campaign journalist. So, on July 21, 2015, I wrote a column drawing a parallel between Trump’s campaign appeal and the way I’d seen ordinary folks in the industrialized North be won over in the 1968 presidential campaign by Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace.
Mainly, there was an absolutely mind-bending thing I’d discovered about Wallace’s blue-collar fans up North in 1968. And now that same striking similarity seemed to be propelling Trump’s unconventional appeal.
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Remember 1968 — a tumultuous year like none other: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, Robert F. Kennedy was killed in June. By September, Northern blue collar audiences were fed up with government, street violence, the Vietnam War — and were captivated by Wallace’s carefully calculated, cornpone populism (see also: demagoguery). Wallace ridiculed government bureaucrats as “pointy-headed intellectuals who can’t even park a bicycle straight,” carrying briefcases filled with “nothing but peanut butter sandwiches.”
But most importantly, I discovered the one key that seemed to unlock the secrets of the 1968 and 2016 campaigns. In September 1968, I began walking through Wallace’s rallies, asking just one main question: Who had these folks liked as a possible president way back in February or March, before Wallace started campaigning? Many Wallace backers gave the same answer: Bobby Kennedy! Say what? I reminded them that in 1963 Wallace had famously stood in the University of Alabama doorway to block the enrollment of the first black students — but then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent in troops that integrated the university. But those Northern Wallace fans hadn’t thought of it as switching from a pro-integration liberal to a pro-segregation states’ rights conservative. To them, it was just that “they both had guts.” And mainly: “They’re the only ones speaking to people like me!”
Fast forward to 2016: that’s the same thing Trump’s supporters were telling reporters. Whether they were blue collar union members or white collar conservatives, they had this in common: They were fed-up with government and politicians and finally found someone who was speaking plain talk to them — Trump. They weren’t thinking about ideologies or issues. They just want a tough leader to shake things up and fix everything that’s wrong. TV journalists began finding folks who liked both Trump and also maybe Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders — these fans saw them as two of a kind.
So I ended my column last July by noting that those fed-up, mad-as-hell voters may be the ones who elect our next president.
The Republican establishment never really got that concept. But they got old-math delegate counting. And after Trump swept through Super Tuesday, their last losing standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, suddenly materialized to fire up a way-too-late Stop Trump movement. Romney gave exactly one speech – attacking Trump’s indeed contemptible campaign bullying, misogyny, anti-immigrant statements, falsehoods and his shameful ridiculing of a handicapped journalist. Romney vanished, and Trump kept winning. This week, 2016’s GOP apprentice became the party’s last survivor.
Now some famous Republicans are whispering about forming a third party. Some are thinking it must challenge Trump on the far-right. Others are thinking it must go to his left as a center-moderate party.
Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.