Is Donald Trump A Modern-Day George Wallace? Fueled by voter anger at a changing America, 50 years ago a pugnacious governor from Alabama made waves and got a lot of votes. Today, Wallace allies and family see Trump walking a similar path.
NPR logo

Is Donald Trump A Modern-Day George Wallace?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/475172438/475311930" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Is Donald Trump A Modern-Day George Wallace?

Is Donald Trump A Modern-Day George Wallace?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/475172438/475311930" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Donald Trump's success has the Republican Party in a quandary. It's being forced to contend with voters who are just fed up with party politics. Some 50 years ago, another vociferous candidate put the scare in traditional powerbrokers. The late George Wallace fired up his crowds with a similar anti-establishment message. He also drew passionate protests, ones like we're seeing now at Trump rallies. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: When he first entered presidential politics in 1964, then-Alabama Governor George Wallace was famous for this declaration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE WALLACE: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

ELLIOTT: The southern populist and former Golden Gloves boxing champ burst onto the national stage tapping into a vein of resentment over the social upheaval of the day, namely new civil rights laws. In 1968, running as a third-party candidate, he drew large crowds to ever more raucous rallies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We want Wallace. We want Wallace.

ELLIOTT: Tens of thousands turned out at rallies in major northeastern cities like Boston and New York. Wallace's racial rhetoric on this national stage was more coded. He berated both the federal government and the political parties for being out of touch with average Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALLACE: And I want to tell these national parties this - they're going to find out there are a lot of rednecks come November 5th in this country.

(APPLAUSE)

WALLACE: They've used us as a doormat long enough.

ELLIOTT: Talk of doormats in the '60s to a dumping ground today as a way to reach dismayed voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems.

(APPLAUSE)

CHARLIE SNIDER: It's just a replay. We're looking at a modern-day George Wallace.

ELLIOTT: Charlie Snider was one of Wallace's most trusted political aides. He was chairman of two of Wallace's four presidential campaigns. Now 84, Snider has been watching this year's race with great interest.

SNIDER: George didn't have the party for him, he didn't have the hierarchy for him, he didn't have the major contributors for him. But he had the people for him. And that's exactly what's happening today with Donald Trump.

ELLIOTT: Wallace shocked political pundits by winning nearly 10 million popular votes in the '68 election, carrying five states. He ran as a Democrat in 1972 and again in '76. Snider, a Trump supporter, says watching protesters at Trump rallies today reminds him of being on the campaign trail with Wallace. In an era of anti-war and civil rights activism, there were always protesters.

SNIDER: George kind of liked that because he would badger with them. You know, he'd go back and forth with them, you know, like, you know, why don't you go get your hair cut or something like that. Or, don't you know it's cold out there and you got those sandals on, you know? And he'd do these kind of things. He kindly enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALLACE: I love you too. I sure do.

(LAUGHTER)

WALLACE: Oh, I thought you were a she. You a he. Oh, my goodness.

ELLIOTT: You can watch Wallace provoke protesters in the documentary "Wallace: Settin' The Woods On Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WALLACE: SETTIN' THE WOODS ON FIRE")

WALLACE: Why don't you young punks get out of the auditorium?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Hello. Look at these people. Boy, what a bunch of losers, I'll tell you. You are a loser. You really are a loser.

ELLIOTT: Donald Trump has made ejecting disruptive hecklers part of his stump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Ready? Are you ready? Get 'em outta here. Get 'em outta here. Get the hell outta here.

ELLIOTT: While their combative styles mirror, Trump is no racial segregationist. Wallace drew voters alarmed by a eroding white privilege. Trump draws voters worried about the erosion of jobs and competition from immigrant labor. His call for a ban on Muslims is a lightning rod in much the way that Wallace's position on race was in the '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

(APPLAUSE)

ELLIOTT: Peggy Wallace Kennedy was 18 when she campaigned with her father in 1968. In Trump, she hears something familiar.

PEGGY WALLACE KENNEDY: Trump and my father say out loud what people are thinking but don't have the courage to say.

ELLIOTT: Peggy Wallace Kennedy is a retired teacher who now advocates for the very voting rights her father once fought. A Democrat, she's critical of the Trump campaign. She says he's exploiting voters' worst instincts the way George Wallace did.

WALLACE KENNEDY: They both were able to adopt the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters that feel alienated from government.

ELLIOTT: Historian Dan Carter says the appeal has nothing to do with political ideology.

DAN CARTER: This is about style. It's about impressions. It's about a kind of vague taking charge.

ELLIOTT: Carter is the author of "The Politics Of Rage," a biography of George Wallace and his influence on conservative American politics. He says both Trump and Wallace come across as fighters to voters who believe the country is on the wrong track.

CARTER: When that happens, you look for a strong individual. To me, that's the big appeal and the big similarity between George Wallace and Donald Trump.

ELLIOTT: The Trump campaign has not responded to NPR's request for comment on the comparison. Former Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett was a reporter with the Birmingham Post-Herald in the '60s. He covered the Wallace presidential rallies.

JIM BENNETT: They were wild.

ELLIOTT: He says just as Trump supporters have turned on protesters, Wallace rallies were known to get physical. He recalls one particular confrontation in Portland, Ore.

BENNETT: Protesters were going around one way and Wallace supporters were going around the other, and when they'd clash, they'd hit each other with the signs, one of which said, God is love.

ELLIOTT: At this 1968 rally in Detroit, a skirmish between hecklers and Wallace supporters ends in an all-out chair throwing brawl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELLIOTT: Bennett has written a column comparing the similarities he sees between Trump's approach and Wallace's campaign style - for instance, the way they target the media.

BENNETT: Wallace used to point out the press that was there, and sometimes that didn't go over real good with some of these crowds, either.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALLACE: The average citizen in this county has more intelligence and sense in his little finger than the editor of The New York Times has in his whole head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Do we like the media?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No

TRUMP: Do we hate the media?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yes.

ELLIOTT: Like Wallace, Trump may spar with the press but he also tends to be the candidate who gets the most media attention, a fact he acknowledged this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Hey, I guess we wouldn't be here maybe if it wasn't for the media. So maybe we shouldn't be complaining, right?

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.