There is one man who might be able to beat Donald Trump. But it would involve amending the Constitution, exhuming former Alabama governor George Wallace and re-constituting his ashes.
The current Republican frontrunner has been able to accomplish something that Wallace, in his living days, could not. In the months since Trump announced his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, he has singlehandedly built a bipartisan, largely white coalition of conservatives who are attracted to his nativist brand of economic populism. For them, the fine details of actual policy proposals appear to be less important than the notion that Trump is the one who can take their country back.
Much like Wallace—who was a Democrat—and despite his inconsistencies on the issues, Trump has tapped into a reservoir of resentment. He gives voice to the grievances of his supporters in a way that no other viable candidate for national office arguably has or can. As Trump continues to intensify his rhetoric, he has revealed deep fissures between the Republican establishment and the party’s grassroots. But his support does not stop at the water’s edge.
Those measuring Trump’s electoral “ceiling” should look again. There was certainly a ceiling on how much support Wallace received nationally. And, without a doubt, there is a cap on how high Trump’s stock will rise. But Trump is getting some unanticipated help—from Democrats.
Feasting on a public mood that is strikingly similar to what fueled Wallace, backing for the billionaire businessman has crossed the partisan aisle. The Trump voter is buoyed by his proclamations that he can “make America great again.” One constant refrain is that he “tells it like it is,” a thinly veiled reference to the way Trump eschews politically correct speech and frequently deploys bigoted, divisive language.
Among his electoral strongholds are so-called “blue dogs.” According to The New York Times, Trump carries a full 43 percent of voters who are registered Democrats, but who lean to the right. In the mold of Wallace, Trump has given rise to a modern-day Dixiecrat—only this one is not contained to the American South.
Up North, he is drawing support from “Reagan Democrats”—those who are disaffected by the broadening diversity of the Democratic Party. Reminiscent of Reagan, at least one poll shows that 20 percent of Democrats would defect and pull the lever for Trump this November.
His promises to rebuild the nation’s manufacturing base, hunt down Muslim terrorists and stop “illegal aliens” at the border have earned him deep support across the South, in rural areas in the country’s mid-section and in rusting smoke-stack cities in the North and upper Midwest. Never mind the fact that many of his proposals are unworkable and others would bust the national bank or qualify as war crimes. Trump’s “us versus them” mentality has attracted substantial support from white evangelicals and catapulted him into what is likely an insurmountable lead.
Without question, Trump has shocked the chattering class, energized his base and driven up turnout numbers in Republican primaries and caucuses. As the real estate denizen steamrolls through states like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee on Super Tuesday, it is worth noting that he polls strongest among working class-whites who are less educated and who were the least likely to vote. His reach also extends to north to Massachusettes and his home state of New York.
Nate Cohn says it is a “familiar pattern.”
“It is similar to a map of the tendency toward racism by region, according to measures like the prevalence of Google searches for racial slurs and racist jokes, or scores on implicit association tests,” Cohn writes for The New York Times.
Trump may also be benefitting from the election of the country’s first African-American president. Once thought to be an augur of a post-racial America, the 2008 election instead gave rise to tensions thought by some to be already resolved. For some people, that clear demonstration of black voting power within the highly diverse Obama Coalition was something to be feared rather than embraced.
Wallace, a segregationist who is perhaps most famous for the assertion, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” would later come to rebuke that ugly ideology, but he never let go of economic populism.
However, what some political prognosticators miss about Wallace is the way in which he and his contemporaries used racial animus and economic fears to destabilize the Democratic base after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts. While Wallace never actually became a Republican himself, he helped to inspire the party re-alignment that would last for generations. That schism would become the precursor to the “Southern Strategy” adopted by Republicans to maintain national political power.
Trump appears to have taken up the mantle in a way the separates him from Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who continue to trail him in the polls. But even as he benefits from the old Southern Strategy built by Republicans, Trump is remaking the tactical approach in his own image. He has rejected critical elements of the modern-day conservative doctrine.
“Trump has called for abolishing the carried-interest tax loophole for hedge-fund and private-equity managers,” writes James Surowiecki for The New Yorker. “He’s vowed to protect Social Security. He’s called for restrictions on highly skilled immigrants. Most important, he’s rejected free-trade ideology, suggesting that the U.S. may need to slap tariffs on Chinese goods to protect American jobs.”
Trump’s impact on party alignment is unknowable today. But Democrats and Republicans are right to fear the result. Like Wallace, Trump is shaking the table and there is no telling where the pieces might fall.