The presidential hopeful knew many American voters were angry. Some of his rivals preached calm. He didn’t.
“We need some meanness,” he said at one point on the campaign trail.
Confrontation at his rallies became a ritual. He spoke, the hecklers started, and he shouted back. Fistfights broke out in the aisles. Scores of police were necessary to restore order.
One Midwestern rally decayed into a chair-swinging melee. Bodyguards hustled the candidate off stage. As handcuffed protesters shuffled towards the exits, supporters sucker-punched them. Law enforcement did not intervene.
Donald Trump, 2016? Nope. George Wallace, 1968.
“One plainclothes policeman, using a pair of handcuffs as brass knuckles, cut the face of a heckler who shoved him,” said the Chicago Tribune in its account of the wild Wallace rally in Detroit on Oct. 29 of that year.
Rabble-rousing has a long and complex history in United States politics. From the Know Nothing Party of the 1840s, through Ku Klux Klan violence in Reconstruction and into the tense era of Vietnam, ambitious politicians have at times directly appealed to the anxieties of a mainly white working class that the world they know is threatened, and is slipping from their grasp.
These appeals take many forms. Sometimes they’re about economic populism. Sometimes they’re about the perceived depredations of immigrants. Sometimes they’re racist. Always there’s a whiff – and sometimes more than that – of violent resistance.
What’s Trump’s place in this continuum? That’s hard to say just yet. To this point he’s no George Wallace. This year isn’t anything like the late 1960s, when US politics and society itself seemed at the point of becoming unhinged.
But like Wallace, Trump blames his supporters’ outbursts on the other side. It’s not our fault, it’s them. You know, the others. The ones not like us.
“I get these massive crowds of people, and we’ll get protesters. And these protesters are honestly, they’re very bad people. In many cases, they’re professionals. Highly trained professionals,” Trump told the Washington Post editorial board during a meeting on March 21.
Trump tells supporters that their jobs have been stolen by illegal immigrants and stupid trade deals, and he’ll get them back. Under President Trump, we’ll wall ourselves off from the immigrants, beat China on trade, take the oil from Iraq we deserve, and force freeloading allies to pay for our protection.
If this is populism, it’s an aggressive strain. Left-leaning historian Rick Perlstein calls Trump’s general appeal “herrenvolk democracy.” It’s not conservatism at all. It’s big government, and big government programs, but only for the deserving.
“ ‘Herrenvolk’ was a word coined by a sociologist in 1967 that basically means social democracy for the favored race as a way not of expanding liberty to the entire citizenry but drawing a line between the accepted in-group and the hated out-group,” Perlstein told an interviewer for Slate earlier this year.
“Herrenvolk democracy”? The name may be new, but the ideas it expresses are not. In the pre-Civil War era, the Know Nothings were all that, and more. Much more.
They arose in reaction to immigration. The immigrants were Irish and German Catholics, though, not Hispanics from across the southern border.
Protestant Americans were worried this new class of workers would take their jobs. They organized politically under the banner of the American Republican Party, and various other names. “Know Nothing” was a nickname for these organizations, and it stuck.
As Catholics poured into the country into the 1850s, crime and welfare costs soared, particularly in the northeast. Know Nothing candidates swept elections in Massachusetts and made inroads in some other nearby states. They pushed populist economic policies, such as railroad regulations and expanded access to public education. They also rallied to restrict Catholic rights, though they failed in an attempt to get Congress to lengthen the period for naturalization from five to 21 years.
Voting was a particular flash point. On Election Day in 1855 riots broke out between Know Nothing mobs and Catholic groups in Louisville, Kentucky. At least 22 people died.
“Violence became so great that many writers, both then and now, have designated this day ‘Bloody Monday’,” wrote Charles Deusner in an account of the incident in a Kentucky Historical Society journal in 1963.
Like US society of the time, the Know Nothings were split by the slavery question. They rapidly declined in influence in the late 1850s, and were spent as a US political force by the 1860 election.
Emancipation produced the next upsurge of US political violence. And make no mistake: the Reconstruction era, in the South, was violent in the extreme. Following the Civil War, the rise of state governments controlled by newly freed African-Americans and Unionist Republicans was an affront the old planter aristocracy could little abide. So they didn’t.
Starting in about 1868 a wave of counterrevolutionary terror swept the region, led by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was in essence the military force of the planters, the Democratic party, and all others who wanted white supremacy restored, writes Columbia historian Eric Foner in his classic “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution”. It burned and murdered with impunity, making it virtually impossible for Republicans, the party of Lincoln, to campaign or vote in many parts of the Deep South.
“The Klan devastated the Republican organization in many local communities,” Foner writes.
State by state, Democrats and the old regimes returned to power. They put in place segregated public facilities and barriers to African-American voting, laying the foundation for Jim Crow laws and decades of oppression. They bottled up the aspirations of a race – leading, in turn, to the explosion of the civil rights movement of the late 20th century, as that race, down so long, sought its freedoms denied.
And that brings us to 1968. Today’s US politics may seem dark, threatening, and polarized. But it was worse then, in the late ’60s. Casualties mounted in Vietnam as protests against the war split the country. Race riots erupted from Watts to Detroit. To the voters of what Richard Nixon labeled the “silent majority”, the nation seemed to be coming apart. By year’s end, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy would be gone, felled by assassins.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace, avowed segregationist, colorful populist, and presidential aspirant, appealed to those workers’ fears. He threatened to shoot rioters and run his limousine over anti-war protestors. He opined that the racial unrest ripping around the US was “planned in Havana”.
In one 1967 speech Wallace said that the working people of America were fed up with Washington bureaucrats, pointy-headed professors, and “swaydo” (his pronunciation of “pseudo”) intellectual morons telling them how to live their lives.
“Then he left under armed guard, a sweaty savor of imminent violence hanging in the air,” wrote Rick Perlstein in “Nixonland”, his history of the era.
And his supporters were violent. The Oct. 29 riot at his Detroit rally at Cobo Hall was but the culmination. An earlier rally at Madison Square Garden in New York was kept under control only by the presence of 1,000 policemen.
Today’s Trump rallies are only a pale echo of that, at least so far. But the real estate magnate has also expressed some nostalgia for the “old days”.
“We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to [protesters] in a place like this? They would be carried out in a stretcher, folks. True,” Trump said at a Las Vegas rally in February.