Donald Trump, George Wallace, Jesse Jackson and the power of outsiderism

Outsiderism can draw attention, but at some point voters ask whether the outsider will make a good nominee. Wallace and Jackson are cautionary examples for Donald Trump.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage at a campaign rally in Windham, N.H., on Monday.

How is Donald Trump like George C. Wallace and Jesse Jackson?  That question is neither a joke nor a Zen koan.  In some important ways, he resembles both the late segregationist firebrand and the African American civil rights leader.

Wallace served several terms as governor of Alabama. He ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1964, 1972, and 1976, and won 13.5 percent of the popular vote as an independent candidate in 1968. His daughter recently told Buzzfeed that political strategy was similar to Trump’s. “The two of them, they have adopted the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters. Those voters that feel alienated from the government. Those voters tend to make decisions based on an emotional level rather than intellectual.”

By the standards of the time and place, Wallace did not start off as a racial extremist. But after losing the 1958 gubernatorial primary to a hard-line segregationist, he vowed never to be “out-segged” again.  After winning the governorship in 1962, he got international media attention by literally standing in the schoolhouse door when federal officials sought to integrate the University of Alabama. 

Like Wallace, Trump has no real convictions: He just says whatever his fans want to hear. Also like Wallace, he has a knack for doing it in a way that puts him at the center of attention.

Wallace’s appeal was not just about race:  He positioned himself as an outsider standing up to bureaucrats and “pointy-headed intellectuals who can’t park their bicycles straight.”  A lot of his supporters were just seeking an anti-establishment champion, and they were willing to look both to the left and right. In 1968, a number of his voters reportedly said that Robert F. Kennedy was their second choice. Four years later, many said the same of George McGovern.  Similarly, a surprising number of voters today are torn between Trump and socialist Bernie Sanders.

Outsiderism also links Trump to Reverend Jackson, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. “My constituency,” Jackson said, “is the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised.”  Jackson, of course, was talking about his Rainbow Coalition of disadvantaged groups.  Trump has a Monochrome Coalition of working-class whites – but they too feel disinherited, disrespected, and despised.  Like Jackson, Trump plays both on their legitimate grievances and their resentments.

In her excellent chronicle of the 1988 campaign, Elizabeth Drew described Jackson with words that apply remarkably well to Trump:

For a large portion of Jackson’s supporters and would-be supporters, whether his proposals stand up to scrutiny is irrelevant. Their support for him is in a different category – as the leader of a movement. Jackson has become a vehicle for their discontent with current policies, with the other candidates. He stands in bold, interesting contract to some fairly dull candidates. He is the anti-politics candidate. Measuring his program is linear, rational, while most of the support for him is based on emotion.

Jackson provides a cautionary example for Trump. In a stunning upset, Jackson won the 1988 Michigan Democratic caucuses. For a moment, it looked as if he had a chance of taking the Democratic nomination – which proved to be his undoing. At this point, voters asked not whether Jackson was articulating their feelings, but whether he could actually make a good nominee. Suddenly his inexperience and disjointed positions became much more influential. Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, who was also in the race, told reporter Roger Simon: “After Michigan, there was all this talk of Jackson becoming the nominee and that really locked it up for Mike [Dukakis].”

Might the same thing happen if Trump starts winning some contests? No one knows for sure, but this well-born billionaire might look for some lessons in the candidacy of a preacher who grew up in the projects.

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