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“What Donald Trump Owes George Wallace”: Demagogue’s Ability To Tap Into Fear And Anger In American Politics

Donald J. Trump, reality television star and real estate mogul, is different in many ways from major political figures in our past. But there are striking similarities between Mr. Trump and George C. Wallace, the Deep South politician who ran for president each opportunity he got from 1964 through 1976. The connections between the two — their rhetoric and their ability to fire up crowds — give us a better sense of what Trumpism will mean once he is gone from the campaign stage. After all, political losers as well as winners can shape the future.

Mr. Trump started his business career with what he called a “small loan” of a million dollars from his father. Mr. Wallace, the son of a struggling South Alabama farmer, clawed his way to power with hard work and a political antenna always ahead of the next public opinion poll.

And despite his reputation as a belligerent speechmaker, the insecure Mr. Wallace privately sought to ingratiate himself with friends and foes alike. It’s hard to imagine the egotistic Mr. Trump beginning a call to a hostile newspaper editor by cheerfully explaining, as Mr. Wallace once did, “I just called up to kiss your ass some more.”

What both share is the demagogue’s instinctive ability to tap into the fear and anger that regularly erupts in American politics.

Mr. Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address as governor of Alabama (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”) and his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” that same year seemed to limit his role to that of a strictly regional figure, part of Dixie’s long tradition of racist politicians. His presidential candidacy in 1964 and surprising strength in Democratic primaries in Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland did little to change that national image. In April 1967, when Mr. Wallace told a Syracuse, N.Y., audience that he had decided to run for president as a third-party candidate, the television networks ignored his announcement, as did most of the major newspapers.

But in 1968, against a backdrop of urban riots, a war in Vietnam that dragged on inconclusively, tumultuous antiwar demonstrations and the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, a fiery Mr. Wallace began to draw interest across the nation; by September the crowds at his rallies rivaled those for his two main opponents, Richard M. Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey. Mindful of his reputation as a defender of segregation, the Alabama governor avoided explicitly racist language. He was a pioneer in the use of code words to attack African-Americans while seldom mentioning race, instead condemning “asinine” school busing, the “bloc vote” and the “thugs” from America’s inner cities who supposedly stalked the nation’s streets.

Uncertain of what to make of the political upstart, the nation’s print media initially played down their coverage of Mr. Wallace rather “like parents who refuse to look when their child is doing something naughty for fear it might encourage him to show off,” in the words of one British journalist.

As his poll numbers rose from single digits in the spring to more than 20 percent by the fall, it was no longer possible to ignore Mr. Wallace, and the major newsmagazines and largest newspapers attacked him with a barrage of thinly veiled invective: He was “simplistic”; he had not “one constructive proposal to offer a troubled nation”; he sought “political profit in fear and hate.” Attacks by the mainstream media only strengthened his support. As one of Mr. Wallace’s followers told a newspaper reporter, “I could care less what Time magazine thinks; I only use it once a day in the outhouse.”

The hypersensitive Mr. Trump obviously cares a lot more about Time’s opinion. When the magazine failed to choose him as its 2015 Person of the Year, he complained that, despite being “the big favorite,” Time had snubbed him in favor of Germany’s Angela Merkel, “who is ruining Germany!”

Hostility to the civil rights movement was only a part of Mr. Wallace’s rhetorical repertoire. He was a “populist” of sorts, defending good, hard-working (white) Christian Americans, but his enemies were not the economic bankers and monopolists of his 19th-century forebears. He had found new dragons to slay.

On paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent. But videotapes of those 1968 rallies captured a performance. A wild energy seemed to flow back and forth between Mr. Wallace and his audience as he called out their mutual enemies: bearded hippies, pornographers, sophisticated intellectuals who mocked God, traitorous anti-Vietnam War protesters, welfare bums, cowardly politicians and “pointy-head college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.”

For the television networks the spectacle became irresistible, particularly since rallies often erupted into violent chair-throwing confrontations between Mr. Wallace’s supporters and angry demonstrators. Hunter S. Thompson understood that George Wallace’s followers were not interested in position papers on banking regulations or the pros and cons of thermal energy. Watching the Alabama governor perform was awe-inspiring to the gonzo journalist, who likened the rallies to a Janis Joplin concert “in which the bastard had somehow levitated himself and was hovering over us.”

Both George Wallace and Donald Trump are part of a long national history of scapegoating minorities: from the Irish, Catholics, Asians, Eastern European immigrants and Jews to Muslims and Latino immigrants. During times of insecurity, a sizable minority of Americans has been drawn to forceful figures who confidently promise the destruction of all enemies, real and imagined, allowing Americans to return to a past that never existed.

At the same time, the rejection of the euphemisms of polite political rhetoric is part of the great appeal of such figures. As one of Mr. Trump’s supporters at a Dallas rally told a Slate reporter: “I love that he’s talking in everybody else’s language. He’s not trying to be politically correct.”

That response is simply an update from one of Mr. Wallace’s 1968 followers: “George doesn’t give us some mealy-mouth ‘on the one hand and on the other’ spiel. He tells it like it is and if it offends some government bureaucrats and loudmouth civil rights agitators, so what? He’s standing up and fighting for real Americans.”

George Wallace was never going to be president; neither is Donald Trump. But their influence, even far from the White House, has an impact. The Alabama governor’s success in mobilizing white working-class voters forced other candidates — particularly Nixon — to adapt a housebroken version of his rhetoric and policies. Mr. Wallace may have begun his career as a New Deal Democrat, but the way he appealed to these predominantly Democratic voters by channeling their frustrations against the federal government did much to pave the way for Ronald Reagan’s more genial anti-government ideology.

It is more difficult to assess the long-term implications of a figure like Mr. Trump, whose “policies” seem even more incoherent than those of George Wallace. He, too, has learned how to exploit the deepest fears and hatreds of white Americans frightened about the present and despairing of the future.

Whether he is nominated by the Republican Party or simply disappears into the long line of discredited demagogues, he has already left his mark. Just listen to what some of his fellow Republican candidates are saying.

 

By: Dan T. Carter, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina; Opinion Pages, The New York Times, January 8, 2016

January 11, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, Fearmongering, George Wallace, Racism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A President Cries, And The NRA Trembles”: A President Taking On The Gun Lobby That Has Held Our Country Hostage

Two of my closest friends are also my steadfast movie companions. It is our habit, whenever possible, to sit in the same row of our favorite theater.

We’ve been doing this for years, but during our most recent excursion, one of them quietly asked during the previews, “When we sit here, do you ever think a man with a gun–.”

Her wife and I didn’t even let her finish her sentence as we started to nod.

“That we would be the first to be shot?” one of us asked.

“That we would die?” the other asked.

Oh, yeah, we all agreed. We think about that.

This is an absurd mental exercise on our part. As Plain Dealer Editor George Rodrigue III wrote in a recent column in my hometown of Cleveland, “If you lived in America last year you were less likely to be shot by an Islamic terrorist than by a toddler.” This is just as true about the likelihood of being gunned down by a homegrown terrorist shooting up a movie theater.

We know this, my friends and I, but there we were anyway, imagining the rain of bullets. I am embarrassed to admit to this, in part because such fear is so irrational but also because it suggests the right-wing fearmongering has had its way with me, a lifelong liberal. Only for a moment, mind you, but it’s the sort of lapse in rational thinking that can eat away at you if you aren’t vigilant. Before you know it, you’re parroting talking points from the National Rifle Association, which acts more like a mob syndicate than it does a lobbying organization.

Right after New Year’s, President Barack Obama signed 23 executive orders designed to address gun violence, including tightening loopholes on who can sell guns and who is allowed to buy them. As The New York Times duly noted, these are guidelines, not binding regulations, and the president will face “legal, political and logistical hurdles that are likely to blunt the effect of the plan he laid out.”

That’s a gentler way of saying the gun zealots and the Republicans who pander to them are acting as if the devil just galloped into town to lasso the whole bunch of them and drag them back to hell. Not a wholly unpleasant scenario to imagine, but it has nothing to do with the president’s plan.

Republican right-wing propagandist Ted Cruz said: “We don’t beat the bad guys by taking away our guns. We beat the bad guys by using our guns.”

If he weren’t serious, he’d be hilarious. It’s so easy to imagine all 5 feet 8 inches of him standing there in the dirt with spurs jingling as his hands hover over the Colts in the gun belt slung around his hip-huggers.

I can’t even.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said that “rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, (President Obama) goes after the most law-abiding of citizens. His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.”

I am so tired of these men thinking we’re this stupid. Every credible poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans want gun reform. In October, for example, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 92 percent of Americans favor background checks for all gun buyers. That included 87 percent of Republicans who were polled.

The NRA, preferring to channel the voices in its collective head, claimed otherwise this week. NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker, in a statement to Fox News: “President Obama failed to pass his anti-gun agenda (through) Congress because the majority of Americans oppose more gun-control. Now he is doing what he always does when he doesn’t get his way, which is defy the will of the people and issue an executive order.”

Hear that? That’s fear talking. For the first time in a long time, the NRA hears the American people pounding on a door it doesn’t want to open. So of course, it declined to participate in the president’s town hall on guns with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

At his White House news conference Tuesday, the president began to cry when he started talking about the victims of school shootings.

“Our right to peaceful assembly, that right was robbed from moviegoers in Aurora and Lafayette,” he said. “Our unalienable right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those rights were stripped from college kids in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara and from high schoolers at Columbine and from first-graders in Newtown — first-graders — and from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun. Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.”

Many right-wing pundits and lollygaggers on social media mocked the president for his tears. This disrespect outraged a lot of President Obama’s supporters, but it made me feel optimistic about gun reform for the first time in years.

Who mocks a man for showing the same hollowed-out grief most of us feel when we think of those babies being gunned down? Who makes fun of a president standing tall with the majority of his citizens?

Scared people, that’s who. The ones who are trembling in their boots because, finally, we have a president willing to take on the gun lobby that has held our country hostage for far too long.

 

By: Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist; The National Memo, January 7, 2016

January 8, 2016 Posted by | Domestic Terrorism, Fearmongering, Gun Lobby, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Plight Of Syrian Refugees Recalls Tale Of 2,000 Years Ago”: Bar The Gates, Exclude The Stranger, Ignore The Vulnerable

There is irony aplenty in this season, which is celebrated throughout Christendom because of the tale of a babe born in a troubled precinct in the Middle East a little more than 2,000 years ago. You know the story: A couple of modest means finds no accommodations, even as the woman is on the brink of giving birth. After the child is born, they are forced to flee the depredations of a murderous king.

As history rolls on, we find the Middle East once again in upheaval, roiled by murderous tyrants who have spurred families to seek sanctuary. Given the time of year, you’d think the plight of those families would be the preoccupation of the news cycle; you’d think accommodating them would be the pre-eminent call of preachers and politicians alike. After all, the ancient tale has been said to inspire reflection, charity and generosity.

But those sentiments seem in scant supply in these United States. Instead, we are awash in suspicion, waylaid by fear and anxiety, beset by bigotry. Many of the nation’s political leaders have insisted that we bar the gates, exclude the stranger, ignore the vulnerable.

While President Obama has called on the nation to take in more refugees from Syria — where the armies of President Bashar Assad and the self-proclaimed Islamic State represent dire threats to life and limb — 27 U.S. governors, more than half, would attempt to bar Syrian refugees from their states. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has famously said that he wouldn’t even take in orphans under the age of 5.

Indeed, the call to keep Syrian refugees out of the United States has captured a substantial number of voters; 56 percent oppose President Obama’s policy. And that refusal finds support across party lines: Eighty-one percent of Republicans, 59 percent of independents and 31 percent of Democrats, according to an NBC News survey.

The proximate cause of that hunker-down insularity is the threat of terrorist attacks, a danger brought home by the San Bernardino atrocity earlier this month, which left 14 people dead and 22 injured. But humans are notoriously bad at assessing risks. While 45 Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 (counting the Fort Hood shooting), far more have been killed since then in automobile accidents and non-terrorist-related gun violence.

Besides, as the brilliant novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has written: “Contemporary America is full of fear. (But) fear is not a Christian habit of mind. … Those who forget God can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears. … There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere.”

Terror is not everywhere, and its risks would not increase if we were to admit substantially more Syrian refugees. They are subjected to a vetting process that takes up to two years. Anyway, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple who allegedly carried out the San Bernardino attack, had no ties to Syria that authorities have detected.

Meanwhile, millions of Syrians have been displaced by war. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Turkey has taken in 1.9 million, while Iraq, which is still beset by armed conflict, has taken in 250,000. More than 1 million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, and more than 600,000 are in Jordan.

The far wealthier European nations are still wrangling over the numbers they will accept, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her welcoming tone; her country has taken in more than 98,000 Syrians and stands ready to accept as many as 500,000 refugees, including Syrians, per year for several years.

With that in mind, President Obama’s call for the United States to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year seems modest. And while providing sanctuary to some of the planet’s most vulnerable populations may not promote peace on Earth, it is certainly a small gesture of goodwill to all men.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, December 26, 2015

December 27, 2015 Posted by | Bigotry, Fearmongering, Jesus, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When Is It Okay To Exploit Fear?”: Deliberately Increasing People’s Sense Of Insecurity To Make Them Vote For You

When I saw that President Obama had remote-psychoanalyzed Trump voters, I knew that the right would go crazy and say that it reminded them of his infamous bitter-clinger comments from 2008. At this point, it’s Pavlovian. What I saw from right-wing blogger Tom Maguire was a little unexpected, however.

He took a screenshot of the New York Times headline, which read: Obama Accuses Trump of Exploiting Working-Class Fears. And then he posed a rhetorical question for all of us:

The headline is baffling – exploiting fears is now a political no-no? – and shows a failure of nerve somewhere in the editorial process.

For a moment it was me who was baffled. It took a second to process what exactly Maguire was getting at. To me, “exploiting fears” is a moral failing. Full stop.

For Maguire, exploiting fears is a given in the political process and unworthy of notice.

At first, I was offended. Then I realized that we’re both probably correct in our own way, but with limitations.

I’m sure if I challenged him, Maguire would recite countless examples of Democratic politicians exploiting the fears of the electorate. These would be fears about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, or fears about NSA surveillance, or fears about grandma losing her Medicare or Social Security. No doubt, talking about the bad things that may result if the other party wins is a core element of all political campaigning, and it always has been.

I think this is different in kind, though, than using fear itself as a political tool. It’s hard to draw a hard line, and it’s partly about the merit of the threat you’re talking about. Jim Geraghty tried to get at the distinction in a piece he just wrote at the National Review that complains about Democratic accusations of fear-mongering.

…all of other threats that we’re told are more likely to kill us than a terrorist — other drivers, the ladder at home, the stove, the local swimming pool – aren’t deliberately trying to kill us.

…You may fall off your ladder while putting up the Christmas lights on the roof, but it’s not like there’s a sinister group, al-Laddera, plotting to wobble when you’re leaning over to put that last string up above the gutter. There’s not much the government can do to stop you from falling off a ladder, other than PSAs saying “be careful!” But there’s an awful lot the government can do to target terrorists and mitigate the threat they present.

In other words, for Geraghty, it’s legitimate to continually alarm the electorate about a very low-probability threat to their personal safety because there is at least something the government can do to minimize that threat.

For me, though, the responsible thing to do as a political leader is to calm people’s fears both so that they won’t be needlessly or disproportionately afraid and so that they don’t freak out and make unreasonable demands on their political leaders.

What’s really bad, in my opinion, is to deliberately increase people’s sense of insecurity not primarily so that they will demand policies to keep them safe but to make them more inclined to vote for you and your political party. Making people afraid for political gain is cynical and almost cruel.

So, naturally, I see it as dubious when someone like Donald Trump ramps up people’s anxieties and provides nothing solid as actual policy prescriptions. To me, that’s totally different than arguing that electing Hillary Clinton will result in a Supreme Court less inclined to overturn Roe v. Wade or energy policies less favorable to coal. You can scare and motivate people to vote based on accurate information. That’s not a political no-no, and it never has been.

But “exploiting” fears is a little different, especially when part of your pitch is to create fear when none ought to exist (“The president is a secret Muslim”) or to ramp fear up beyond any rational level, which is what the terrorism vs. wobbly ladder comparison is meant to illuminate.

 

By: Martin Longman, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 22, 2015

December 23, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Fearmongering, Politicians, Terrorism | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Put Fear In Perspective”: Don’t Let The Republican Candidates Fool You; The U.S. Has Dealt With Much Worse Than ISIS

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s historic statement was not exactly the mantra at this week’s Republican presidential debate.

As I listened to the apocalyptic predictions from the Republican candidates Tuesday night, I could not help but compare the concerns about the Islamic State group to what many of us faced during the Cold War – the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon and fear of the mushroom cloud.

The fallout shelters that people were building in their backyards (they make nice wine cellars now), the drills where we crouched under our desks at school, the sounds of air-raid sirens testing the early warning system, the fear we felt during the Cuban missile crisis, living with the mutual assured destruction policies of the U.S. and the Soviet Union – these all combined to create much more of a threat than a group like the Islamic State group – the nuclear arms race was viewed as truly potentially catastrophic.

The devastation of the world-wide 1930s depression that FDR was addressing was truly catastrophic.

The 1918 flu pandemic that infected 500 million people across the globe, killing 50 to 100 million and 500,00 to 675,000 in the U.S. – that was catastrophic.

I understand the fear of the Islamic State group, but in comparison, please, this we can deal with rationally and pragmatically.

Sadly, this past Republican debate leads us to the conclusion that when it comes to using fear to incite voters, this field of candidates will go to nearly any lengths.

Not to go over the top here, but this is what noted Nazi official Heinrich Himmler said about the use of fear: “The best political weapon is the weapon of terror. Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us. But, we don’t ask for their love; only for their fear.”

This is what the Islamic State group is counting on – bringing America to its knees simply by using terror to create fear. By reacting with a “war on Muslims” as many Republican candidates seem to be advocating, the real terrorists gain control and are handed a golden recruiting tool.

This makes no sense. We can defeat this movement. We can organize the nations of the world to unite against their terrorism. We can surely be victorious without resorting to scare tactics and whipping the American voter up into a frenzy.

We have faced much worse, but just as the spread of Ebola became a daily concern and created close to a panic a year ago, the reality is our media and out politics whip the public into a frenzy when calmer heads should prevail.

During the Republican debate the words terror, terrorist and terrorism were used 81 times. The word attack was used 50 times, according to reporting from Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune.

As he pointed out, here are just a few quotes from this week’s debate:

“We need to understand that our nation is in grave danger.”

“We have people across this country who are scared to death.”

“ISIS and Iran have declared war on America, and we need a commander in chief who will do everything necessary to keep our children safe.”

“Our country doesn’t win anymore. … We can’t defeat ISIS.”

OK, I get the politics of all this. I get the perceived need of these performers to out-do one another, but isn’t it time we had some reasoned leadership that acted responsibly to understand the true nature of the threat and deal with it properly? Isn’t there one person on that stage who could put this in perspective and not demagogue the Islamic State terrorists?

The threat is real but does not deserve the draconian response of nearly every Republican candidate for President. If we ever needed cooler heads like FDR, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, certainly that time is now.

 

By: Peter Fenn, Democratic Political Strategist and Head of Fenn Communications; U. S. News and World Report, December 18, 2015

December 20, 2015 Posted by | Fearmongering, GOP Leadership, GOP Presidential Candidates, Terrorism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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