Was George Wallace Nearly Donald Trump? A "Close Call" and/or "Missed Opportunity" Counterfactual

Back in 2017, Frank Rich published a fascinating article in New York Magazine, entitled “After Trump,” which counterfactually argued that George Wallace could have had the same kind of electoral triumph as Donald Trump – only fifty years earlier.  

I had meant to comment on the article around the time of its original appearance but got busy with other things and failed to do so.  I’m revisiting it now, since Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election means we are getting close to the “After Trump” era and historians will be better able to get some perspective about his tenure in office. 

Among the many pressing questions, one of the most important is this one: How anomalous is Donald Trump in American history?  

Here, Rich’s article is instructive as he portrays Wallace as a significant precursor to Trump who came awfully close to making the same electoral breakthrough.  

As he writes:

“Wallace did come closer to winning his party’s nomination — the Democratic Party’s — than is remembered now. His electoral history should have been read as an indicator that Trump had an outside chance of victory in 2016, not as an omen of likely defeat. What stopped Wallace from winning was not the verdict of the voters but the assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer that felled him at the height of the 1972 primary season.” 

At this juncture, Rich makes the provocative counterfactual point that “Had [Wallace’s] health and career not been ruptured then, he might have brokered a major party’s presidential ticket and perhaps won its nomination outright, more than 40 years before Trump did. And he would have done so with much the same amalgam of issues and prejudices as Trump and with voters who often demographically and geographically mirror those of Trump’s 2016 base.” 

Rich continues: 

“Up until [Wallace’s] would-be assassin, Arthur Bremer, riddled Wallace with bullets at a Maryland campaign stop, Nixon had so feared Wallace’s looming threat to his reelection that he tried to derail him preemptively by secretly contributing $400,000 to Wallace’s opponent in Alabama’s 1970 Democratic gubernatorial primary. (The dirty trick failed.)” “Both in 1968 and 1972, with the race-baiting Spiro Agnew on the ticket, Nixon worked hard to usher Wallace’s disaffected white Democrats into the GOP en masse by pandering to their racial and cultural resentments with respectable code words (“silent majority,” “law and order”) rather than rants like Wallace’s clarion call for “segregation forever.” 

Nevertheless, Rich continues, Wallace did remarkably well in 1968, noting that he “qualif[ied] on the ballot in all 50 states as an Independent under the rubric of the American Independent Party.”  Rich adds that “Wallace ended up with only 46 electoral votes in the tumultuous three-way race of 1968, but that total belies his strength. He won four once-Democratic states in Dixie [George, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana] that Goldwater, by dint of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, had hijacked for the GOP four years earlier. In the border states of North Carolina and Tennessee, Wallace beat the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, and finished close behind Nixon. Full-blown Electoral College chaos and racial conflict were narrowly averted. “Had Wallace carried either state…a shift of less than one percent of the vote in New Jersey or Ohio from Nixon to Humphrey would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives.” 

Moreover, Rich notes, Wallace was on pace to do even better in the 1972 election. “Running once more as a Democrat in 1972, Wallace…[won more victories].Of the 14 primaries that cast votes by the time he was gunned down in mid-May, Wallace won five and came in second in five more. Among his wins was Michigan, where his voters would be rechristened “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980 Republican sweep….Before he was sidelined, Wallace had won 3.3 million Democratic votes, compared to 2.6 million for Humphrey and 2.2 million for the ultimate nominee, George McGovern.”  

Here is where Rich’s essay gets really interesting: 

“It’s been an article of American faith for more than half a century,” he writes, “that the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 was the tragic bolt from the blue that altered America’s destiny, plunging the nation into an abyss from which it is still digging itself out. But it could also be argued that Bremer indirectly had a historical impact on a par with Lee Harvey Oswald’s, by giving America a false sense of security for which all these years later it is paying the price of a Trump presidency” [emphasis added]. 

“When Wallace was taken out of contention, many who feared his movement assumed the threat had passed. [Later observers argued]…that “the Wallace ‘movement’ disappeared as quickly as it had appeared” with his exit, in part because his voters had divided almost evenly between Carter and Ford once he was out of the race in 1976. His following was “not likely to coalesce around anyone else, for Wallace represented no discernible ideological politics, only a position, a stance.” Wallace himself soon added to this impression by devoting his political retirement to a long and surprisingly well-received redemption campaign in which he met with John Lewis and other black leaders to atone for his past racist sins.” 

“But the country hadn’t dodged a bullet when a bullet took Wallace out of the arena; it had dodged a moment of truth. With Wallace off the field, and his voters for the moment dispersed and reassimilated into the normal two-party order of things, America in 1972 could tell itself that the fever was breaking” [emphasis added]

“Instead, Trumpism has been metastasizing in plain sight ever since.” 

Rich’s close call counterfactual makes raises the question of whether it would have been better for America if Bremer’s bullets had missed Wallace and enabled him to somehow win the presidency in 1972.  (Had the election been thrown into the House of Representatives, there’s no telling what might have happened, given the influence of Southern political leaders).  Had this outcome taken place, there’s no question that America under a President Wallace would have been convulsed by the same kinds of social upheavals we have been experiencing under Trump – only fifty years earlier.   

There might have been a silver lining to this scenario, however.  Indeed, an earlier reckoning with the “truth” of the country’s racist past – however painful – might have allowed us to make progress on the difficult work of reconciliation and healing that is only just now beginning.