Donald Trump and the shadow of George Wallace

The hatred that the leading Republican candidate has been inciting during his bid to run in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election harkens back to another dark period of America’s past.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump held a press conference on the grounds of his Florida residence last week. As I watched him promise to “make American great again,” I was reminded of two things.

One, Trump was speaking on the Atlantic coast from Jupiter, FL, which is the same place where former Newfoundland premier Frank Moores had his Florida residence. Joey Smallwood spent his winter months in Clearwater Beach on the Gulf coast. Danny Williams’ Sarasota home is further south on the Gulf coast and Clyde Wells’ gated, golf course sunshine state residence is further south again on the Gulf coast in Naples.

Naples is a white enclave in a county where the first language of the majority of children in public school is Spanish and it is also my vantage point for the U.S. presidential primaries. 

Two, Trump is engaged in near naked appeal to racism. I am old enough to remember seeing the then-Alabama governor George Wallace campaigning for president of the United States. Later, white southern voters who abandoned the Democratic Party for the Republicans would be called ‘Reagan Democrats’, but the truth is they abandoned the Democrats long before Ronald Reagan and they did it in reaction to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. 

Today, Trump is followed on the campaign trail by the shadow of George Wallace.

On Friday night students at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois protested Trump’s presence on their campus. Their protest succeeded in forcing Trump to cancel his rally. The students were not protesting Trump’s position on social security or the Affordable Care Act.  They were objecting to his characterization of Mexicans as “rapists”. They were objecting to his desire to ban Muslims from entering the country. They were objecting to his racism.

A March 11 Donald Trump rally in Chicago was cancelled after supporters clashed with protestors who allege Trump is inciting racism and hatred. Photo by nathanmac87.
A March 11 Donald Trump rally in Chicago was cancelled after supporters clashed with protestors. Photo by nathanmac87 / Flickr.

Trump didn’t just decide that peddling racism was a good 2016 political tactic. Recall, this is one of the loudest voices who questioned whether Barak Obama was born in the United States. People who subscribe to that notion are known as ‘birthers’ and their fantasy is rooted in racism.

I know a person in Naples who still uses the word “nigger” in everyday conversation and he still believes Barak Obama was born in Nigeria and is a Muslim. He told me he didn’t like the White House being bathed in rainbow coloured lights to celebrate the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. That happened last June and he was still muttering about it last month. He wants Donald Trump to win so bad he voted weeks ago in an advance poll.

Punch protesters in the face? Carry them out on stretchers? In the old days they knew how to deal with protestors, right? Yes, they certainly did, and I’m old enough to remember that too.  They did it with fire hoses and police dogs. They did it to people who wanted the right to ride on a public bus anyplace other than in the back. They did it to people who wanted the right to go to public schools in Alabama and Mississippi. And it took President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, sending in the National Guard to ensure black youth could register for classes at the University of Alabama. I am old enough to remember when black churches were bombed and civil rights workers disappeared. That is when George Wallace ran for president.

Donald Trump was recently endorsed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and by other white supremacists. When invited to disavow Duke’s endorsement, he did not. Trump also says he’ll build a wall along the Mexican border. Little wonder black, Latino and Muslim students at the University of Illinois did not want him on their campus. When it was announced that the rally was canceled and Trump would not be appearing, the students celebrated. My favorite image was a young guy holding a sign that said, “No Mexicans. No Tacos.” People were pushing and shoving and punches were thrown, yet for a moment there was a flash of humour.

Donald Trump promises to make American great again. It is a potent appeal to a time when white people ran things, and it resonates with white people who have never gotten over the fact a black man lives in the White House. Like the sound of truncheons banging against body shields as cops march into a crowd of demonstrators to clear a street. “Get them out of here. Get them out of here,” Trump bellows. 

He’s going to make America great again. Promise.

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