Drawing a connection between Trump and Tillman

My old colleague and friend Jeff Miller brought this to my attention, as he had not seen anyone draw a direct connection between Donald Trump and Ben Tillman, although he was “Surprised it took this long.”

The relevant passage:

As the civil-rights movement burgeoned, Wallace repositioned himself to lead the white resistance and famously declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace, a political innovator of the first rank, pioneered the sublimation of racial rage into hatred of government, not just the federal imposition of black rights in a second Reconstruction, but government meddling generally. This anticipated the politics of Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party because it connected Southern racial resentment to the anti-government libertarian economics of the business right. The explicit racism became latent and coded—a dog whistle. The stars of today’s Republican right are all practitioners of this art. But Trump went them one better.

“Trump doesn’t tweet dog whistles, he blasts foghorns,” wrote Washington Post op-ed columnist Eugene Robinson. In this, Trump echoes an earlier band of 20th-century Southern demagogues. Southern politicians such as Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, and Georgia’s Eugene Talmadge were more blatant and direct than Wallace in demeaning blacks. And like Trump, they relished the fact that they were not about issues—for issues (other than race) mattered little in traditional Southern politics. Instead, they concentrated on providing a venomous, racist form of entertainment for the white working class—another parallel with Trump.

I have to disagree with the premise, though. I don’t think Trump is more overt than Wallace, or that he “blast foghorns” rather than “dog whistles.”

Mr. Articulate

Mr. Articulate?

The truth is that Trump is not articulate enough to blast any message clearly. He is well within the tradition of implying rather than directly stating, at least most of the time.

But that suggests to me one way in which Wallace was superior to Trump: He was far more articulate.

I watched a documentary recently about the annus horribilis 1968, and was struck by one thing: All of the candidates, including Wallace, had such a clear grasp of issues and expressed their views clearly as well.

Wallace was a hateful creep, but he was a hateful creep who could speak in complete sentences. He towers so far over Trump in that regard that it’s startling to go view those old clips, and compare them to the unintelligible mush that comes from Trump’s mouth.

Yeah, I know — you don’t think “erudition” when you hear “George Wallace.” But compared to Trump, he was the Algonquin Round Table

Members and associates of the Algonquin Round Table... Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott

Members and associates of the Algonquin Round Table… Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott

One thought on “Drawing a connection between Trump and Tillman

  1. David Carlton

    I read that piece when it showed up on the TAP website. I basically agree that Trump has evoked the sort of tribal politics that was long the staple of southern racist demagogues like Wallace and Tillman. I thought the piece misunderstood the political history of the South prior to the 1960s with that line about Wallace being an innovator by tying racial hatred to hatred of government. That role actually was pioneered by (a) the Dixiecrats, who were as much anti-New Deal as anti-Civil Rights, and (b) the post-war Republicans, who were anti-New Deal for obvious reasons. Since the politics of the Civil Rights era focused on efforts to have the federal government intervene against the Jim Crow regime, defense of the “southern way of life” inevitably got tangled up with opposition to Big Gummint. You can see that most strikingly in the 1962 Senate run of your predecessor Bill Workman. But they had a big problem; the New Deal remained popular for many years with ordinary white southerners, who put the Dixiecrats in a cul-de-sac and resisted the blandishments of the Republicans for a long time as a gaggle of country-clubbers. I still remember sitting in a barber shop in Fairforest nearly half a century ago and hearing an old man say “Don’t tell me about Republicans; I lived through the Hoover time!.” Bill Workman lost in 1962, mainly because voters like my neighbors at Saxon Mill went rollin’ with Olin. Wallace’s innovation was in fact to break anti-federal government politics loose from the elite stigma and make it a popular movement. Kevin Phillips thought the Wallaceites would find a natural home in his emerging Republican majority, but in fact they held back–allowing that biracial, moderately progressive Democratic Party of the 1870s and 1980s a chance to actually change southern state governance for the better (Outside commentators either ignore or denigrate this era, but I’m actually nostalgic for it; to understand why, see my old friend Gavin Wright’s *Sharing the Prize*. That’s a major reason I’m a Democrat.). But Republicans went assiduously to work filling out the Phillips script, assiduously identifying the GOP with all the symbols of white southern ethnic identity–the Flag, NASCAR, white evangelicalism, etc., etc. Their success had a different timeline in different states. The Deep South, esp. SC and MS, saw the most rapid “great white switch” (as the Black brothers called it); places like NC and TN didn’t complete the shift until the Obama era, and states like VA and (again NC) saw the beginnings of a countervailing movement as they developed pockets of a “new economy.” But essentially they succeeded in turning the southern GOP into a tribal expression; that’s why it took the trauma of Mother Emanuel to get that damned flag down. And Trump’s party is that GOP.


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