Several months that now feel like several years ago, when Donald Trump was facing impeachment, his standard comparison among the commentariat was to Richard Nixon. “Tricky Dick”, of course, resigned in 1974 rather than be evicted from office for his complicity in the Watergate scandal. Trump survived impeachment, and has even cited Nixon as a role model.
Now, amid a national crisis over racism that was catalyzed by George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, a different frame of reference for Trump has emerged. With his brutal dispersal of non-violent protesters near the White House, his threat to order troops to shoot looters, and his willfully divisive decision to hold a rally this past weekend in the Oklahoma city that saw one of America’s most vicious anti-black riots, the go-to analogue for Trump has become George Wallace.
The notorious segregationist governor of Alabama during the turbulent 1960s, Wallace ran for president in 1968 and 1972 on a rightwing populist platform suffused with white backlash against civil rights. His rhetorical attacks extended to the media, intellectuals, and student activists against the Vietnam War - a Trumpian smorgasbord of demagoguery.
Wallace’s “message and style resemble Trump’s in so many respects that listing them all is a challenge,” Jonathan Rauch argued in the Atlantic. Peter Baker, a widely-read White House correspondent, made a similar argument in the New York Times. The Boston Globe and the Washington Post have echoed the Wallace parallel.
This comparison, however, is unfair. And I don’t mean to Trump. I mean to Wallace. Later in life, Wallace made acts of public contrition – in words and, more importantly, deeds – that attest to the kind of conscience that Trump plainly lacks and probably considers a form of weakness.
It is entirely plausible to liken Trump to the Wallace who exists most vividly in public memory. That Wallace declared in his initial inaugural address, in 1963, “Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” That Wallace blocked the door of the administration building at the University of Alabama to defy federal troops seeking to enroll two black students.
That Wallace set state troopers loose with whips and truncheons on the Selma marches on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. That Wallace exuded the truculent, hateful aura that surely nourished the white terrorists who bombed a Birmingham black church, killing four little girls. And that Wallace showed shocking appeal to northern whites in his 1968 and 1972 presidential bids.
While Trump does not have such blood directly on his hands, he has campaigned and governed on the basis of racist dog-whistles about restoring a formerly “great” America. Racial intolerance has been perhaps the only consistent part of Trump’s political character; it runs unbroken from discriminating against blacks in his family’s apartment empire, to demanding the death penalty for the wrongfully convicted Central Park Five, to trumpeting the birther lie about Barack Obama, to urging the crowds at his rallies to rough up black protesters, to rhetorically defending neo-Nazis and Confederate symbols as president.
And Trump’s denunciations and policies against Muslims, Mexicans, Central American immigrants, and African “shithole countries,” topped off by inciting anti-Chinese sentiment during the Covid-19 pandemic, make him a more expansive bigot than Wallace ever was.
My point, though, is not that Wallace is bad to Trump’s worse. There were, in fact, two other versions of Wallace beside the race-baiting instigator, versions that have been understandably occluded by the vile role he played as governor.
The first Wallace was a small-town populist who ran for office on class issues and declined to play the race card. He even refused to join most southern delegates in walking out of the 1948 Democratic convention to protest the party’s endorsement of civil rights. Only after losing a gubernatorial primary in 1958 to a more hardline segregationist opponent did Wallace infamously decide that he would “never be out-niggered again”.
He certainly kept that hideous promise. But in fanning the whirlwind of hate and white resentment, Wallace became its victim. He was shot and left paralyzed by a would-be assassin during the 1972 campaign. While his attacker’s motives remained murky, it was hard to miss the fierce moral lesson: a stoker of violence had fallen victim to it.
Over the succeeding years, that lesson appeared to sink into Wallace, too, magnified by the incessant physical pain he suffered. In an almost biblical way, suffering led to insight, and insight to redemption.
On a Sunday morning in 1979, Wallace rolled his wheelchair down the aisle of Dexter Avenue baptist church in Montgomery, which had been Martin Luther King’s pulpit during the bus boycott in 1956, to ask forgiveness of its members.
“I have learned what suffering means,” he said, according to a biography by Stephan Lesher. “In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.”
This humbled, penitent version of Wallace won a final term as governor in 1983, taking more than 90% of black voters. He went on to appoint more than 160 African Americans to his administration, including as his press secretary.
During his term, Wallace met privately with Coretta Scott King and the Rev Jesse Jackson during a four-day reenactment of the second, successful march from Selma to Montgomery. At the 30th anniversary of the Selma march, in 1995, Wallace sang “We Shall Overcome” with his former adversaries and victims.
As I said: penance means concrete deeds, not just lofty words. Deeds tell the tale.
America would be fortunate indeed if Trump actually followed the moral trajectory of George Wallace. But in the same way you have to have a heart in order to have a heart attack, you have to have a conscience in order to have a crisis of conscience.
Samuel G Freedman, a regular contribute to the Guardian, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the of eight books