In 1966, I packed my bags and left the hatred, rage and resentment of Alabama — rage that was stimulated by the ultimate southern racist, Gov. George Wallace. I could no longer live in such a place. As I traveled through life, from Texas to Michigan to Washington state, I found an America that was much more open and dynamic and interesting than the simplistic politics of black and white in 1960s Alabama.
But now the old Alabama found me, and America has become Alabama.
Back in the 1960s, this so-called “white rage” that washed across Alabama and the Deep South came neither from job losses nor economic dislocation.
It was, after all, the booming 1960s. It came from the loss of status and the threats from outside intervention in the segregated, white supremacist system that regulated race relations and was breaking down at the time.
Neither is today’s white rage primarily a consequence of economic dislocation, although the signs of social distress in rural white America are obvious. Life spans of white Americans lacking a college degree are declining — unprecedented among any group in America since World War II.
At the same time, blacks and Hispanics who lack a degree are experiencing increasing life spans. Drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicides are killing white rural Americans at an alarming rate.
In the Deep South from the 1890s through the 1950s, populists dreamed of constructing a working class/yeoman farmer alliance of whites and blacks to offset the conservative power structure of wealthy plantation owners and big-city industrialists and businessmen.
The effort almost always failed because the conservatives raised the specter of race, splitting the populist coalition.
For similar reasons, today’s white working class cannot be unified with minorities in similar economic circumstances.
Because working-class whites deeply distrust the only mechanism for addressing these ills — the government — they will not unify with minorities in a grand progressive coalition. Those who say that the Democrats have failed to cater to the anxieties of the white working class ignore the fact that white rage of today stems not from the politics of economics but from the politics of status.
As far back as Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Republicans worked to attract disaffected white southerners turned off by the Democratic Party’s embracing of integration and civil rights.
As the Republican Party became more conservative, leaders convinced themselves that working-class whites were conservatives. But the base of white working-class Americans was never conservative. It could, however, be aroused by the rage of resentment as America diversified.
Neither was Gov. Wallace a conservative — he was a big-spending racist. He gave his white voting base a combination of segregation, populist attacks on government and corporate elites, and plenty of government programs, focusing on a network of trade schools and junior colleges. Donald Trump today brings the same kind of mix to his presidency.
By endorsing Donald Trump, the GOP has embraced fully the racism of George Wallace. Today’s Republicans have gone further — in effect acquiescing to Trumps’ rampant misogyny that would have appalled even Wallace.
Republicans, whether admitting it openly or not, want to believe they can offer racial, ethnic and gender resentment without accepting Wallace-style spending programs. But Trump instinctively grasps that these programs are essential to his demagoguery.
The better angels of the Republican Party — and there are many, but very few are elected politicians — understand that one cannot have small government and racial demagoguery simultaneously.
So what should reasonable, humane Americans on either side of the aisle do?
First and foremost, reassure our children. Many of our children are scared, and for good reason, but all is not lost.
Second, voters must realize that the Republican Party is dangerously close to being reborn as a white nationalistic force.
And finally, these are not normal times, and we all must realize that our democratic republic is under threat unlike any time in modern history. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Bryan D. Jones is the JJ “Jake” Pickle Regent’s Chair in Congressional Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.