Review – Carter, “The Politics of Rage”

Dan Carter, “The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics” (1995) – Split the difference: I still think Lynyrd Skynyrd is a good band, but I change the channel for “Sweet Home Alabama.” For one, it’s massively overplayed, for another, Watergate wouldn’t bother my conscience, not because I voted for their fucking fascist governor but because I’m the son of McGovern voters, McGovern activists, thank you very much.

There’s a story of how George Wallace was a racial liberal before losing an election to someone who just screamed the notable anti-black slur (I’m fine not using it, but I hate using the “letter-word” formation like a child), and then vowed to never be out-slurred again. This is about half-true. He did lose his first election for Governor to a candidate with Klan support. And, more importantly, Wallace’s central drive always was power for its own sake, and, if historian Dan Carter is correct, power for the sake of gaining more power, always moving, always forging ahead, seldom even seeming to enjoy it. 

Wallace was born into circumstances that were lower-middle-class by early 20th century Alabama standards and poor by most American ones, in the Alabama black belt. “Child makes the man” is always a risk in these big biographies, but Carter clearly did the legwork and everyone agrees: little George was a dynamo of energy and ambition, and did not have a lot of shame or honesty hedging him in, more or less from the beginning. Another way the old story is half-right: Wallace’s first real political mentor was “Big Jim” Folsom. Folsom was a back-slapping, mildly corrupt progressive in a certain Southern mold: he wasn’t going to seriously shake up the racial order, but he was going to try to materially improve things for the citizenry as a whole, including the black citizenry, and he condemned the more violent aspects of racism as a way of keeping Alabama poor and subject to the whim of landowners and big business interests. He made wry jokes about how there was plenty of integrating going on in Alabama, after dark. He was quite popular. 

There’s a lot of back and forth about populism these days. It doesn’t help that some academic and political elites have chosen to make it the go-to term for everything they don’t like, from Corbyn to the alt-right, and it further doesn’t help that their critics have since insisted that whatever they think ur-populism is is never wrong and the elite critics only lump in “the bad kind” to discredit a threat to their regime. More heat than light! Let’s put it this way: Folsom can be seen to represent both the strengths and the limitations of a populist approach, defined broadly and generously as “advocating for the material interests and attempting to uphold and represent the cultural values of the common people in a given constituency.” Folsom did do some good things for the people of Alabama, building roads, schools, hospitals, etc. He also was crushed after the Brown v Board of Education decision came down, and “massive resistance” to school desegregation became the order of the day throughout the South. The last straw was a picture of him having a drink with black congressman Adam Clayton Powell. He was out, and that whole generation of Southern populists, an under-appreciated support for the whole New Deal order (the literature shows a lot of how Southern racist bourbons supported the New Deal, and they did, with conditions, but so too did Southern populists), was out too. To me, that sums up much of the problem of populism: if it were that easy, it would have already happened. It isn’t, alas.

Whether or not he actually breathed the promise not to get “out-(slur)’ed” into the open air, Wallace from then on made his career in opposition to the black freedom struggle, and anything he could memetically link to it. We don’t need to rehearse how things went in Alabama, except to note that whatever has gone down into conventional history, things were likely worse. Birmingham was, for a while, the bombing capital of the world- an industrial town, there were many men there who knew how to handle explosives. Carter uncovers very, very short links between murderous klansmen and Wallace, including at least one meeting Wallace directly took with the National State’s Rights Party, an openly fascist goon squad that sought to prevent even notionally-integrated Alabama schools from opening up by having adult thugs attack the schools directly. 

With all this massive resistance stuff, I always wonder… what did they think they were going to accomplish? Integrated schooling is now the law of the land in Alabama just as it is Minnesota, and so is one-man, one-vote without poll taxes and so on. Except… well, you have to figure what at least some of this did was provide delay and cover. On the other side of the coin, Malcolm X used to say people would talk to King because they didn’t want to talk to them. There was a dynamic where figures like Nixon, and eventually Reagan, seemed like more palatable versions of Wallace, better attuned to national audiences, knowing when to say the quiet part quiet… and in war, you can never underestimate the element of time. The period of chaos that came with massive resistance and all that came with it in the South gave southern white supremacists time to adjust, to figure out workarounds to maintain their power, so there was still a deeply unequal society with whites on top in the end. Would it have worked that way if the southern “moderates,” the deal-makers, had been in charge from the beginning, without the terror? I’m not sure it would. 

There were points where it was easy to write Wallace off as an atavism, a figure of the old south risen to scare the country again (1995 would be one of those times, so credit to Carter he doesn’t take that tack). It’s a lot harder, post-Trump, but that was well down the line. The sense that the future was 180 degrees away from everything Wallace represented was a major factor in his ability to succeed, when he left Alabama to run in Democratic primaries for president, and then as an independent candidate in 1968. Wallace found that his message resonated in the north, especially when he broadened it to include attacks on bussing for integration, welfare programs, student protestors, anyone opposed to the Vietnam war. King discovered something similar, in the negative, when he went to Chicago and encountered hate as fervent or more as he did in Selma. This not only shows that Wallace’s politics, the politics of white resentment, had a future, but that its past wasn’t so remote as all that, either. Wallace was always a thoroughly modern figure.

Who knows how far Wallace could have gotten — probably not the presidency, but he could perhaps have thrown an election into the House of Representatives and make some kind of grubby 1876-style deal — if not for two things. The first was nominating Curtis LeMay, founder of the Strategic Air Command, as his VP candidate. LeMay talked about using nukes, which scared people, he talked about abortion being ok as population control (he was a population control/ecofascist psycho on top of it all), which offended people, and he was just generally weird and off-putting. This restricted Wallace’s ability to throw the 1968 election. The other was a would-be assassin, the guy Robert DeNiro’s character in “Taxi Driver” was based on, shot and paralyzed him during the 1972 campaign. That dude was an avant-la-lettre incel and had all the ideology of a magic 8-ball, but hey… 

Wallace tried to clean up his act and repent some, towards the nineties, apparently. A hustle, or sincere? Who knows, and really, who cares? Carter doesn’t fall in love with his subject like a lot of biographers do. Wallace was an asshole who made his wife run for governor so he could be her puppet master (all she wanted to do was fish) and then abandon her for the presidential trail when she had the cancer that would kill her. He had admirable qualities, but not the redeemable kind- his humor and indefatigable work ethic mostly went towards advancing his own power and aggravating white supremacist violence. All around, a grim story, one that only gets grimmer reading it post-1995. ****’

Review – Carter, “The Politics of Rage”

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