Replace Donald Trump’s New York accent with a Southern drawl, then replace his use of “illegals” with the n-word, and there you have it: a 2015 version of George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor who stoked fear and prejudice to find his place in politics.
And like Wallace—who, after losing his first race for governor in 1958 to an opponent who had the backing of the Ku Klux Klan, vowed, “No other son of a bitch will ever out-n—ger me again”—Trump is apparently taking no chances on being “out-illegaled” by his Republican opponents in the presidential campaign.
Recently, Trump—who drew the ire of many Latinos after he claimed that Mexico sends only drug dealers and rapists to the U.S.—amped up his anti-Latino extremism by saying that if elected president, he would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. He also said that he would deny citizenship to any children born to them—something that would require rescinding the 14th Amendment.
Trump’s views certainly “out-illegal” those of the other Republican candidates, most of whom want harsher measures against workers who are in the country illegally but who stop short of saying they would seek to amend the Constitution to strip children of undocumented workers of birthright citizenship.
And what Trump is doing to exploit the fears of white voters who make up the base of the Republican Party comes from the playbook that Wallace, his Jim Crow doppelgänger, used in Alabama in the 1960s.
Like Trump, who painted undocumented workers as criminals that good Americans must be protected from, Wallace, in his 1963 inaugural address, promised to protect Alabama’s “Anglo-Saxon people” from “communistic amalgamation” with black people. His most famous declaration—“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever”—would haunt him decades after he renounced that stance.
The other thing that makes Donald Trump the Grand Old Party’s George Wallace is that like Wallace, chances are Trump doesn’t even believe his own extremism.
As Trump maligned all Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, Latino workers, some undocumented, were working on the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Under Trump’s plan, a whole lot of them—workers who are actually making him more rich—would be deported, and at a price tag of $400 billion to $600 billion.
I don’t buy it that Trump, a wealthy businessman and entrepreneur, doesn’t know the consequences, or the impracticality, of such a policy. I also don’t believe that Trump didn’t know that undocumented laborers were working for him. At the very least, an anti-immigration zealot of the type Trump seems to be would have made it his business to see to it that he was paying only documented workers.
Wallace also wasn’t always a rabid segregationist. As a delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention, he declined to join the Dixiecrats in their walkout to protest President Harry Truman’s civil rights changes. Also, as a circuit judge in Alabama, he was known for treating black people and white people the same.
When he ran for governor in 1958, he declined to make race an issue, and the NAACP even endorsed him. He went full racist only when he realized that was what was required to win elections in Alabama. And he did that in visible ways, such as standing in the door of the University of Alabama to prevent black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling in 1963.
Wallace defied the Constitution to hurt black people; Trump wants to rewrite it to hurt Latinos.
Another thing: Wallace’s campaign slogan was “Stand up for America.” Trump’s slogan? “Make America great again!”
In 1968 Wallace ran for president as an independent candidate and actually won 13 percent of the vote. Right now, Trump is the GOP front-runner.
It’s scary because just as Wallace did, Trump is appealing to people who believe that America’s greatness hinges on not allowing certain people to share in the opportunities and rights that it promises to everyone.
Like him, Trump is ginning up unfounded fears about undocumented workers in order to gain a sliver of white voters who feel threatened by Latinos in 2015, just as some white voters felt threatened by black people empowered with the vote in the 1960s.
He’s discovering that right now, “out-illegaling” his opponents is a good campaign strategy.
And like Wallace, Trump will ultimately learn that, at least nationally, it won’t be a winning one.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is a multiple-award-winning journalist based in Jacksonville, Fla., who has been writing about Cuba and the African Diaspora since 2000. To read more of her work, go to her website, follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.