ATLANTA (AP) — Republican presidential candidates will debate Wednesday within walking distance of where George Wallace staged his “stand in the schoolhouse door” to oppose the enrollment of Black students at the University of Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement.
The state that propelled Wallace, a Democrat and four-term governor, into national politics is now dominated by Republicans loyal to Donald Trump, another figure who leans heavily on grievance and white identity politics. The former president will not be on stage in Tuscaloosa but remains the prohibitive favorite to win Republicans’ nomination again.
Alabama’s path since Wallace ‘s rise helps explain the 2024 dynamics and how Republicans evolved nationally from the Party of Lincoln into the Party of Trump. Certainly, Trump argues he helps all races as a defender of everyday Americans forgotten by Washington elites. He even uses that as a defense against four criminal indictments, accusing establishment powers of attacking him as a way to quash citizens. That sort of approach resonated in conservative strongholds like Alabama long before Trump.
“Alabamians, and I think most people, just don’t like to be told how to live,” said former state Republican chairwoman Terry Lathan, referencing Alabama’s motto: “We dare defend our rights.”
For Wallace, that meant fighting federal authorities on integration and then running nationally with the slogan “Stand Up for America.” Trump set up his 2016 rise by spending years questioning the citizenship of President Barack Obama, the first Black president. Like Wallace, Trump is backed strongly by culturally and religiously conservative whites moved by his slogan: “Make America Great Again.”
“Different from Wallace, but Donald Trump is offering a form of nostalgia,” said national GOP pollster Brent Buchanan, who founded his Washington-based firm, Cygnal, in Alabama.
Historian Wayne Flynt said the common thread across the eras is a swath of voters “who feel they are not paid attention to … that there’s not much future for them.” Trump, like Wallace, he said, has “brilliantly analyzed the angst and anxiety.”
That doesn’t mean Alabama Republicans are in lockstep. Lathan, who said “we know how wrong Wallace was” for his racism, backed Trump during her chairmanship. Now she supports Ron DeSantis; she called the Florida governor a “Reagan conservative who gets things done without being a bully.”
But, she acknowledged Trump’s “steamroller effect” makes him “very popular in Alabama.”
Wallace, a four-time presidential candidate, was governor for 16 years spread from 1963 to 1987. That period marked a Southern political realignment, spurred in part by President Lyndon Johnson signing civil rights legislation in the 1960s: Democratic-controlled states shifted to Republicans in presidential politics and, later, other offices.
Alabama Democrats, especially, cite deep historical roots involving racism, class and urban-rural divides when explaining Wallace, Trump and the decades between them.
“To understand it, you really have to go back to the Civil War and Reconstruction,” said Bill Baxley, a former state attorney general and lieutenant governor.
Now 82, Baxley said he knows how stereotypically Southern that sounds. But it’s fact, he said, that Republicans being the “Party of Lincoln” made white Southerners vote Democratic for generations after the 16th U.S. president won the war.
The more layered reality of the so-called “Solid South” was that two unofficial parties operated under one banner. Moderate to progressive “national Democrats” were concentrated in north Alabama, Baxley explained, while reactionary “states-rights Dixiecrats” cohered in south Alabama. Not coincidentally, south Alabama is where plantations anchored the antebellum slavery economy. Politics became “economic populism in the north,” Baxley said, and “race-issue populism” in the south.
Those fault lines shaped Democratic primaries until the late 20th century. National Democrats claimed more federal than state offices: Baxley listed Alabamians instrumental in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that paved roads, built hospitals, ran electrical and telephone lines, and spurred development in rural areas mired in poverty even before the Great Depression.
Then “Wallace came along as a talented politician who figured out how to bridge all that better than anybody else,” Baxley said, adding his disappointment that Wallace still made segregation his main argument.
Dixiecrats’ shift to Republicans accelerated in 1964, the first presidential election after Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, signed the Civil Rights Act. Republican challenger Barry Goldwater opposed the act and won five Deep South states. It was Alabama’s first flip from Democrats since Reconstruction.
Wallace won four Deep South states as an independent in 1968. Yet in 1970, he secured his second term as governor only through a close Democratic primary runoff. That same electorate made Baxley attorney general. An unapologetic national Democrat, Baxley prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, and he memorably told a Klan leader in an open letter to “kiss my ass.”
Meanwhile, Wallace retooled his pitch for a national audience. He sneered about “inner-city thugs” and a “liberal Supreme Court” and Washington “overreach” — a coded version of his Alabama campaigns. It wowed working-class Democratic primary audiences beyond the South. Flynt, the historian, said Trump “does best almost exactly where George Wallace did best, and for many of the same reasons.”
In 1968 and 1972, Wallace held raucous rallies, railing against protesters. At New York City’s Madison Square Garden he said such behavior in Alabama “gets a bullet in the brain.” Wallace’s 1972 campaign ended with a bullet in his spine; it paralyzed him from the waist down.
Richard Nixon wrote in his memoirs that he adopted the “Southern strategy” — law-and-order and cultural rhetoric similar to Wallace’s — to stave off Wallace. Ronald Reagan employed his versions in 1980 and 1984 landslides.
Since Wallace’s first presidential bid in 1964, Alabama’s electoral votes have gone to a Democrat once: Jimmy Carter, a neighboring Georgian, in 1976. Even then, Carter sought Wallace’s endorsement after defeating the governor in Florida’s presidential primary.
After Reagan’s inauguration, Alabama’s down-ticket races still turned on what candidate could bridge economic populism and cultural conservatism, said Democratic pollster Zac McCrary, whose firm worked for Hillary Clinton’s and Joe Biden’s presidential campaigns.
“Democrats won when they were able to play up economic sentiments and turn down the volume on the culture wars,” McCrary said. In office, they implemented more liberal economic policies at the state level, especially K-12 education spending.
Wallace won his fourth term as governor in 1982 after disavowing segregation and winning over enough Black voters. Democrats won U.S. Senate seats, including recently retired Sen. Richard Shelby’s 1986 victory. Shelby switched parties to the GOP only after Republicans’ 1994 midterm romp driven by Newt Gingrich, the eventual House speaker whom Wallace biographer Dan Carter called an heir to the Alabama governor’s legacy.
In 1996, Alabama’s other Senate seat flipped. Jeff Sessions, a staunch conservative and lifelong Republican, went on to become the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, giving him high-profile validation on his way to the nomination. Trump made Sessions attorney general but ultimately fired him.
Alabama voters had previewed the turn to Trump: While Republicans nominated moderates John McCain and Mitt Romney for president in 2008 and 2012, Alabama’s primaries went to conservative populists Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Between those elections, Republicans finally took control of the Alabama Legislature in the first midterms after Obama’s election.
Today, Alabama’s two U.S. senators represent two styles of Republican politics, offering a rough analogue to Southern Democrats’ split in Wallace’s heyday.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville is a Trump acolyte. He talked to Trump from the Senate floor as Trump supporters began storming Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021; now he’s blocking military promotions to protest Pentagon policies for servicemembers seeking abortions.
Sen. Katie Britt, meanwhile, is a former head of the state chamber of commerce and chief of staff to Shelby, the old-guard dealmaker first elected as a Democrat. Like her old boss, Britt operates more behind the scenes and campaigns generically on “conservative Alabama values.”
Still, as Shelby did, she avoids criticizing Trump.
Buchanan, the Republican pollster, said: “It’s Donald Trump’s world and we’re all just living in it.”
—- Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler contributed from Montgomery, Alabama.