Over the past month, as Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination has captured national attention for his blowhard-y comments, personal insults, and rising poll numbers, liberal commentators have rejoiced. As long as the Trump train keeps rolling, the argument goes, Democrats emerge as the real victors as Republicans grow more fractious. Weeks ago when Trump signaled he would consider running as a third-party candidate if he failed to win the Republican nomination, it was music to the ears of the left. While it is true that a Trump independent run would guarantee a presidential victory for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the long-term damage Trump could cause for the Democratic Party could be severe.
Consider the past. In 1948, Strom Thurmond broke with the Democrats and ran as a third-party Dixiecrat against Harry Truman, who encouraged civil rights legislation and desegregated the military. Thurmond spoke for millions of people when he declared on May 10 in Jackson, Mississippi, “All the laws of Washington, and all the bayonets of the Army, cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches, and our places of recreation.” Thurmond’s campaign was a nightmare for Truman and the Democratic establishment. Most thought the Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey, would win, but Truman squeaked out a close victory, no thanks to Thurmond who split the party. Thurmond won four southern states, but was trounced outside of the South. But in his loss, he gave a new, powerful voice to the radical right in the South – one that united white supremacy, anticommunism, and anti-New Deal sentiment into a unified ideology that undermined the liberal state over the next two decades.
Sixteen years later, Barry Goldwater secured the Republican nomination for President. He ran as an outsider, a conservative purist out of vogue with the moderate approach of the Republican leadership. But Goldwater captured the imagination of conservatives across the country, promising them a return to pure capitalism and traditional values. Lyndon Johnson hammered him in the presidential election, inspiring political commentators from the left and right to draw up the last will and testament of the Republican Party. But rather than its end, Goldwater’s loss cemented a new generation of conservative activists within the Republican Party, including Ronald Reagan. Goldwater’s loss underpinned a conservative resurgence.
In 1968, George Wallace ran as an independent presidential candidate, fanning the flames of racial hatred across the United States. Like Thurmond and Goldwater, Wallace lost by a wide margin, but he stoked fears and prejudices that still survive. Nixon tapped into these feelings as during his run too, but Wallace appealed to poor and lower middle-class whites in a way reminiscent of Strom Thurmond in 1948. In a television commercial, a voiceover asks, “Why are more millions and millions of Americans turning to Governor Wallace? Take a walk in your street or park tonight.” In the frame, a woman walks down a dark sidewalk, and someone shoots out the streetlight nearby. Appealing to white fears, Wallace linked together black criminality, urban rioting, communism, big government, and the alleged breakdown of traditional families into a powerful right-wing ideology that gripped American politics.
Trump’s candidacy is not without precedent. Similar campaigns have happened before, and the national media dismissed each at the time as insignificant. Democrats today would be wise to take Trump seriously. He won’t ever become President, but his impact on conservative America could run much deeper.
Sixty-five years ago, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., commenting in an article in the New York Times on “The Need for an Intelligent Opposition,” warned Democrats not to revel in the GOP’s troubles. “If a party becomes so feeble and confused that it turns into an object of public pity or contempt,” Schlesinger wrote, the result would be that “our whole political fabric suffers; the party itself disappears; and there is no guarantee that any new party which rises in its place will have a basic respect for constitutional processes and public order.” The same warning applies today.
T. Evan Faulkenbury is a PhD candidate in History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.