WASHINGTON — “Hell,” said Alabama’s Democratic Gov. George Wallace before roiling the 1968 presidential race, “we got too much dignity in government now, what we need is some meanness.”
Twelve elections later, Wallace’s wish is approaching fulfillment as Republicans contemplate nominating someone who would run to Hillary Clinton’s left. Donald Trump, unencumbered by any ballast of convictions, would court Bernie Sanders’ disaffected voters with promises to enrich rather than reform the welfare state’s entitlement menu — Trump already says, “I am going to take care of everybody” — and to make America great again by having it cower behind trade barriers. If elected, Trump presumably would seek re-election, so there would be no conservative choice for president until at least 2024.
The Democratic Party once had to defend itself against a populist demagogue. During the 1932 campaign, while lunching at Hyde Park with his aide Rexford Tugwell, Franklin Roosevelt took a telephone call from Sen. Huey Long, who as governor had made Louisiana into America’s closest approximation of a police state. When the call ended, FDR told Tugwell: “That’s the second-most dangerous man in this country. Huey’s a whiz on the radio. He screams at people and they love it.”
Who, Tugwell asked, is the most dangerous? FDR, recalling Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s violent dispersal of aggrieved military veterans in Washington in July 1932, answered:
“You saw how he strutted down Pennsylvania Avenue. You saw that picture of him in the Times after the troops chased all those vets out with tear gas and burned their shelters. Did you ever see anyone more self-satisfied? There’s a potential Mussolini for you.”
Trump, who was a big-government liberal Democrat until he recently discovered he was a conservative Republican, has the upturned jutted jaw, the celebration of “energy” and the flirtation with violence and torture that characterized the Italian who was a radical socialist until he decided he was a fascist. Trump, however, is as American as Huey Long.
MacArthur said all military disasters could be explained by two words: “Too late.” Too late to discern a danger, too late to prepare for it. The Trumpkins’ love affair with their hero is too hot not to cool down — unless his opponents quickly act on this fact: His supporters like him, not what pass for his “ideas,” so the way to stop him is to show him to be unlikable.
Clinton’s opposition researchers must be delirious with delight about what they already have to work with. The 2012 Obama campaign had to resort to tendentiousness to present Mitt Romney’s impeccable business practices as proof that he was a villain. Read what a conscientious conservative, Ian Tuttle of National Review Online, is finding in Trump’s already public record. Then imagine what fun Democrats will have with Trump’s career of crony capitalism lubricated, he boasts, by renting politicians.
Trump’s Republican opponents are running out of days, places and people to stop him. Candidates, voters and other daydream believers rail against the “establishment,” waiting for this corpse to resurrect itself. But it died 50 years ago, on April 24, 1966, when its house organ, the New York Herald-Tribune, expired. The establishment had been comatose since Barry Goldwater brushed aside its feebly arrogant attempt to derail his nomination at the 1964 convention.
Today, the conservative movement should pool its sufficient resources to help Marco Rubio defeat Trump in winner-take-all Florida, where Rubio should spend all of his days and dimes between now and March 15. And to support John Kasich in Ohio. And Trump should be bombarded with questions like these:
What are you hiding by refusing to give the public the aesthetic pleasure of examining what you call your “beautiful” tax returns? Will you at least jot down on a piece of paper your gross income in each of the last three years? And your adjusted gross income on your personal tax returns in the last three years? And how much you paid in federal personal income taxes in those years? And how much each of your companies paid? Will you release the last five years of your personal financial statements — these are already prepared — that banks would have required you to submit annually in connection with the loans you list on the liabilities page of your financial disclosure report?
Trump probably hopes to secure the nomination before releasing pertinent information about his career that supposedly is his qualification for Lincoln’s chair.
Perhaps, like Cole Porter, he knows when a love affair is too hot not to cool down.
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.