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Opinion This is the presidency George Wallace never had

President Trump at the White House on Thursday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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We know how a normal president responds when a white police officer ignites furious protests by killing a black man. It is the way President Barack Obama responded in 2014 after a grand jury refused to indict a white police officer who had fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the National Guard had to be called in to deal with looting and fires.

Obama expressed sympathy for the protesters — their anger, he noted, was “rooted in realities that have existed in this country for a long time” — while making clear that he had no sympathy with violence: “Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk — that’s destructive and there’s no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts. And people should be prosecuted if they engage in criminal acts.”

Note that Obama called for anyone who broke the law to be “prosecuted.” Now compare with the way President Trump has responded to the civil disorder in Minneapolis following the unjustified killing of a black man named George Floyd by a white police officer.

The president had initially and properly mourned Floyd’s “very sad and tragic death,” but in the early morning hours of Friday, he struck an incendiary tone. Trump castigated the “very weak Radical Left Mayor” of Minneapolis and threatened to “send in the National Guard & get the job done right.” His chilling bottom line: “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

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Consciously or not, Trump was quoting Miami police chief Walter Headley, who used that very phrase — “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — in 1967. Headley also said, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality,” and he charged that, while most “Negroes” were “law abiding,” “10 per cent are young hoodlums who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.” Headley’s brutal rhetoric and tactics were later blamed for inciting a three-day riot in Miami in 1968.

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More broadly, Trump is channeling the kind of “law and order” rhetoric employed by the Republican Party beginning in the 1960s to woo Southern whites and working-class Northern whites away from the Democratic Party. Richard M. Nixon pioneered this so-called Southern Strategy, but he was much more subtle than Trump, because he didn’t want to alienate white liberals or embrace segregationism. When asked in 1968 how he would define “law and order,” Nixon said: “I have often said that you cannot have order unless you have justice, because if you stifle dissent, if you just stifle progress, you’re going to have an explosion and you’re going to have disorder. On the other hand, you can’t have progress without order.”

Can you imagine Trump saying that? I can’t. Our current president actually sounds more like George Wallace, who in 1968 echoed Headley by saying: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

As governor of Alabama, Wallace had vowed in 1963: “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But during his third-party campaign for president in 1968, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, Wallace didn’t run on an explicitly segregationist platform. Instead, he focused on a “law and order” message that drew on white voters’ concerns about rising crime, urban riots, antiwar protests, liberal court rulings, busing and other hot-button issues. His slogan was “Stand up for America.”

Wallace was not subtle about his threats of violence. At Madison Square Garden in New York on Oct. 24, 1968, he expressed disgust at demonstrators trying to block President Lyndon B. Johnson’s limousine: “I tell you when November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they ever lay down in front of; their day is over!”

A few minutes later, shedding his jacket and clenching his fist, Wallace shouted: “We don’t have riots in Alabama. They start a riot down there, first one of ‘em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all. And then you walk over to the next one and say, ‘All right, pick up a brick. We just want to see you pick up one of them bricks, now!’ ”

As historian Dan T. Carter notes in his history of the modern conservative movement, “The crowd went berserk.” It was obvious to both supporters and detractors what Wallace was saying. An African American protester held up a poster proclaiming “Law and Order — Wallace Style.” “Underneath the slogan,” Carter writes, “was the outline of a Ku Klux Klansman holding a noose.”

In 1968, most Republicans did not support Wallace, who spent most of his career in the Democratic Party. He was considered too much of an extremist even by conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr., and in those days, there was still a substantial number of more liberal “Rockefeller Republicans.”

But now, in Donald Trump, we have the closest thing we have ever had to having George Wallace in the White House — and Republicans are nearly unanimous in their approbation. The president is pouring gasoline on the flames of racial division, and the Republican Party is holding the jerrycan for him. This is where the Southern Strategy has led after half a century.

Read more:

Val Demings: My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?

Michele L. Norris: How Amy Cooper and George Floyd represent two versions of racism that black Americans face every day

Eugene Robinson: Black lives remain expendable

Michael Gerson: Disbelieving black victims is the default position of conservatives. It’s shameful.