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Allan Levine: America has a history of presidential crazies

It’s next to impossible to be neutral about Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Late last summer, a representative sample of U.S. voters were asked in a Quinnipiac University poll: “What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump?” The responses included: “arrogant” (58 per cent), “blowhard” (38 per cent), “idiot” (35 percent), “crazy” (26 per cent), “asshole” (18 per cent”) “leader” (15 per cent) and “egomaniac” (13 per cent).

As outrageous and contemptuous of his Republican and Democratic opponents as Trump has been, in the annals of U.S. history, he is not quite as unique a presidential contender as he has been portrayed in the media. Going back more than a century, the list of arrogant, blowhard egomaniacs who sought the presidency is a long one.

William Jennings Bryan, a lawyer who became a congressman in 1890 at the age of 30, ran for the presidency as the Democratic nominee in three elections — 1896, 1900 and 1908 — and lost each time. He was one of the great orators in U.S. political history. His legion of supporters called him “the Peerless Leader,” or “the Great Commoner”; while his legion of detractors dismissed him as “the Beerless Leader,” for his stand in favor of prohibition, or “the Great Windbag.” Later in his career, he became an outspoken opponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which he argued was destroying young Americans’ faith in God. In the celebrated Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, Bryan acted for the State of Tennessee in prosecuting teacher John Scopes for violating the state’s anti-evolution act.

In the 1968 election, George Romney, a former governor of Michigan (and Mitt’s father) was, for a time, the Republican front runner in a race ultimately won by Richard Nixon, who went on to become president. Romney tried to boost his reputation as a statesman by visiting Vietnam while the war was still on. Initially, he declared his support for President Lyndon Johnson’s policy of increased American involvement, but then later backtracked and claimed he had been “brainwashed by government officials” into backing LBJ. That was essentially the end of his presidential run.

The “outrageous” label now linked with Trump, however, probably best describes South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond’s presidential campaign of 1948. That election is best remembered for the Chicago Daily Tribune’s gaffe in declaring the Republican Party contender Thomas Dewey the winner over Harry Truman, the Democratic Party nominee. Yet it was Thurmond, who ran as a third-party candidate for the States’ Rights Democratic Party, was responsible for arguably the most inflammatory rhetoric ever unleashed during a presidential campaign. Thurmond, who deluded himself as much as Trump does, regarded himself as a progressive champion, while he fought to preserve segregation in the South.

Once it became clear in early 1948 that Truman planned to advance civil rights policies to protect African-Americans, southern Democrats, Thurmond among them, decided that they could never support a Truman presidency. Thurmond opposed lynching and repeatedly patted himself on the back for the fact that, as governor, he had supported the prosecution of the leaders of a white mob who had taken a 24-year-old African-American named Willie Earle from a country jail — Earle had been accused of robbery and attempting to kill a white cab driver, though the evidence against him was sketchy and still in dispute — and murdered him. (All of the accused were acquitted by a white jury.) But Thurmond vehemently opposed the “intermingling of the races” and decried any federal attempt to end segregation as unconstitutional.

Thurmond was responsible for arguably the most inflammatory rhetoric ever unleashed during a presidential campaign

In mid-May of that year, Thurmond gave a fiery speech in Jackson, Miss., at an event that attracted fellow “Dixiecrats” — as the States’ Rights Democratic Party had been dubbed by a Charlotte, N.C., newspaper editor, much to Thurmond’s displeasure — as well as various hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In his remarks, he declared that “white and Negro races” both benefited from segregation. “No decent and self-respecting Negro would ask for a law to force people to accept him where he is not wanted,” said Thurmond. “They themselves do not want social mingling. They are entitled to equality of opportunity, and they will get it through our efforts. But 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.”

The formal split of the Democratic Party occurred after Truman won the nomination at the convention in July. Southern Democrats then drafted Thurmond as the Dixiecrat candidate. As U.S. political historian Joseph Crespino points out in his biography of Thurmond, at one Dixiecrat convention in Birmingham, Ala., which was broadcast nationally on the radio, CBS, NBC and ABC had to halt their live coverage because the speeches were so racist. Caught up in the moment, Thurmond, who was speaking off-the-cuff, declared in the official version of his speech: “I want to tell you ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the ‘Nigra’ race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.” Crespino, who has analyzed the speech carefully, insists that “Nigra” was actually the N-word, a derogatory term Thurmond usually avoided, though not on this occasion, when he was playing to a large crowd.

During the remainder of the campaign, Thurmond continued to insult Truman as “forcing himself” on the Democratic Party, suggested a link between civil rights advocates and communists and portrayed himself as a “friend of the Negro.” On election day, the Dixiecrats managed only 2.4 per cent of the popular vote and won four southern states, while Truman won 49.6 per cent of the popular vote and 28 states (to Dewey’s 45.1 per cent and 16 states). It was hardly a decisive victory. While the Dixiecrats soon faded, the Democratic hold on the “Solid South” eventually ended with the passage of more civil rights legislation by Truman’s successors.

As for Strom Thurmond, his political career was hardly tarnished by the debacle of 1948. He was elected as a South Carolina senator in 1956 and served for almost the next five decades, until his death in June 2003. Though he was compelled to change with the times, he never really repudiated his pro-segregation stand. It was parochialism, a narrow-minded way of seeing the world that afflicts Donald Trump, as well.

National Post

Historian and writer Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.

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