Politics & Media
Oct 26, 2015, 07:00AM

Trump’s Appeal to America’s Lowest Common Denominator Has Precedents

Maryland’s George Mahoney did the same in 1966. 

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Marylanders of a certain age and political disposition may be hearing back-to-the-future echoes of two previous campaigns for governor in the presidential meanderings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Trump’s xenophobic slogan of “Make America Great Again,” coupled with his build-a-wall and deport Hispanics crusade, suggests the same dog-whistle message as George P. Mahoney’s 1966 “Your Home is Your Castle” racist screed. And Clinton’s finessing Vice President Joe Biden out of the presidential race, with some helpful indecision by Biden himself, recalls Gov. Marvin Mandel’s gentle elbowing aside of R. Sargent Shriver in the primary election for governor in 1970.

Trump’s all-white implications mimic Mahoney’s race-baiting slogan in very much the same but updated milieu with a different hue, brown rather than black. In 1966, the year Mahoney’s Democratic primary victory set the stage for the election of Spiro T. Agnew as governor of Maryland, racial barriers were toppling everywhere and resentment was seething. The civil rights movement was fully underway. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were signed into law, giving legal parity, if not grudging acceptance, to blacks.

Much of the resentment centered on real estate—the posting of “For Sale” signs and the “block-busting” of the era whereby the sale of a single house to a black in an all-white block might devalue the entire block or neighborhood or accelerate abandonment and white-flight to the suburbs. Mahoney’s slogan, “Your Home is Your Castle,” had found its Maryland audience as well as national attention.

Trump, like Mahoney, is selling fear as well. He, too, has found willing listeners. It resides in the Republican base of fundamentalists and evangelicals which, for this election, appears to have a severe case of political schizophrenia if the polls are correct. They like Trump because he’s pugnacious and they like Ben Carson because he’s soft-spoken and nice. But make no mistake. They’re both saying the same messages with different inflections and facial expressions.

Trump has focused his nativist ire on Hispanics, principally Mexicans, whom he would deport and build a wall separating the two countries to keep immigrants out. Trump’s message resembles the anti-immigrant fever of the “America First” movement preceding World War II. And though it has a narrow appeal, Trump may be spitting in the wind. There are currently an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in America today, but the latest Pew Research Center shows the Hispanic population tripling to 29 percent of America by 2050, when whites are projected to become the numerical minority at 47 percent. The black population will remain static at 13 percent while Asians will show a slight increase.

Mahoney went on to win the four-way Democratic primary by 2000 votes and Trump is leading in the national polls by a wide margin but in individual state polls, which are more refined, Trump and Carson are nip and tuck, occasionally exchanging first and second place. But Mahoney’s victory among conservative Democrats caused many in the party to abandon him in favor of Republican Agnew, executive of suburban Baltimore County to which many Baltimore City whites were fleeing to new bleached zip codes.

(It must be noted, however, that in 1966 Agnew was viewed as a moderate suburban politician in the Rockefeller, Eastern establishment mold who had a progressive (but limited) record on civil rights. That soon changed. As governor, he turned on blacks, publicly berating Baltimore’s black leaders following the riots provoked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Later, as vice president, he became one of the most conservative Republicans in America, mainly to develop a following of his own to prevent being dumped from the 1972 ticket.)

By contrast, Clinton’s maneuvering is a case of a delicately applied pincer’s movement. Clinton’s subtle pressure on Biden to eschew the presidential race recalls another Maryland election in which Mandel helped to persuade Shriver, the handsome Kennedy in-law and Maryland native, to give up his idea of running for governor against the popular incumbent.

Clinton’s pressure on Biden, like Mandel’s on Shriver, was felt more than seen. She applied friendly persuasion through months of campaigning, prodigious fundraising, assembling support and endorsements and, finally, her compelling performance in the first debate, all of which translated into a formidable political machine. In the end, as Biden acknowledged, the window had closed and the calendar had expired.

Shriver had been serving as ambassador to France after having established and directed the Peace Corps for his brother in-law, President John F. Kennedy, impressive credentials without question. Peter O’Malley, the young political boss of Prince George’s County, dispatched an emissary, Spencer Oliver, to Paris to convince Shriver that Mandel was vulnerable and that he should consider returning to Maryland to challenge the state’s first Jewish governor.

The Mandel campaign viewed O’Malley’s venture as a political shakedown but a costly threat. Shriver was Catholic and Maryland is a heavily Catholic state. Shriver was beatable, the campaign concluded, but the effort would be more expensive than had been anticipated without a serious challenge.

Shriver returned to Maryland and began touring the state. The Mandel campaign launched a series of radio and television ads all aimed at Shriver. And phone calls went out from Mandel personally to local Democrats with one instruction—be polite but assert your support of the incumbent governor. Wherever Shriver went he received a warm reception but a cold shoulder.

Then Shriver made a simple tactical mistake: He requested a meeting with Mandel in his State House office—on Mandel’s home turf where, as incumbent governor, he controlled the staging of the event. Mandel kept Shriver behind closed doors for an hour, showing him campaign polls and discussing Maryland history with the native son (whose family home in Carroll County is a historical landmark), any and everything to drag out the suspense and keep the press guessing. Shortly thereafter, Shriver announced that he wouldn’t be running, that he had underestimated Mandel’s popularity and political strength.

Politics is a form-follows-function kind of endeavor. Trump and Clinton do not comport or compete either in style or substance. They both accomplish their ends by different means just as Mahoney and Mandel were able to achieve success though different approaches to dissimilar challenges. Trump is appealing to America’s lowest instincts and Clinton eliminated a challenger and gained a lift in the polls through smart, legitimate politics.

Trump presents a challenge not so much to the nation as to the Republican Party. The GOP has a lot of candidates for president with outliers Trump and Carson together commanding more than half the party’s primary vote in the polls. And on Capitol Hill, about 40 Congressional districts out of 247 GOP seats—and a total of 435 House districts—are dictating the Party’s direction and a good chunk of the nation’s agenda because of the quirks of redistricting.

Trump’s searing sloganeering, like Mahoney’s coarse slogan, may have momentary appeal and even win him the nomination. But there’s another parallel for the Trump phenomenon. And that is the Barry Goldwater debacle of 1964, one of the epic defeats in American politics. It took four years following Goldwater’s disastrous campaign to rebuild the Republican Party and recapture the White House. Lesson learned, perhaps, is that the Trump misadventure could be more of an opportunity than a setback for the GOP.


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