The next Republican debate is in Alabama, the state that gave the GOP a road map to Donald Trump
ATLANTA– Republican presidential candidates will debate Wednesday within walking distance of the site where George Wallace made his “stand at the schoolhouse door” to oppose the enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement.
The state that propelled Wallace, a Democrat and four-term governor, into national politics is now dominated by Republicans loyal to Donald Trump, another figure who leans heavily on resentment and white identity politics. The former president will not be on stage in Tuscaloosa, but remains the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination again.
Alabama's path since Wallace's rise helps explain the dynamics of 2024 and how Republicans evolved nationally from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Trump. Sure, Trump claims he is helping all races as a defender of ordinary Americans forgotten by Washington elites. He even uses that as a defense against four criminal charges, accusing the powers that be of attacking him as a way to destroy civilians. That kind of approach resonated in conservative strongholds like Alabama long before Trump.
“Alabamians, and I think most people, just don't like being told how to live,” said former Republican state Chairman Terry Lathan, referring to Alabama's motto: “We dare to defend our rights.”
For Wallace, this meant fighting federal authorities on integration and then going national with the slogan “Stand Up for America.” Trump sparked his rise in 2016 by spending years questioning the citizenship of President Barack Obama, the first black president. Like Wallace, Trump is strongly supported by culturally and religiously conservative whites, moved by his slogan: “Make America Great Again.”
“Unlike Wallace, but Donald Trump offers a form of nostalgia,” said national Republican pollster Brent Buchanan, who founded his Washington-based company Cygnal in Alabama.
Historian Wayne Flynt said the common thread through the eras is a group of voters “who feel like they're not being paid attention … that there's not much of a future for them.” Trump, like Wallace, he said, “has brilliantly analyzed the fear and anxiety.”
That doesn't mean Republicans in Alabama are falling in line. Lathan, who said “we know how wrong Wallace was” for his racism, supported Trump during her presidency. Now she supports Ron DeSantis; she called the Florida governor a “Reagan conservative who gets things done without being a bully.”
But she acknowledged that Trump's “steamroller effect” makes him “very popular in Alabama.”
Wallace, a four-time presidential candidate, served as governor for 16 years, from 1963 to 1987. That period marked a political realignment in the South, spurred in part by President Lyndon Johnson's signing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s: Democratic-controlled states shifted to Republicans. in presidential politics and later in other offices.
Alabama Democrats in particular cite deep historical roots tied to racism, class and urban-rural divisions when explaining Wallace, Trump and the decades in between.
“To understand it, you really have to go back to the Civil War and Reconstruction,” said Bill Baxley, a former attorney general and lieutenant governor.
Now 82, Baxley said he knows how stereotypically Southern that sounds. But the fact is, he said, that Republicans, who were the “Party of Lincoln,” kept white Southerners voting Democratic for generations after America's 16th president won the war.
The more layered reality of the so-called “Solid South” was that two unofficial parties operated under one banner. Moderate to progressive “national Democrats” were concentrated in northern Alabama, Baxley explained, while reactionary “states' rights Dixiecrats” coalesced in southern Alabama. It is no coincidence that South Alabama is where plantations anchored the antebellum slavery economy. The politics became “economic populism in the North,” Baxley said, and “racial populism” in the South.
These fault lines shaped Democratic primaries until the end of the 20th century. National Democrats claimed more federal than state offices: Baxley cited Alabamians as instrumental in President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs that paved roads, built hospitals, operated electric and telephone lines, and spurred development in rural areas that were struggling even before the Great Depression were mired in poverty.
Then “Wallace came along as a talented politician who knew better than anyone how to bridge all of this,” Baxley said, adding that he was disappointed that Wallace still made segregation his main argument.
The shift from Dixiecrats to Republicans accelerated in 1964, the first presidential election after Johnson, a Texas Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act. Republican challenger Barry Goldwater opposed the bill and won five Deep South states. It was Alabama's first move by Democrats since Reconstruction.
Wallace won four Deep South states as an independent in 1968. But in 1970 he was only able to secure his second term as governor through a close Democratic primary. The same electorate appointed Baxley attorney general. An unapologetic national Democrat, Baxley prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, and he memorably told a Klan leader in an open letter to “kiss my ass.”
Meanwhile, Wallace has adapted his pitch for a national audience. He mocked “inner-city thugs” and a “liberal Supreme Court” and Washington “overreach” – a coded version of his campaigns in Alabama. It stunned working-class Democratic primary audiences outside the South. Flynt, the historian, said Trump is “doing almost exactly where George Wallace did best, and for many of the same reasons.”
In 1968 and 1972, Wallace held raucous rallies, railing against protesters. At Madison Square Garden in New York City, he said such behavior in Alabama “gets a bullet in the brain.” Wallace's 1972 campaign ended with a bullet in his spine; it paralyzed him from the waist down.
Richard Nixon wrote in his memoirs that he adopted the “Southern strategy”—law-and-order and cultural rhetoric similar to Wallace's—to stave off Wallace. Ronald Reagan used his versions in the landslides of 1980 and 1984.
Since Wallace's first presidential bid in 1964, Alabama's electoral votes have gone to a Democrat once: Jimmy Carter, a neighboring Georgian, in 1976. Even then, Carter sought Wallace's support after defeating the governor in Florida's presidential primary.
After Reagan's inauguration, races in Alabama still hinged on which candidate could bridge economic populism and cultural conservatism, said Democratic pollster Zac McCrary, whose firm worked for the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.
“The Democrats won when they were able to play up economic sentiment and turn down the volume on the culture wars,” McCrary said. During their time in office, they implemented more liberal economic policies at the state level, especially primary and secondary education spending.
Wallace won his fourth term as governor in 1982 after denouncing segregation and winning over enough black voters. Democrats won seats in the U.S. Senate, including the victory of recently retired Senator Richard Shelby in 1986. Shelby only switched to the Republican Party after the Republicans won a midterm election in 1994 under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the eventual chairman of the House of Representatives who was called an heir to the Alabama governor's estate by Wallace biographer Dan Carter.
In 1996, Alabama's other Senate seat was flipped. Jeff Sessions, a staunch conservative and lifelong Republican, became the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump's presidential bid in 2016, giving him high-profile validation en route to the nomination. Trump appointed Sessions attorney general but ultimately fired him.
Alabama voters had gotten a taste of the turn to Trump: While Republicans nominated moderates John McCain and Mitt Romney for president in 2008 and 2012, the Alabama primaries went to conservative populists Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. In between those elections, Republicans eventually took control of the Alabama legislature during the first midterms after Obama's election.
Today, Alabama's two U.S. senators represent two styles of Republican politics, offering a rough analogy to the divisions of Southern Democrats in Wallace's heyday.
Senator Tommy Tuberville is a Trump acolyte. He spoke to Trump from the Senate floor as Trump supporters began storming Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021; now he is blocking military promotions to protest the Pentagon's policy on military personnel seeking abortions.
Senator Katie Britt, meanwhile, is the former head of the state Chamber of Commerce and chief of staff to Shelby, the old guard dealmaker who was first elected as a Democrat. Like her old boss, Britt operates more behind the scenes and campaigns on the 'conservative values of Alabama'.
Yet, like Shelby, she avoids criticizing Trump.
Buchanan, the Republican pollster, said: “It's Donald Trump's world and we're all just living in it.”
— Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler contributed from Montgomery, Alabama.