Donald Trump’s closest historical parallel was most dangerous after she lost
It’s not controversial to say there’s never been a major-party nominee like Donald Trump. For a long time, political reporters have used that fact to insist he wouldn’t be the nominee either. And as it became increasingly clear he would be, they’ve struggled to find a candidate who was like him, if only to put this whole long, strange trip in some historical context. George Wallace comes up a lot, but despite embodying a similar unapologetically bigoted, populist id, he was a third-party candidate who never stood any real chance of winning. Ross Perot, similarly, never carried a major party banner and despite his similar status as a wealthy, fed-up outsider, lacked Trump’s naked appeals to xenophobia. Ronald Reagan, the ur-example of the folly of writing anyone off as a joke candidate, had governed the nation’s most populous state for eight years and come within spitting distance of the nomination twice already.
Of course, that’s not to say Trump emerged from a vacuum; his closest parallel spent only two years in national office, but did most of her work at the local level, but she had a similar way of mobilizing angry, largely working-class whites fearful a wave of social progress was leaving them behind. Her name was Louise Day Hicks, and in the late ’70s she became the face of organized resistance to a court order integrating Boston public schools through busing. Hicks, like Trump, was born to a community fixture, an influential judge and banker in South Boston’s Irish-American community. In 1961 she was elected to the Boston School Committee, and, much like Trump, expertly branded herself as a champion of a group she didn’t actually belong to, selling the image of a mother with skin in the game even though her children attended Catholic school. Her big moment came in 1963, when she singlehandedly torpedoed a committee resolution demanded by the local NAACP acknowledging de facto segregation in the school system. Two years later, Massachusetts passed the Racial Imbalance Act, which required public schools to integrate on pain of losing state funding.
In 1967, with white ethnic Boston still bristling over the law, Hicks ran for mayor on a slogan that, like “Make America Great Again,” sent a signal to her base: “You Know Where I Stand.” Like Trump likely will, she lost, albeit narrowly, in this case to Kevin White, who’d go on to serve three more terms. But it was her post-loss period that came to define her, in a way that may be helpful in guessing where a post-loss Trump would fit in. After serving a single term in Congress (with a surprisingly feminist record, including heavily lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment), she was voted out, returning to Boston and winning a City Council seat just before a federal judge ordered the city to expand its school desegregation efforts. Hicks, more than ever, became the face and voice of the backlash, founding the anti-busing group ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights).
Hicks was part of a phenomenon that, pre-Trump, had been largely absent from American politics for a while, a very specifically Northeastern conservatism. Due in large part to the electorate they must navigate, modern conservatives from the region are largely genteel and socially moderate to the point that many conservatives would bristle at the label being assigned them at all, men like Mitt Romney or Michael Bloomberg. But a different kind thrived in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when cities like Taxi Driver/The Warriors-era New York represented primal fears on a national level. This was the Northeast where New York construction workers, unencumbered by police, attacked and beat antiwar protestors in 1970, where Newark’s Italian neighborhoods formed paramilitary neighborhood patrols in response to 1967 riots, where young Brooklyn men established a club called SPONGE- the “Society for the Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything.” And of course, relatively late in its life, it was the Northeast where a younger Trump in 1989 bought ad space in the New York Times to call for the execution of five young black and Latino men coerced into confessing to the brutal beating and rape of a white jogger in Central Park, all of whom would later be exonerated by DNA evidence.
Hicks’ star eventually faded as even more extreme standard-bearers, like Elvira “Pixie” Palladino, an Italian-American matriarch who once punched Ted Kennedy at a rally, came to the fore. In failing health, Hicks retired from politics after losing re-election in 1977. She died in 2003. In defeat, Trump would have spent far less time in politics than Hicks, and it’s doubtful he has the capacity to retire quietly. But regardless, in an election season that increasingly feels like a rematch of Nixon-era cultural conflicts, he will be able to rest assured that his coalition of the resentful knows where he stands.