Preying on white fears worked for Georgia’s Lester Maddox in the ’60s − and is working there for Donald Trump today

David Cason, University of North Dakota, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

In January 1967, after a gubernatorial election that saw neither candidate gain enough votes to win, the Georgia Legislature was faced with a vital decision: the selection of the state’s 75th governor during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Legislators chose the candidate who earned the least number of votes and was an ardent segregationist – Democrat Lester Maddox, owner of a chicken restaurant and a perennial candidate.

That transformation of Maddox from racist, eccentric business owner to governor was a historical note amid a backdrop of Southern politics and the region’s resentment of Black political gains. Southern politics was and is replete with colorful characters, hucksters, showmen and demagogues who managed both to shock and engender fierce loyalty among their followers.

Maddox showed that it was politically profitable to play on the fears and anxieties of white people, who were afraid of the political power of Black voters. And what was true in Georgia in the 1960s turns out to be true throughout the South today, as Maddox’s victory based on racism holds lessons for the 2024 presidential election.

To understand the popularity of Donald Trump and the Republican Party in Southern states such as Georgia, it’s crucial to understand the racial divisions that preceded him.

As a civil rights historian, I believe that Trump can be placed among a long line of demagogues who possess the skills needed to tap into the fears and anxieties of a group of people that perceives itself as marginalized, at risk and not in control.


Maddox was one of the first to do so in his successful gubernatorial campaign in 1966.

In his book “The Demagogue’s Playbook,” law professor Eric Posner defined a demagogue as a “charismatic, amoral person who obtains the support of the people through dishonesty, emotional manipulation, and the exploitation of social divisions.”

For Maddox, a Democrat in the era when Southern Democrats were the segregationist party, the social division he could exploit was a rapidly changing South, where political and cultural conventions were turned upside down by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. No longer was the white race the master of the social order.

During his campaign, Maddox used class warfare to frame his GOP opponent, millionaire textile heir Bo Callaway, as an elite integrationist who was out of touch with white voters – or as Maddox called them, “the little people.”


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