How far we have come in just 12 months.
A little over a year ago, Donald Trump drew, at the time, the biggest crowd of the 2016 election cycle at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. It was a political event unlike anything Mobile had ever seen.
At the time, Trump compared the experience to what Billy Graham must have felt preaching to stadiums throughout the second half of the last century. It even featured a cameo by Sen. Jeff Sessions, who would later give Trump his first major endorsement at a similar rally in Huntsville toward the beginning of this year.
But Trump’s Mobile speech was hardly an oratory masterpiece. Instead it was a rambling, incoherent address that didn’t quite live up to its buildup.
What began as a football game-type atmosphere with tailgating festivities wound up being an event with people leaving before Trump finished speaking. In fact, Trump didn’t even stick around for his advertised press availability after the event.
Nonetheless, he laid a marker and even though the attendance estimates varied from 15,000 to 30,000, Trump showed he could at least generate some sort of enthusiasm.
Still, the critics remained unconvinced. At the time, Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Lagniappe he expected the Trump phenomenon would not last.
“I think we need to be humble in looking at this because it’s a — it’s truly unprecedented — a guy who has made a splash like this, who is more of a celebrity than a politician,” he said. “I do think he’ll burn out at some point.”
That turned out to be wrong. After July 2015, Trump led the polls and no one could close the gap. The one short-lived exception was another novice candidate, Ben Carson, who managed to tie Trump in a few national polls during the month of November.
After a few Carson missteps, however, he faded. Then, as the other Republicans in the field dropped out, Trump continued his dominance all the way to the party’s nomination, which included a lopsided win in the Alabama primary.
Over the past year, Trump’s message at these rallies has evolved. After calls for more policy specifics from the media, The Donald has delivered.
Unfortunately he has yet to show he is capable of getting out of his own way despite the message focus.
As with any first-time politician, Trump’s run of a presidential campaign hasn’t gone smoothly. He has done it with much less money than any major party candidate has in a long time, but for whatever reason he hasn’t been able to avoid tweets or controversial statements that have plagued his candidacy.
That has caused many to doubt he can win because as it currently stands, according to polling, he is in a deep hole compared to his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
There is one common thread. Just like the critics a year ago, they continue to maintain the Republican nominee is still at best a long shot to win the White House in November.
The aforementioned Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball currently has Clinton winning in an Electoral College landslide, 348-190. Whether or not being that wrong a year ago translates into being wrong again remains to be seen.
Win or lose for Trump, Alabama seems to have emerged as the birthplace of the populism that is leading the way in the Republican Party today.
Most of that is in part due to the efforts of Sessions, who has been pushing the “America first” idea of trade and immigration policy long before Trump emerged as a political player.
Keep in mind that while touting these policies Sessions has faced very little opposition. In his last re-election bid in 2014, he ran unopposed in the Republican primary and the general election. That’s rare in statewide elections these days.
There is an historic precedent. Populism has been a theme in Alabama politics over the centuries. After the Civil War, farmers in Alabama organized the Grange over rising costs and falling crop prices. Right before the turn of the century, for a brief moment the Populist Party was a viable alternative to the Democratic Party, which had dominated Alabama politics since the end of Reconstruction.
Former Democratic Gov. George Wallace, who was arguably the most notable Alabama politician in the 20th century, was a populist. Aside from being a well-known segregationist, the other planks in Wallace’s platform involved an economic populism that was pro-labor, offered tax incentives to business locating in the state and made a big push with regard to education by forming the state’s junior college system.
It was a far cry from what Sessions and Trump are pushing now, but both movements had anti-establishment characteristics.
Perhaps it was more of a geographical strategy Trump employed by making one of his first splashes in Mobile, given that when addressing the Mobile audience, you’re also in a media market that reaches into Florida and Mississippi.
However, to have done it in Sessions’ hometown, where such policies are arguably very popular given election results in not just this GOP primary but in past elections, it does suggest Alabama’s Port City will remain an important stop in future elections if the nationalist populist theme remains a serious part of the country’s politics.