Read today’s pundits on the topic of Trump’s refusal to concede to Joe Biden – amid widespread concerns the defeated president will refuse to leave the White House on inauguration day – and you’ll get the impression such a thing has never before happened in the United States.
But ask any Georgian of a certain age and you’ll be told: “Been there, done that.” They’ll recall how, in early 1947, following the 1946 election, not only two but three men claimed the state governorship.
And some can point out ways in which that nasty affair was loaded with other parallels to what’s going on now.
The key figure was Eugene Talmadge (1884-1946), a former three-term governor who in so many ways was similar to Donald Trump. Let us count some of the ways.
Populist in atmospherics, while actually promoting the interests of the 0.1%? Check.
In the 1930s Talmadge as state agriculture commissioner advised laissez-faire self-reliance for farmers suffering through the depression. In 1936, at the Democratic National Convention, he voted against Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Lax, to put it mildly, in his financial ethics? Check.
“Our Gene” used Agriculture Department funds to pay for annual family trips to the Kentucky Derby. Accused of misappropriating $20,000 to manipulate prices in the hog market, he told supporters, “Sure, I stole it. But I stole it for you!”
Distinctive headgear? Check.
Talmadge’s devoted white, rural followers were termed the “wool hat boys,” although in warmer months many preferred Panamas.
There were no Proud Boys back then but Talmadge’s Georgia was Klan-ridden. His main issue in the 1946 election was his promise to restore the Georgia Democratic Party’s white primary, which a federal court had just outlawed.
His opponent, James V Carmichael, was a New South “progressive Democrat” who later would famously say: “I sicken of these people who are always waving the Confederate flag and telling us what a glorious heritage the South has. No one denies this heritage, but too many of our people want to keep on living on who they are and where they came from.”
Upholding the Electoral College against the popular vote majority? Check.
Talmadge was elected in a one-party state thanks to a Democratic primary system that showed resemblances both to the state-by-state constitutional allocation of members of the US Senate (two per state regardless of population) and to the national Electoral College. The county unit system gave two votes to the tiniest rural county and a maximum of only six votes to an urban county. Atlanta’s Fulton County, with 556,326 people according to the 1960 census, had the same say in an election as the state’s three least populous counties with a combined population of 6,980.
Determination to connect directly with voters in rallies? Check.
Talmadge was a wild showman and orator who loved his rallies. Carmichael, although never accused of hiding out in his basement, was a moderate businessman who – even if it had been his style, which it wasn’t – was physically unable to strut and pace on the stage. He’d suffered a childhood automobile accident that had left him (like Roosevelt with his polio) mostly wheelchair-bound. (Full disclosure: My dad had worked under Carmichael at the wartime B-29 bomber plant in Marietta, knew him well and actively campaigned for him.)
Solid red fabric down the candidate’s starched white shirtfront? Check.
Talmadge was known for his trademark red suspenders (galluses, in the vernacular of the time).
Don Jr, Eric and Ivanka? Check.
Talmadge had son Herman running his campaign and waiting to succeed him.
Blood pressure visibly rising, sounding health warnings as defeat sinks in?
Here things were much different for Eugene Talmadge, since he had won the county unit system vote and had been declared the winner. His problem and, more so, that of his family and followers, was that he was dead – quite literally dead – before inauguration day.
Scheming to take the decision out of voters’ hands and have state legislators decide the election? Absolutely!
Realizing before the election that Gene Talmadge was on the way to the great beyond, his cronies had organized a quiet write-in campaign to put a few votes on record for Herman. Then, after Gene died, they persuaded the legislature to hand the governorship to Herman (or Hummin, as Georgians pronounced his name).
By that time, Carmichael, the popular-vote winner, had bowed out of the picture. But under a new constitutional provision, a lieutenant governor had been elected. Melvin E Thompson was, like Carmichael, a member of what had long been termed the “anti-Talmadge faction.”
Hummin claimed the governor’s job. So did Thompson. And so did the incumbent governor, Ellis Arnall, also a member of the anti-Talmadge faction. Subordinates engaged in fisticuffs. When Hummin had the locks changed on the governor’s office, which he had occupied, Arnall set up elsewhere in the state capitol building.
A court eventually decided in favor of Thompson. Hummin was so civilized about accepting this that he left the office within two hours of the ruling – and immediately began campaigning for the 1948 gubernatorial election. As the excellent GeorgiaEncyclopedia.org recounts:
… the episode had several far-reaching consequences. First, it strengthened Herman Talmadge’s political reputation. His handling of the court decision earned him a great deal of respect among younger voters and returning World War II veterans. Hard-core Eugene Talmadge supporters, the “wool hat boys,” flocked to young Herman because of their perception that the anti-Talmadge forces had stolen the election. The events of 1946-48 also marked the last gasp of the anti-Talmadge faction. After Herman Talmadge’s easy victory over Thompson in 1948, no avowed member of that faction ever occupied the governor’s office again.
So if you wonder what’s had Trump so fired up lately about Georgia – where he’s demanded a recount of a vote total that finds him some 14,000 short of victory and where not only one but two senators will be chosen in January runoffs that will determine which party controls the Senate – please realize that there’s a certain history here.
Asia Times Associate Editor Bradley Martin grew up in Marietta, Georgia. As a Princeton history major he wrote a paper on Eugene Talmadge and other Deep South demagogues of the inter-war period.