Notice how Trump in the Georgia rally photo above is out of focus, seemingly fading out? Let’s explore what that may well signify.
There’s a history to factionalism in the ruling party of the US state of Georgia. But during the earlier part of the last century, the ruling party was the Democrats and that history was wielded to scare off any factionalist who might try to interfere with what amounted to single-party rule.
This comes to mind at a moment when US President Donald Trump is publicly badmouthing key figures in what used to be the uniformly pro-Trump Georgia Republican Party.
Trump is upset that Georgia’s (“stupid”) governor, (“dumb”) lieutenant governor and (“enemy of the people”) secretary of state have failed to comply with his demand that the Republican-dominated legislature meet and throw out Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the state’s presidential election on grounds of election fraud.
As I wrote in an earlier piece, Trump’s preposterous demand to be recognized as the victor, despite the vote counts to the contrary that were certified by the state’s Republican-dominated, pro-Trump election management apparatus, is reminiscent of the “Three Governors Controversy.”
The reference is to events of 1946-47 when election winner Eugene Talmadge – a populist demagogue who’d been the state’s all-but-unquestioned boss – died before inauguration day.
The Talmadge crowd, foreseeing that the heavy-drinking Talmadge’s cirrhosis would not permit him to live long enough to take office, had asked a few friends to cast write-in ballots for Gene’s son and campaign manager, Herman, in the general election – an election that in other years was a formality since the governor as a practical matter was chosen in the all-white Democratic primary.
Despite the election of a lieutenant governor, who was constitutionally next in line for the top job, Herman had himself sworn in. He occupied the governor’s office in the state capitol, changing the locks to bar the lieutenant governor-elect and the incumbent governor.
The courts eventually ruled against Herman, but two years later he ran a regular campaign for governor and was elected – and never again was an explicitly anti-Talmadge candidate elected to the top state job.
By the time I became a politically conscious, pro-civil rights teenager, Herman was a US senator, still basking in all that unity, his faction of the Democratic Party having sent to the governor’s mansion another Democrat so rabidly segregationist that he advocated shutting down the public schools rather than complying with the US Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling in Brown v Board of Education.
In 1957, my father took me and some pals to a Winder, Georgia, political barbecue. Pop introduced me to that Talmadge faction stalwart, Governor Marvin Griffin. Since I knew he was not only a notorious racist but also a crook in the Gene Talmadge mold, I refused to shake hands with the governor. (I wasn’t punished for my discourtesy, perhaps because it was my birthday.)
In my home town, Marietta, there were still hardly any signs of Republicans. Local Democrats were said to be divided, though, between the regular Democrats – the Talmadge faction – and a more moderate faction centered on State Supreme Court Justice J Harold Hawkins.
The Hawkins dislike of the Talmadge faction was cemented in the early 1940s when Governor Eugene Talmadge pardoned a convicted murderer at whose lengthy Superior Court trial Hawkins as a Superior Court judge had presided.
Like others, Hawkins believed that Talmadge, who was unabashedly corrupt, had taken a bribe from the killer’s influential father. In a biography, Hawkins is quoted as having complained about “the amount of effort to bring murderers to justice only to have them pardoned by a corrupt governor.”
Helping to establish its upright, straight-arrow image, the Hawkins faction in Marietta was better known, at least to some of us who attended the church, as the First Baptist Party. Hawkins was himself the church’s Sunday school superintendent and conducted a men’s “class” just across Church Street on the premises of a gas station, closed on Sundays, where the guys stood around, drank Cokes and smoked cigars while they plotted political moves.
My dad, a church deacon and cigar smoker, could sometimes be found among the group. I encountered them myself whenever a couple of friends and I left Sunday school and sneaked over to the Marietta Square to emulate them by buying our own cigars at Dunaway Drug Store.
Judge Hawkins died in June 1961 as I finished my freshman year away in college. Some part, at least, of the First Baptist faction came under the sway of an extreme social conservative, kitchen cabinet company owner Barney P Nunn.
Nunn hated the demon rum. He strongly favored keeping Cobb County and Marietta dry and personally paid for billboards proclaiming the need for that. I believe he was the only man ever to become president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Nunn offered a preview of the type of Southern evangelical Christian who eventually would not only vote Republican but pretty much take over what became the party of most white Southerners once the Southern strategy of the Barry Goldwater 1964 and Richard Nixon 1968 and 1972 campaigns had its way with the country.
But the real beginnings of the transformation from a one-party Democratic state had already come from James V Carmichael, also of Marietta, who had run against Talmadge in 1946 and beaten him in the popular vote but lost in the Georgia Democratic Party’s primary, then structured like the Electoral College.
Here’s a telling passage from the New Georgia Encyclopedia:
The Cobb County executive represented a business progressive philosophy that championed moderation in race relations, improved public schools, better roads, and whatever it took to attract major companies to Georgia. Running well in urban areas, Carmichael outpolled his rivals, receiving more primary votes than anyone before. Nonetheless, he lost the countryside, especially in south Georgia, where Talmadge managed to gain enough county unit votes to capture the election.
Viewing the county unit system and one-party politics as a deterrent to social and economic progress, Carmichael claimed in an interview a few months later that he favored a two-party system whether it consisted of “Democrats and Republicans [or] Democrats and Loyal Democrats.” In mid-century Georgia, a politician with statewide aspirations risked political suicide by openly favoring Republican candidates, yet Carmichael again championed a “true two-party system” while introducing Richard Nixon during the presidential candidate’s 1960 Atlanta campaign appearance.
All that history is necessary to explain why I suspect Georgia is about to reach another turning point in which a Trump-dominated Republican Party will no longer hold unchallenged sway over the state.
The devil went down to Georgia, as the song goes. If you piss off too many big shots, when you’re in a bind because you’re way behind, the system may need to adjust. With Cobb County and other Atlanta suburbs already flipped blue, it stands to reason now that either a sizable red chunk will break off or there will be an internal battle for the soul of the state party.
Whoever wins the January 5 Georgia runoff vote that will decide the US Senate majority, the handwriting is on the wall. The top Georgia officials whom Trump has sought to throw under the bus probably will not submit.
Dare we expect the best of them – perhaps Secretary of State Brad Raffensperg – to issue a Carmichael statement before long, signaling the end of the Trumpian status quo?
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley Martin grew up in Marietta, Georgia, and, while attending Atlanta’s Emory University Law School, worked in the election campaigns of US Representative James A Mackay and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.