In 1996, two decades before he won the presidency, Donald Trump was better known for his multiple marriages, multiple bankruptcies and multiple addresses than his racially charged rhetoric that — after the latest burst of mass shootings — the left wing says incites violence and the right wing says is misunderstood.

That year, the inflammatory remarks of a Virginia governor whose tendency toward intemperate talk would torpedo his career in 2006 — one word: "macaca" — were embraced by a paramilitary group here that the Southern Poverty Law Center said was among 10 in the state and 809 nationwide suspected of anti-government extremism.

The words of Albemarle County’s George Allen, from a speech he gave following the Republican take-back of Congress in 1994, were folded into promotional material of the Virginia Citizens Militia that also said members must have firearms and keep ammo at hand.

The statement attributed to Allen is meek compared with Trump's invective.

"Two centuries ago, the challenges to the liberties of Virginians came from an arrogant, overbearing monarchy across the sea," said Allen.

"Today, that challenge comes all too often from our own federal government ' a government that has defied, and now ignores, virtually every constitutional limit fashioned by the framers to confine its reach and, thus, to guard the freedoms of people."

Allen's incendiary utterances might never have caused bloodshed — as Democrats claim Trump's have — but that a Virginia governor was publicly associated with an armed fringe group, somehow legitimizing it, was cause for alarm.

That Allen's flourish would inspire deplorables, long before they were labeled such by Hillary Clinton, troubled Allen's advisers, forcing them to acknowledge an ilk many Republicans preferred to ignore.

They did not, however, repudiate the Virginia Citizens Militia, which was not among 19 extremist organizations in Virginia cited in an update last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center. An attempt to reach the group through its website was unsuccessful.

The Virginia Citizens Militia paired Allen's quotation with those of several of early patriots: George Mason and Patrick Henry, both Virginians, and Alexander Hamilton, a New Yorker.

And threw in this: "Members are also required to arm themselves with a rifle and maintain at least 100 rounds of ammunition within easy and quick access."

Also that year, Allen was photographed with members of the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center says is a successor to anti-desegregation groups that sprang up after the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1954, outlawed separate public schools for blacks and whites.

At his peak, Allen was a deft showman with an ear attuned to voter grievance and a keen appreciation for the power of language.

With these talents, Allen — elected governor in 1993 and U.S. senator in 2000 — appealed to Main Street and Movement Republicans alike, resurrecting a party that had been shut out of statewide office for more than a decade.

His hostility for taxes and regulation sated the business class. His promise to abolish parole, a theme that has a racial dimension, gave him law-and-order cred with suburbanites and was a distraction from his romance with the National Rifle Association, for which he made it easier to carry a concealed weapon.

And his fascination with Old South symbols — the Confederate flag, an official observance by the state of its rebel heritage, without acknowledging slavery — telegraphed simpatico with the fringe.

The state Republican Party happily followed suit.

Nominating Ollie North for U.S. Senate in 1994, the GOP convention adopted a resolution opposing a federal ban on military-style weapons pushed by Bill Clinton.

But Republicans also urged ready access to assault weapons, because all Virginians — in keeping with an argument Mason made in 1792 — constituted the state militia.

Allen's words could be bellicose, delivered with cheerful contempt. When Allen was breaking in nearly four decades ago, he was a viewed as a cowboy-booted curiosity, out of step with Virginia's usually mannered politics.

But Allen's victory in 1993 and the smash-mouth style with which he governed marked Virginia's pivot to national-style politics, to the bullying synonymous with Trump.

However, Allen's handlers recognized that Virginia — because it was politically competitive, because Republicans had a suburban presence that has since evaporated — would tolerate only so much impertinence.

Still, when it came to the Virginia Citizens Militia seizing the Allen brand, they walked a tightrope, acknowledging the suspicious image of such an organization, but refusing to indict it.

Did the response foreshadow, on a small scale, Trump's refusal — after the violence in 2017 that shook Charlottesville, where Allen entered politics as a legislator in the early 1980s — to condemn the white nationalists who contributed to it?

You could say that.

Jeff E. Schapiro is a writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared. Contact him at (804) 649-6814. 

Get Breaking News Alerts

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
Load comments