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Fifty two years ago, my father and his sister had a political fight at the Oakwood Country Club in Enid, Oklahoma. Then they didn’t speak to each other for over a decade. Both were the children of a leader in the Republican Party for the state of Oklahoma. My aunt had attended every Republican Convention since she was a child and even traveled with the Wendell Wilkie campaign train when she was 25. My father was expected to follow in the family patriarchal footsteps.

But in 1968, at brunch at the country club, he proclaimed he was going to support George Wallace for president, instead of Richard Nixon. Aunt Mary, thinking he was joking, said, “Bill, you’re lying.” I was not quite a teenager at the time. I was old enough to remember my father grabbing me and my brother by the hand and tearing us away from his obviously mad sister, to outside where he threw us in the car, and we sped away. I remember watching her running after us, screaming obscenities from the parking lot, her figure getting smaller and smaller as I looked out the back car window. We did not see her again for 10 years.

Daddy, supporting George Wallace, lost that election. And he lost a relationship with his sister for years. My generation lost them both years ago.

If they were alive today, they would see history repeating itself. And not just with politics tearing families apart. History is repeating itself in the form of Donald Trump playing the role of George Wallace.

Daddy told me, though not in these words, that he supported George Wallace because he was against desegregation. George Wallace also spouted populism which appealed to Daddy. He was a demagogue to the working poor with anti-establishment protests and passionate rallies.

"Trump and my father say out loud what people are thinking but don't have the courage to say," Peggy Wallace said in an interview with National Public Radio. "They both were able to adopt the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters that feel alienated from government." 

Speaking in 1968 to a shouting crowd, George Wallace said: "I want to tell these national parties this: They're going to find out there are a lot of rednecks come Nov. 5 in this country. They've been used as a doormat long enough."

Donald Trump uses words like carnage and dump instead of doormat. Both are good at tapping into our social torment. In 1968, it was hippies, Vietnam and civil rights, all the things that my father complained about every night on the evening news. Now it is southern border immigrants, Muslims and war in the Middle East.

I can imagine my father and Aunt Mary fighting over Donald Trump. Daddy would probably agree to attack women of color and support Steve Daines taking a stand against their First Amendment rights. Aunt Mary would most likely be appalled by the current occupant of our White House, from his grotesque attitude towards women and minorities to his lawlessness, corruption and destruction of our democracy. She was more like our patriarch, my grandfather. He was an independent thinker and worldly soldier. My nephew found one of his old campaign cards for U.S. senator. He was not a “rubber stamp” he would “represent all classes fairly”.

My grandfather would not win the primary election for U.S. senator in today’s Republican Party. He didn’t win the U.S. Senate election that year. Oklahoma was solidly with FDR, and it would be decades before it leaned GOP.

I don’t believe Aunt Mary would be a party member today. Her friends still living tell me she was a thinking Republican, and that she would have been proud of my writings. I rue not having her here to contemplate the doom of the Republican Party and if there is anything we could have done to prevent it.

If Daddy were alive, I would have to say, even though it took 50 years, “You won. Your man is in the White House. Congratulations.”

Hopefully, I would then be able to say, “Pass the potatoes, please.”

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A.J. Otjen, of Laurel, is fourth generation Republican who considers herself exiled from the Party of Trump. She ran for Congress as a Republican 2010, was the Montana coordinator for Republicans for the Environment and became precinct chairperson of Laurel in 2014.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.