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America Is Not Reliving 1968

Sure, Donald Trump is harnessing Richard Nixon’s law and order rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean it will work.

The Army was called out to deal with riots in Washington, D.C., following Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The Army was called out to deal with riots in Washington, D.C., following Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968.

For me, the year 1968 is symbolized by a single dark evening that haunts me to this day. I was at the campus paper, the Michigan Daily, when the bulletin came over the clattering AP newswire that Bobby Kennedy had been shot just moments after declaring victory in the California Democratic primary.

I remember piling into a tiny VW Beetle with two friends from the Daily to drive aimlessly around Ann Arbor for hours. We didn’t have that much to say beyond the shocked horror. But the sense of movement itself, even without a coherent destination, was somehow comforting. Still, it was impossible to shake the feeling that the earth had spun off its axis.

Three assassinations in less than five years—two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. This was more than a trampling of the norms of democracy. The 1960s shootings, all in public view, destroyed the essence of democracy, which is hope itself.

Anyone who didn’t live through the 1960s will find it hard to grasp the disorienting destruction of American postwar innocence. Nothing that came later—not even September 11 or the pandemic—so upended our collective sense of what is right and normal.

I think of my night in a tiny Volkswagen on the road to nowhere every time I read some glib bit of commentary suggesting that 2020 is 1968 revisited. It is the crudest sort of historical analogy, akin to suggesting that 1939 was just like 1914 because a devastating European war began in the summer of both years.

Yes, law and order was a major Republican theme in 1968 and, of course, the rhetoric flourishes today under Donald Trump. Richard Nixon’s words from his convention acceptance speech carried an eerily contemporary tone, “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night.”

But the disorder and the destruction 1968—when the rioting in Washington alone following the King assassination led to 13 deaths and more than 900 businesses badly damaged—was light years away from what has been happening in Portland and Minneapolis.

Racial attitudes were also very different.

A Harris Poll in late August 1968 found that 81 percent of Americans believed that “law and order has broken down in this country.” And 59 percent said that “Negroes who start riots” were a major cause. (Fifty-six percent felt that Communists were another major cause.) In the same poll—in which the level of overt racism was shocking—50 percent of white Americans agreed, “Negroes smell different.” And 44 percent of whites were not embarrassed to tell a pollster that Blacks in their view had “less native intelligence.”

In contrast, almost all the evidence from the spate of post-convention polling released this week suggests that Trump’s demagoguery on race is simply not working. For all the demonization by Trump and the Republicans, the Black Lives Matter movement remains relatively popular. After the shootings and deaths in Kenosha, Wisconsin should, in theory, be the swing state most receptive to law and order fears. Instead, a Fox News survey of Wisconsin registered voters found that they preferred Biden to Trump by a 47-to-42 percent margin in terms of who could do a better job with “policing and criminal justice.” Even more ominously for the Republican ticket, a national Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters found that 50 percent believe that having Trump as president makes them feel less safe, despite the president’s Inaugural claims in 2017 that he alone would end what he called “American carnage.”

Furthermore, Nixon and the Republicans in 1968 had another issue working for them that dominated the campaign year—Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. A Gallup Poll from July of that year found that 46 percent of the voters considered Vietnam the most pressing issue facing the nation, significantly more than any other topic. Other surveys from that summer—including Nixon’s internal polls—reached a similar conclusion.

Sure, if you squint very hard, you might see an analogy between body bags coming home from Vietnam and a raging pandemic. But all through 1968—from Eugene McCarthy’s and then Kennedy’s antiwar primary challenges to the tear gas wafting over the Chicago Convention—Vietnam sundered the Democratic Party as Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president, struggled to win the support of the party’s peace wing. This time around, it is hard to recall a nonincumbent election campaign in which the Democrats were more unified. With a coalition of supporters ranging from Bernie Sanders to Never Trump Republicans, Biden has the freedom to embark on an election campaign without ever having to worry about securing his base.

In contrast, it is hard to exaggerate how bleak Humphrey’s prospects looked at this point in 1968. As British journalists Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page put it in An American Melodrama, their superb account of the 1968 election, “The beginning of the campaign was startling. It was difficult not to believe that the Democratic candidate was heading to a defeat … so comprehensive as to almost threaten the two-party system.” But beginning with a late-September speech in Salt Lake City in which he called for a bombing halt in Vietnam, Humphrey launched one of the great closing sprints in modern American political history.

Nixon, who spent most of the fall campaign sitting on his lead in Thomas Dewey style, managed to prevail narrowly by carrying most of the states in the industrial Midwest. (Yes, you can glimpse a little foreshadowing of the 2016 election.) As for George Wallace, the third-party candidate on the ballot, his support crumbled in the final weeks because his running mate, retired General Air Force General Curtis LeMay, kept talking enthusiastically about nuclear war.

In a sense, Trump, with his weird recent riffs about soup cans and antifa air flights, is the spiritual descendent of LeMay. The only difference from 1968 is that this time around the loose-cannon candidate already has the nuclear codes.