1960s, 1968 election, 1972 election, African Americans, Chicago Democratic Convention riots, conservatives, D.C. riots, Democrats, Derek Chauvin, Garry Wills, George C. Wallace, George Floyd, Hubert H. Humphrey, Im-Politic, John Judis, King assassination, law and order, liberals, Martin Luther King, Minneapolis riots, Nixon Agonistes, political violence, race riots, racism, Republicans, Silent Majority, Trump, Vietnam
The short answer is “in lots of ways.” Not in all ways, though. And the differences could decisively affect the results of the upcoming presidential election. But at this point, the turmoil might still be at such an early stage those of us who aren’t completely clairvoyant can only sketch out the similarities, differences, and plausible scenarios.
First, the similarities. As with the riots that shook and burned numerous U.S. cities following the April 4 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., today’s violence is both widespread and racially related. As in 1968, public opinion is deeply divided as to whether any of the violence has been warranted by past and ongoing iwrongs, and whether those responsible are mainly the victims of longstanding and widespread bigotry along with their sympathizers, or whether they’re mainly “outside agitators” who either simply want to cause and profit from trouble, or who seek to advance different or broader political agendas. As a result, as in 1968, a seeming chasm has opened up between those who would focus the initial national response on the racial injustices that have clearly contributed to the large-scale protests (if not necessarily the violence), and those who are more concerned with restoring public order.
As in 1968, the national mood has been inflamed for months by anger over issues other than race relations (then the Vietnam War, now all the political and social and cultural conflicts laid bare by President Trump’s rise to power and his policies during his first term – not to mention the pandemic!). Consequently, both in 1968 and today, worries appear to be growing that, as Garry Wills wrote (then) in is brilliant polemic Nixon Agonistes:
“There was a sense everywhere…that things were giving. That man had not only lost control of his history, but might never regain it. That palliatives would not serve, but that nothing but palliatives could be found. That we had slipped gears somewhere, and a chain of mismeshings was chewing the machinery up.”
And as mentioned, as in 1968, Americans are now in the middle of a presidential election year, and the aforementioned split concerning the initial response seems to break down pretty neatly along Left-Right, Democratic-Republican lines.
But don’t forget the differences. And let’s lead off with some badly needed good news: Specifically, so far, the deaths and the damage in 1968 far exceed today’s so far. Then, according to this review, “[I] the 10 days following King’s death, nearly 200 cities experienced looting, arson or sniper fire, and 54 of those cities saw more than $100,000 in property damage.” It continues: “Around 3,500 people were injured, 43 were killed and 27,000 arrested.”
Not that the King assassination riots were the only instances of violent upheaval in 1968. A multi-day conflict erupted outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August between protestors on the one hand, and Chicago cops, National Guardsmen, regular U.S. Army troops, and Secret Service agents on the other. Labeled a “police riot” by a federal commission appointed to investigate, the “Battle of Michigan Avenue” nonetheless resulted in no fatalities although 119 police and 100 protestors suffered injuries.
The current violence following the death at a white policeman’s hands of subdued African-American suspect George Floyd may not be over, but so far only about thirty cities have been hit with violence. Moreover, after several days, the toll isn’t nearly as heavy. Especially encouraging, as of this writing, only three deaths seem to have been recorded (in Indianapolis, Indiana, and in Oakland, California). I haven’t yet found a national injury count, but the Associated Press reports arrests at “at least 4,100.” It’s enough to make you wonder whether the social media- cable news-driven 24/7 news cycle in and of itself is heightening anxiety.– and worse – these days.
Moreover, for all the national divides that have opened up recently, broad consensus seems evident on the outrage perpetrated by fired and indicted Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and a weaker but not negligible consensus that something has been unacceptably wrong between how the nation’s law enforcement system deals with racial minorities in situations ranging from traffic stops to inherently dangerous apprehensions to prison sentencing.
And despite the aforementioned apparent neatness of the Left-Right divide over initial responses, the actual political situation is thoroughly scrambled and confusing. Then, Democrats controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress. Now, a Republican (however unconventional) sits in the White House, and the House and Senate are split.
Therefore, it was readily understandable then that a critical mass of American voters would blame the incumbent President and his party for that Annus Horribilis and reject the Vice President who carried the Democrats’ tattered banner. (Nonetheless, the electoral results were much more mixed than might have been expected. The Democrats held on to the whole of Congress. And although Republican Richard M. Nixon triumphed handily in the Electoral College, his popular vote margin was narrow. Of course, it’s also possible that third party candidate George C. Wallace drew more individual votes from Nixon than from Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey.
It seems clear that President Trump is hoping to avoid the Democrats’ 1968 fate by taking the law-and-order route.that aided Nixon I strongly suspect that this choice is wise in principle. After all, as in 1968, a critical mass of the electorate is likely to value preventing perceived chaos over righting racial wrongs, at least for the foreseeable future. I’d also bet that the failure thus far of the Democrats’ national leaders to condemn the violence forthrightly will boost Mr. Trump’s chances all else equal.
But here’s the catch. They’re not equal. Most important, President Trump himself is incumbent. However legitimate his complaints that protecting public safety is first and foremost the province of mayors and governors, does anyone seriously believe he’ll dodge all blame if events keep seeming to spin out of control? Might even some of his base start asking where his avowed “take charge,” “get things done” qualities have gone in an hour of urgent national need? At the least, for all his tough talk, the longer Mr. Trump seems to dither, the blurrier the contrast he’ll be able to credibly draw with the Democrats.
And perhaps most damaging of all: How will many Trumpers view his failure to maintain order literally in his own backyard, as a church was set on fire last night just a cross Lafayette Park from his (White) house? Sure, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser screwed up royally by setting the local curfew at 11 PM. But as indicated in this key Supreme Court decision, the Constitution seems to say that the President can unilaterally call out not only the National Guard but the entire U.S. military to “protect each State…against domestic Violence.” And even if it didn’t, how much pushback would he have gotten from even moderate, swing voters from taking emergency measures?
John Judis, a left-of-center political writers whose judgments I greatly respect, has suggested, albeit obliquely, that the most important comparison politically speaking isn’t between now and 1968, but between now and 1972. During his first term, Republican incumbent Nixon arguably presided over a country just as turbulent and violent as in 1968. Yet his “silent majority” helped him win one of the greatest landslides in the nation’s history. I’m the last person who’d dismiss this possibility altogether. But Nixon wasn’t also dealing with a pandemic and a national economy that had been flattened by shutdowns. Counting President Trump out has been one of the worst bets in recent U.S. political history. But mightn’t there be a first time for everything?