This is not 1968. At least not yet.
The parallels come easily: Protestors are marching, police cars are burning, vandals are looting. Turmoil and tear gas pour through our streets.
Fifty-two years ago, Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee for president, portrayed himself as the “law and order” candidate — the same phrase used by this year’s GOP standard bearer, Donald Trump. Trump’s appeal to his MAGA minions clearly echoes Nixon’s evocation of a “silent majority,” a political force that helped keep Republicans in the White House for 20 of the next 24 years.
But there are also some important differences between 2020 and 1968. I was a young reporter that year for The New York Times, covering many of the major events that tore the country apart: the antiwar rebellion that forced Lyndon Johnson to abandon the presidential race; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the occupation of Columbia University; the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago. And that perspective leads me to a number of reflections and impressions.
In 1968, Nixon was the challenger, not the incumbent. He could blame all the chaos on Johnson and the Democrats. And he had a clear shot at embracing the most powerful of all American political slogans: “It’s Time for a Change.”
Trump can’t do that. Not even close. He’s more like Johnson than Nixon. He has to take responsibility for the state of the country — and by every measure, a majority of Americans are disappointed with his leadership.
The NPR/Marist poll recently asked, “Who is doing a better job handling the coronavirus pandemic: President Trump or your governor?” By 2 to 1, voters favored their governor.
Only 38% told the ABC/Washington Post survey that the president “understands the problems of people like you,” while 61% disagreed. In an average of all national polls, Trump’s favorable rating stands at 42.5% versus 54.5% unfavorable: the worst performance of any president since polling began about 75 years ago.
The differences between 1968 and 2020 go well beyond politics. King and Kennedy, who were shot barely two months apart, rank as two of the most iconic figures of mid-century America. Their losses shattered the soul and spirit of the nation and still resonate today.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman is a deeply tragic and significant event, but to compare it to the killings of King and Kennedy defies and distorts history.
Then there were the underlying tensions already disrupting American life that boiled over after the assassinations, beginning with Vietnam. The Tet Offensive that started in January 1968, and eventually cost about 4,000 American lives, turned public opinion against the war. It led to years of civil strife between the forces of order and disorder; hard hats and long-hairs; old and young.
Because of the war and the draft, privileged young Americans felt — for the first and perhaps only time — that their futures, indeed their very lives, were threatened by government leaders and policies.
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread hardship and dislocation. And yes, the Floyd killing has revealed what Joe Biden has called the “open wound” of American racism. But do those feelings, as valid and powerful as they are, rival the elemental passions that drove the antiwar movement? I have my doubts. Holding a sign that says “I Can’t Breathe” is not the same as holding a low draft number.
Finally, there were the cultural forces unleashed and amplified by 1968: sex, drugs and rock and roll. In the years that followed, as the Times bureau chief in Los Angeles, I whiffed a lot of tear gas on college campuses, and a lot of marijuana as well. The antiwar movement might have petered out as a political force — after all, Democrat George McGovern, running against the war, won exactly 17 electoral votes in 1972.
But the culture was changed forever. Elvis Presley starred in three movies in 1968, and the Beatles released the White Album, which included songs like “Revolution 9” and “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road.” And by 1968 — after the Supreme Court rolled back state laws that regulated contraception for married couples in 1965 — more than 13 million women worldwide were on the pill.
This year is not yet half over. But it has a long way to go before it matches the enduring impact of 1968.
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.