If, as many in the chattering class suggest, 1968 is the model for Donald Trump’s grim and dystopian description of America today, the question is whether there’s any comparison between then and now. And if Donald Trump really believes so, what does that say about him?
So let’s remember the realities of 1968 for a moment. Troop levels in Vietnam reached 536,000 in 1968, and nearly 17,000 American soldiers breathed their final moments that year — with the cumulative Vietnam War death toll reaching nearly 37,000 by December 31. In March of that year, American soldiers killed almost an entire hamlet of unarmed villagers in My Lai, and reports of other American brutalities began to seep into the news.
That year two of our nation’s cherished leaders were assassinated, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. And in the aftermath of Dr. King’s murder, riots of despair and anger broke out in more than 100 cities nationwide, leading to more than 40 deaths and almost 3,000 injuries. In Washington, DC — in the shadow of our nation’s Capitol — about 1,200 buildings burned.
Protests shut down campuses across the country, hard hats battled anti-war protesters, the draft tore families and neighbors apart, and at the Democratic National Convention that summer in Chicago, an anti-war movement that came to defy the authorities and protest the nomination of a pro-war candidate faced such violence from the police that the official commission investigating it labeled what happened a “police riot” against “persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat.”
It was in that context that Richard Nixon rolled out his “law and order” campaign, one designed to rouse a “silent majority” who believed the nation was careening out of control — who viewed young people and minorities as threats to their social order and in need of a firm response to restore respect. He tapped their anger, and he won.
So are we anywhere close to 1968? Notwithstanding the terrible police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, or the unacceptable police violence against innocent African Americans, or the ghastly terrorist attacks against our people in Orlando and San Bernadino, our society itself is not coming apart the way it was in 1968. We may have protests, but no mass riots. We may argue with one another, but our institutions remain strong. We may face racial tensions centuries in the making, but we are a more inclusive and less prejudiced society than at any time in our history. We may have police violence, but we don’t resist the need for change. And while we face the ISIS threat worldwide, we are not immersed in a large-scale war with multiple body bags arriving home every day.
That Donald Trump may believe we are living through another 1968 says less about the nation today and more about a man who may be our president. He admits to getting his news on cable, which creates a virtual 1968 with its constant images of unrest, violence, terrorism, and crime. But a virtual 1968 is not a real one, and we must expect any leader of our country to resist the emotional pull of gruesome television images and to think rationally and deliberately about the real state of our nation.
And as frustrated as Trump’s “silent majority” may be, it should give us pause when the dark portrait he paints of America seems politically calculated — much like Nixon in 1968 — to stir the anger of voters who think the nation is crumbling because they are no longer dominant and their prejudice is politically incorrect.
The commentariat sometimes sees politics as sport and themselves as color commentators. But unlike sport, the consequences are real.
Originally published in Political Wire.
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written two books on American politics and culture and frequently writes for major print and online publications. He is currently a professor of communication at American University and a CBS News political analyst.
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