Richard M. Nixon at the Republican convention in 1968. Credit United Press International
By TODD GITLIN ~ JULY 23, 2016 ~ NYT
ACCEPTING his party’s nomination Thursday night, Donald J. Trump used the phrase “law and order” four times. So as not to leave any doubt, he shouted it out: “I am the law and order candidate.”
Mr. Trump had recently told The Times that he was borrowing his model from Richard M. Nixon’s victorious run in 1968. “What Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first,” he said. “The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”
Mr. Trump is not alone in making use of the facile notion that history is repeating itself. Pundits reach for the same comparison, and reporters do too, hoping to sound historically expert. Commentators are looking for bearings in what appears to be a universe atilt. There are precedents for everything, but the disconcerting truth is that America’s political situation is downright weird today — too weird to be flattened into historical parallels, though as always there are precedents to study and weigh.
The feeling that “the world is falling apart” is easy to come by. It was surely how I felt in 1968 as a 25-year-old working for an underground newspaper in San Francisco, as unthinkable event followed unthinkable event. But as Tolstoy did not say, all chaotic times are chaotic in their own way. On the heels of the huge 1967 riots, and the police and National Guard killings that followed them, the upheavals of 1968 included the Tet offensive, the abdication of a president and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, police shootouts with Black Panthers, the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the deadly riots afterward, as well as rising street crime. They were, in sum, many orders of magnitude more grave and violent than what we experience now. American casualties in Vietnam reached their peak in 1968 — 16,889 dead — in a war fought by draftees amid huge and growing antiwar protests.
The protagonists on the streets are different, too. We speak too glibly of protest and chaos, as if they come in a single flavor — bitter. Anxiety and alienation in a world that seems to have left many people behind is nothing new; it is, in fact, a hallmark of modernity. But in contrast to today’s Trump supporters, the civil rights and student movements of the ’60s were fueled by hope and anguish, not resentment. They did not want to Make America Great Again, they wanted to make it great at last.
On the available evidence, Trump supporters are driven by feelings of dispossession and anger at immigrants and other out-groups they blame for their hurts. But the ’60s movement saw Washington as compromised and frozen; Trump backers see it as simultaneously stupid, corrupt, overeducated and out of touch with real Americans. Mr. Trump’s legions are successors to the backlash that fueled Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign and George Wallace’s in 1968. Wallace loved to aim venom at what he called “pointy-headed bureaucrats.” But in 1968, some of Wallace’s supporters were won over by the kinder, gentler version of law-and-order politics championed by Nixon.
It has been a leading Republican theme for more than five decades that only muscle and armor can repel all the barbarians — those at the gates and also within them. Ronald Reagan’s political genius was to enfold the combat scenario within “Morning in America” uplift. It’s no wonder that Mr. Trump is recycling the imagery of apocalypse and panic, to the point of fabrication — for example, his claim that “crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse,” when in fact between 2010 and 2014 (the most recent years for which F.B.I. figures exist), violent crime actually declined by about 7 percent. By comparison, between 1964 and 1968, violent crime rose by more than 50 percent. But Mr. Trump’s hope is to roll supposed Mexican rapists, murderers of policemen, terrorists, thuggish Chinese exporters, the Benghazi attackers and the nonviolent demonstrators of Black Lives Matter into an all-purpose satanic gang that can be addressed only by walls, deportations, jail and torture.
To Mr. Trump and convention speakers like former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, it’s not morning in America, it’s a minute to midnight. Even Mr. Trump’s nemesis, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, echoed the apocalyptic spirit, telling conventiongoers, “What if this right now is our last time? Our last moment to do something for our families and our country?” In the manner of earlier authoritarians who sought to capitalize on widespread anxiety and resentment in order to justify the heavy hand, these Republicans proclaim that they are first responders ready to rescue us from disorder. The more intensely they can amplify the feeling of crisis, the more plausible they sound when they blame liberal slackness and ineptitude for disorder and promote the notion that Eden can be regained if only the leader is followed.
In 1968, Nixon was the master of the blended approach, adroitly combining a feint at ending the unpopular Vietnam War with a law-and-order appeal to co-opt panicky whites. Thus did he peel off many of the latter who might otherwise have favored Wallace’s independent campaign. Wallace, the former Democratic, segregationist governor of Alabama did win five Southern states and 13.53 percent of the vote, but he had been neutered.
In some ways, Mr. Trump channels Wallace, the most popular of the 1968 candidates among young white men, with an especially strong showing among Midwestern blue-collar workers in the regions we now call the Rust Belt. Law and order was, you might say, his trump card.
For paranoid politics in need of a defining passion, barbarians are (in the words of the poet Constantine P. Cavafy) “a kind of solution.” Harking back to the monsters of yesteryear is a tested stratagem. But the most serviceable apocalyptic scenario requires a belief that the barbarians have already set up camp within the gates. This has been a Trump theme throughout his campaign.
So it was that, after the Orlando massacre, Mr. Trump insinuated, not for the first time, that President Obama was a sort of Manchurian, or Kenyan, or in any event Muslim president. “We’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Mr. Trump said. “There is something going on.” Mr. Trump also declared that Democratic immigration policies could beget “a better, bigger, more horrible version than the legendary Trojan Horse ever was.”
Along the same lines, in Cleveland on Monday night, Iowa’s far-right Senator Joni Ernst, distorting F.B.I. statements, warned the convention that “terrorists from ISIS are in every one of our 50 states.” This sounded a bit like the warnings of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and those, too, of presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon, who thought foreign Communists were the puppeteers and paymasters lurking behind antiwar marionettes and summoning them to the streets. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. tried — and failed — to unearth those malignant forces, but never mind.
This is where Citizens of the Age of Trump may take heart. Even as America in the ’60s was subject to vastly more political violence than today, Ernstian panic did not prevail even after Nixon took control of the security apparatus. Even as tens of thousands of Americans were dying in a futile war opposed by millions, and the leadership of the Republican Party sought to drumbeat the populace into a hatred of radicals, hippies and “impudent snobs,” the country at large did not succumb to unbridled hysteria.
The eerie truth is that 2016 is so deeply unnerving not because it is “like 1968” but because it isn’t like anything else. It’s sui generis. There is probably no panic-stricken majority, silent or otherwise — at least none that can agree on the right reasons for panic. In 1968, it was the Democratic Party that failed to overcome its cleavages; today, if anything is falling apart, it’s the Republican Party and its hope of piecing together a new “silent majority.” In fact, today’s operative majority may be the one panicked by the thought of Donald Trump in the White House.