In times of serious unrest, people want to find a good historical comparison to unlock what might happen next — and right now people are looking squarely at 1968, when Richard Nixon won the presidency.
But first, let's consider this particular sequence of events:
On Monday night, at the scheduled time that President Donald Trump was to speak about the civil unrest across the United States, the police set off flashbangs and tear gas, and then sent in the horse cops, who rode up along the street in a big wave to clear out the coughing nonviolent protesters outside the White House.
If you were watching this on TV or Twitter, two possible rationales might have occurred to you. Perhaps there was some kind of security perimeter (necessary or otherwise) that the police wanted for the president. Or, fleetingly and insanely, I wondered, maybe they wanted the background noise while Trump spoke outdoors to give an ambient sense of chaos for the home viewer.
That was cynical to think, but it kind of makes more sense than what then happened: The square got cleared so the president could walk through the park, stand outside the boarded-up St. John’s Episcopal Church, and hoist a Bible with that gesture football coaches use when holding the Lombardi Trophy.
"I didn't know where I was going," Mark Esper, who is the secretary of defense, actually claimed on Tuesday regarding the church visit.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany offered on Wednesday the following historical comparisons: Winston Churchill touring bombed-out London during World War II, George W. Bush throwing the first pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11, Jimmy Carter infamously putting...on a sweater for energy savings, and George H.W. Bush signing...a bill...into law.
If you'd just flipped CNN on to see what Trump had to say about the protests, and then this whole thing unfolded, the only historical comparison I have is the time a friend watched, through the plateglass window of a car wash, their own car get rear-ended.
Still, people have, amid the interlocking crises of summer 2020 — death, racism, protests, police violence, fires, a once-in-a-century pandemic that feeds on inequality and has dropped the country into a nightmare economy — looked toward the past for that comparison. More than one person has texted me a line about how we're getting 1918, 1929, and 1968 in one. It's worth considering.
1968 was an extremely violent year in the US — maybe the most violent since the Civil War, as writer Michael Cohen noted on Saturday night. More than 16,000 young men died in Vietnam. In just the first half of that year, assassins shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; a group of students seized control of Columbia University; police shot and killed protesters at a bowling alley in South Carolina; violence erupted in major US cities (and in Paris) after serious and terrible violence involving the National Guard the year before in many cities; the Tet Offensive permanently undercut the US government's pronouncements about how Vietnam was going; Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. 1968 followed a violent and culturally disruptive year (everything from the Summer of Love to Muhammad Ali refusing to join the military), and would be followed by another — though it's not like anybody knew that then.
Into that nightmare, Nixon — in his second bid, almost a decade after his two terms as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower — ran vowing to restore order to the US, and with a much more regimented, TV-centric campaign that presented him tanned and collected. "It is time for an honest look at the issue of order in the United States," Nixon intones in one ad that's been making the rounds on Twitter with an unsettling and vaguely arthouse juxtaposition of bloody protesters and cops.
There are many more Nixon ads, however. Almost all of them have jarring music cues and art direction reminiscent of an interactive room at a museum about The Twilight Zone and Laugh-In. (There's a really surreal one that involves pictures of hands reaching out to be shaken.) Some ads ask you to think about who has the experience and qualifications to lead America "in these troubled, dangerous times" and ones that promise new leadership "not tied to the policies and mistakes of the past."
"I pledge to you we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam," Nixon offers in that one.
Vietnam is a central factor in 1968 — the most violent year of the war, and in the middle of the massive late-’60s protest movement against it — that makes direct one-to-one comparisons difficult between then and now. (Years can be objectively terrible in different ways.)
Nixon had predicted to reporters in 1966 that Vietnam might unravel Johnson's presidency, David Halberstam reports in The Best and the Brightest. At one point during the actual campaign, Halberstam wrote, aides had pushed him to give a dovish speech on the war — but when Johnson withdrew, Nixon canceled the speech. Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's vice president and the Democratic nominee, was so tied to the war, with so bitter a divide within the Democratic Party about the war, that Nixon didn't press further on it.
"He contented himself with telling audiences that he had a plan to end the war," Halbertsam writes, "even touching his breast pocket as if the plan were right there in the jacket — implying that to say what was in it might jeopardize secrecy. The truth was that he had no plan at all."
There are other complications to comparisons between Nixon and Trump, even if the latter cites the former's “SILENT MAJORITY!” Nixon wasn't an incumbent; he might, in voters' minds, call up the relative peace of the Eisenhower years. Here’s how familiar and “normal” Nixon was: After 1948 and before 1976, there was just one GOP presidential ticket without him — in 1964, when the party nominated conservative Barry Goldwater and got crushed. If Nixon's reputation since is obviously informed by Watergate, the exploitation of racial backlash, and all the gross stuff he said on private tapes, the central issue that plagued Nixon's early career was people's belief in his inauthenticity. And his appeal, such as it was, probably was that he was seen as a square, two labels rarely applied to Trump. Nixon’s ads that year ended, with a nod toward global reach that's unfamiliar to the Trump era:
DEPENDED ON IT
The historical comparison can cut all kinds of ways if you want it to do so: Joe Biden fits the nonincumbent former vice president who harkens back to a more peaceful time — or maybe he’s the latest Humphrey, a vice president not quite in line with his party at a time of terrible unrest. Others have drawn comparisons between Vietnam and COVID-19 — a massive killing event with a poor government response and unequal impact — though the economic shock may feel more like, say, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. There is the potential to get it really wrong, basically, if you take the past too literally and apply it to a prediction. As Jamelle Bouie writes in his counterargument to the Nixon comparisons, “We should be aware of the past — we should understand the processes that produced our world — but it shouldn’t be a substitute for thinking. We are not them, and now is not then.”
The actual central dimension when you look at 1968 is appreciating how bad and damaging that year was — and the way the events and underlying conditions had long-ranging consequences in politics. 2020 has been a terrible year that explored underlying conditions; maybe the only prediction to make is that there will be long-ranging consequences.