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How Much Can 1968 Tell Us About 2020?

I was awakened, early on May 29, by a reporter asking what I thought about the president’s latest tweet; that was how I first learned the most powerful man in the world had just said of the nationwide disturbances breaking out over the police murder of George Floyd, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It portended a busy week.

I am a historian best known for a book on how Richard Nixon became president by exploiting white Americans’ racial panic after the fourth straight summer of urban riots. And so a parade of reporters, podcasters and editors came calling: Was the same thing going to happen again? After all, Donald Trump hasn’t been shy about drawing the parallel: during the 2016 campaign borrowing a famous Nixonism, “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump”; these days constantly tweeting “LAW AND ORDER!” whenever the spirit moves him.

I repeated a basic observation: When chaos is everywhere, voters tend to reward politicians who promise calm — which is what Nixon seemed credibly to do in 1968. But campaigning for congressional candidates in 1970, Nixon responded to metastasizing disorder under his watch with frenzied rhetoric about “thugs and hooligans.” His even more frenzied vice president, Spiro Agnew, said the thugs and hooligans received “fawning approval” from Democratic elected officials. Meanwhile, Senator Edmund Muskie, Democrat of Maine, gave a soothing election-eve address pointing out how this rhetoric was exacerbating America’s divisions — much in the way Joe Biden points this out now. Then, in the congressional races of that year, voters rewarded Democrats with overwhelming victories. I concluded, “When disorder is all around them, voters tend to blame the person in charge — and, sometimes, punish those who exploit the disorder for political gain.”

I described the ways the then and the now radically diverge. In the 1960s, the racial backlash followed an unprecedented flurry of civil rights and antipoverty legislation, championed by a liberal president. Because that legislation only seemed to be followed by more anarchy, it was all too easy for millions of white voters to conclude that liberalism was to blame. No such dynamic obtains now. Indeed, on June 10, The New York Times’s Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy reported that in the previous two weeks, “support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years.”

I heard a refrain in return, especially after “Defund the Police” became a key movement slogan: Just you wait. Former ’60s radicals especially, their caution born of the dashed hopes of those years, almost hectored me. Militants were handing Trump just the battering ram he required for victory. Imagine the ads! Which indeed soon came forth. In one, a terrified old lady, armed intruder at her door, picks up the phone in a panic: “You have reached 911. I’m sorry that there is no one here to answer your emergency call.”

I responded that none of this was working. In early July, a Monmouth poll found that 77 percent of voters thought “defund the police” just meant reforming how the police did their job; Biden, meanwhile, opened up a commanding lead. I pointed to other nonparallels: all those damning cellphone videos of unprovoked police brutality; the cheering trend of increased police accountability; strikingly empathetic media coverage of the protesters’ grievances, in contrast to the 1960s, when establishment institutions trusted the police implicitly.

Indeed, the dynamic of protest had been evolving in ways precisely opposite to that of the 1960s. Then, undisciplined rage broke out in the slums, and for many whites this seemed to come from nowhere (hadn’t we just passed all those civil rights laws?). Now, violent disturbances begin downtown, and everybody knows where they are coming from because of the work of a determined political movement that, building unbroken for over a decade, has increased the proportion of Americans who consider racial discrimination a “big problem” — from half in 2015 to 76 percent today. And Biden’s lead continued to grow.

A week after the original call, I finally arrived at what, for a historian, might seem an unusual conclusion: It was time to stop talking about history. It was only taking us further from understanding the present. I wrote an angry tweet of my own, an open letter to reporters refusing further interview requests. I should have tried something more kind. I should have recommended a book.

It was published, ironically, the very year I wished journalists would stop asking me about. After the second large summer riot of 1967, in Newark, Garry Wills got a call from his editor at Esquire asking him to look into officials’ preparations for the next riots. Wills traveled the country, visiting police headquarters, National Guard armories and the workshops of entrepreneurs hard at work on a new generation of so-called nonlethal weapons. (“Foam your rioters, pepper them, festoon them in long swaths of chewing gum.”) The piece that resulted was a standout masterpiece in an era of magazine masterpieces. What followed stood out even more: Wills began interviewing Black militants theorizing about how to turn the uprisings into actual military campaigns, and armed white vigilantes determined to kill them if they tried.

The book collecting it all, “The Second Civil War: Arming for Armageddon,” was published around the same time as the report of the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson had convened to understand the riots. Each arrived independently at the same controlling metaphor. As the Kerner Report put it, “Our nation is moving toward two societies.” But where the Kerner Report was can-do American, an optimistic utilitarian tool kit of recommended policy responses, Wills, the former Jesuit seminarian, a scholar of sin by training, went a different way: He drilled down into what happens to human souls when neighbors begin seeing neighbors as expendable Others.

A Black minister in Detroit, among the most prominent in the city, patiently explained that Black genocide was the establishment’s ultimate aim, and “if the Black man is fighting genocide, he goes out in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to kill all the white men I can today, because he’s going to kill me by tonight.’ … We will be prepared.” As Northern cities achieved Black majorities, his goal was to kick out all the whites. One of his rival militants found this foolhardy — the new Black nation must be established instead in the rural South. (He claimed to be laying the diplomatic groundwork to make this happen, noting that resistance from white Americans could be checked via “the deterrent effect of Chinese nuclear subs in the Gulf of Mexico.”)

At a Chrysler plant, Wills asked an executive what possible use a vehicle designed for hunting guerrillas in Vietnam could serve in an American city. The man responded, “We had our car walk over a ’53 Chevy for the promotion film, and it just crunched it underfoot.” What’s more, the vehicle’s occupants would be armed with new “Stoner guns” that, Wills reported after testing one on the range, could easily lift a man’s head off. The executive noted that this posed a certain tactical disadvantage: Bullets aimed at a building harboring a sniper “might go through several walls and hit innocent people in other rooms. But we’ve solved that problem” with a special bullet, still classified by the miltiary, that demolished walls entirely. He added that “the government is still trying to decide whether the Stoner gun should be adopted in Vietnam. The Detroit police have decided”: They wanted 100.

But Wills’s true interest was in people, in all their harrowing contradictions, not hardware — for instance, the officers he rode along with. “The last three policemen to be killed here were surprised before they could get at their weapons — and in each case, it was by a Negro assailant,” a police official said to him. “Well, you know that’s going to make the others pretty fast in getting their guns out.” Wills reflects on how the “constant rub against hostility, a steady prickle of danger, forms spiritual calluses.” He told of the solutions on offer from the notorious police commissioner of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, fielding 125 sharpshooters training to shoot from helicopters, “teams turned loose to hunt,” Wills observes. Then he describes bringing Rizzo news of the Stoner gun, which he hadn’t heard of: “As I described it, his eyes lit up.”

You look at today’s Warrior Cops on your iPhone screen and naturally want to draw parallels. Parallels, too, to a Black militant rally Wills recounts in a racially tense city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in which he describes a “traffic jam” of competing cameras aimed by police officers and activists (one Black militant has mounted his on a rifle stock), “each side trying to win an engagement by filming it from the ‘proper’ vantage point, bumping lenses in the crush.”

But I’m tired of historical parallels. The mind leaps so readily to them, in part because they’re comforting: a defense against the strangeness of both past and present, keeping us from more clearly seeing either. What is called “parallel” is often only human nature. Or American nature — the whole 401 years since 1619. But history is process, not parallels; 2020 cannot be 1968, because 1968 already happened, both conditioning what happened after and making what happened after impossible to understand in the same way. And for each alleged parallel there may be several counterexamples that do not even rhyme. One that struck me in particular is the night-and-day difference between militant movements saturated with knuckleheaded machismo (“charged with a sexual atmosphere of the subconscious,” Wills observes) and the adamantly feminist and frequently women-led Black Lives Matter formations, or the white mothers willingly eating tear gas in Portland.

Or so it seems to me upon vague impression. I really don’t know. And I would so dearly like to.

And so, virtually, I’m grabbing journalists’ and novelists’ lapels: Go forth. And those of the nation’s literary agents, editors, publishers: Send them forth. Talk to the Black Lives Matter theorists, tacticians, strategists, foot soldiers. The rioters in Portland and Kenosha. The rich white couples taking up arms on front lawns. The merchant who asked the looters pouring out of an SUV to spare his store on Jewelers Row in Chicago; and the one who politely replied, “I’m sorry, sir,” before asking him to step aside. The entrepreneurs of armaments, the ICE agents, the frightened cops. The aldermen and the assaulted innocents. The grieving families, the hungry children. The housebound Covid sufferers. Also the electoral strategists. What are the threads that connect them, and what are the threads that do not? Who, what, where, why, when?

When you’re done, give me a call, and I’ll eagerly pitch in my mite to help us figure out what it all means in historical context.

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