A few weeks ago I started reading Nixonland, Rick Perlstein's 748-page social history of the 1960s and '70s through the lens of Richard Nixon's presidency. I've gotten most of the way through the book and have been reflecting on how we seem to have landed, once again, back in 1968.
Back then, following eight years of Democratic presidencies that brought unprecedented civil rights progress, the United States was riven by such a deep cultural divide that each half of the country seemed like an unknowable species to the other. Much of the populace felt like its traditional, honest lifestyle and economic livelihood were under siege. The rest believed that, despite legislative progress, the nation was failing to reckon with deep and persistent inequalities. Some of the latter took to the streets in protest; their neighbors vilified them as lawless agitators.
Some law-enforcement officers reacted violently to this upheaval (as they had earlier in places like Selma). Traditionalists gave the police a pass. During the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, an off-duty cop picked up a twenty-year-old hitchhiker, a supporter of Eugene McCarthy. Upon learning that his passenger had been protesting downtown, the policeman hit the young man in the head, broke his glasses, and forced him back into the car at gunpoint. A jury acquitted the officer so quickly that the judge asked the foreman, "Are you certain?"
In this crucible, the Democrats nominated a cautious and hawkish establishment candidate, Hubert Humphrey, whom progressives accused of rigging the primary process. Supporters of McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, many of them young, threatened to abandon the ticket. The Republicans were no more unified: during a divisive convention, they nominated Richard Nixon, an ideological chameleon who was capitalizing on the growing unrest and promising to restore law and order if elected. If Nixon's campaign lacked the uncoded racism of Donald Trump's, that was supplied by the American Independent Party's candidate, George Wallace, an Alabama segregationist who stirred up white rural resentment of the power elites.
"They've called us rednecks, the Republicans and the Democrats," Wallace said during the campaign. "Well, we're going to show, there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country."
Every time I turn the page of Nixonland, which was published in 2008, I stumble on a new parallel. Here are the goons at Republican rallies beating up demonstrators. Here are the GOP's threats to curb the Constitution's guaranteed press freedoms. Here's the Republican nominee's lust for revenge. Here are the cavalier treatment of facts, the spinning of counter-realities, and the swallowing of this misinformation by voters.
This week another Republican has won the presidency. Donald Trump is far more inflammatory than Nixon, and far less experienced in domestic and world affairs—"a twisted caricature of every rotten reflex of the radical right," David Remnick wrote last week in The New Yorker. Trump's victory feels like a terrifying upheaval; so did Nixon's.
"Apocalyptic is not an exaggeration," my friend and former editor Gay Daly, who was a college student in 1968, recently told me of that election. "The war would go on forever. My brother might be drafted. (He escaped by days.) The civil rights movement would die."
The summer of '68, Daly worked as a billing clerk at a Defense Department depot in her hometown of Memphis, six miles from where Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. In June, when Robert Kennedy was also murdered, she says, "most of the people in the office were thrilled."
The chasm ran that deep. Then, as now, people of conscience—and people who were scared—talked about fleeing to Canada or beyond. I was eight at the time, too young to understand any of this. But in the days since last week's election, I've been trying to figure out what we can learn from 1968, both about what to expect and how to respond.