Remember that brief moment in the presidential campaign when we debated whether 2016 was shaping up to be a repeat of 1968? A few pundits noticed a real but overly simplistic parallel, which quickly drew attention and a slew of think-pieces in response, proclaiming that 2016 was not, in fact, 1968. It was early July, to be exact. Republicans were gearing up for their convention in Cleveland, one that most expected to be chaotic and perhaps violent (thus, holding the place of the Democrats’ 1968 convention in Chicago). A divisive GOP candidate in Donald Trump was poised to accept his party’s nomination on the backs of a racially charged primary campaign catering to white, Southern interests (recalling Tricky Dick Nixon’s rebirth aided by backroom deals with Strom Thurmond). There was then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort designing the GOP convention’s thematic purpose as “Make America Safe Again,” a pro-police message designed to reassure an agitated and threatened white middle-class (reminiscent of the populist, segregationist George Wallace’s divisive rhetoric). The 2016 campaign even pulled the same slogans right from the pages of history (or from the lips of Nixon himself): Trump spoke of a “silent majority” and “law and order” that would take back the country. Not to mention there were the striking parallels between Hillary Clinton and Hubert Humphrey—two high-minded, wonkish career politicians with ties to the hawkish and business interests of the Democratic Party too suspect for an embittered and emboldened, new left.
On the other side, commentators assured us (rightly) that 1968 was far more chaotic and dangerous than 2016 could ever be, and also (wrongly) that society was now far too progressive and open-minded to ever fall for the cheap and fallacious bombast of an unhinged demagogue. Either way, it was hard to argue that 2016’s similarity to echoes of the turbulent ‘60s was hardly a harbinger of future results. As Rick Perlstein—the historian responsible for three vivid volumes on the modern conservative movement from Goldwater to Reagan—wrote in a frustrated mid-summer piece in The Baffler complaining that his readers were too literally tying his work to the present, history provides context and guidance, not a mold that inflexibly shapes the future. “What I want my readers to grasp most deeply,” Perlstein wrote, “is that all of American history is more surreal, more dangerous, more disorienting, and more terrifyingly conflictual than we typically want to believe.”
That’s one important, albeit disconcerting side to the story. If the chaos of 2016 resembles the violence of the ‘60s, or if Trump’s blatant fabrications harken back to Nixon or Reagan, it’s due in part to the fact that war, disease, economic distress, internal conflict, and the liars and demagogues willing to exploit them are all part of every American era. Our success is no more guaranteed because we’ve survived similar threats than our doom is foretold from the presence of the unprecedented.
There’s a passage in Perlstein’s second book on conservatism, Nixonland, where he describes the changing political tides that had just sanctioned the Voting Rights Act yet was now turning sharply against fair housing legislation:
Once it had been simple. Civil rights supporters knew who their enemies were: special interests such as the real estate associations.… The lunatic far right… The old-line racist Dixie gargoyles. This opposition was predictable. The curveball was the new opposition: the Pucinskis and the Rostenkowskis; the Jerry Fords, moderate Republicans who used to be the backbone of every civil rights vote. Now, the Dixie gargoyles were gloating, an ancient piece of Southern political fold wisdom was receiving its vindication: that once civil rights bill started affecting North as much as South, it wouldn’t just be Southerners filibustering civil rights bills.
This is a description of 1965, but with a little tweaking could apply to any time in American history, especially today. For many, 2017 is a bleak prospect in the face of such a sudden and disheartening national transition. A society which had recently welcomed unprecedented change in civil rights and seemed poised for further breakthroughs in immigration reform and real process in criminal and racial justice, which had finally seen the first woman secure a major party nomination, retrenched to embrace a deep cultural hate that blinded it to a grave threat to its future.
Yet, the passage is also a reminder of the cyclical nature of the American character. That though we are capable of horrors we sometimes rise to great challenges and accomplish fantastic feats. It is a reminder that we can be a kind, just, and gracious people. In order for moderates to turn their backs on civil rights, they had to have first chosen to move toward greater equality.
There’s a moment that provides this counter-reminder about what the American people are capable of that is well worth watching a few times as a painful inauguration draws nearer. It is of Barack Obama’s first symbolic act as president: walking now former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush to their helicopter as a final send off. It’s worth remembering that after eight years of war, deficits, and economic decline—just four years after the country embraced a campaign built on terrorizing voters into fear of terrorism—that same nation delivered a truly transcendent moment in a time of crisis. The same American people who gave us 1968 also gave us 1964. And the same American people who have strangely and sadly chosen Donald Trump as the next commander in chief also gave us that moment as a bright, young, hopeful, and, yes, black couple waved goodbye to our divisions, if only for a moment. It can be so again.
A hope for a new year.