Everything has hit at once.
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States and put the stark inequality of American life on full display. The economic fallout has put millions of Americans out of work. And the brutal, on-camera killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a Minneapolis police officer has sparked mass protests in cities across the country. Tens of thousands of Americans have marched, and are marching, against police brutality and the political system that allows it to thrive.
Everywhere there are scenes of a society at the breaking point: of angry protesters and destructive demonstrations; of police forces that have unleashed nearly unrestrained violence on those in the streets, in an apparent effort to prove the point of their most militant critics; of governors calling the National Guard to try to regain control of their cities.
The sheer scale and reach of the unrest — the extent to which it seems to represent a crisis of legitimacy as much as a reaction to police violence — has invited comparisons to 1968, the year in which much of America was rocked by protests and riots of even greater scale and destruction. And as The New York Times reports, President Donald Trump’s advisers are among those making the comparison:
Some in the president’s circle see the escalations as a political boon, much in the way Richard M. Nixon won the presidency on a law-and-order platform after the 1968 riots. One adviser to Mr. Trump, who insisted on anonymity to describe private conversations, said images of widespread destruction could be helpful to the law-and-order message that Mr. Trump has projected since his 2016 campaign.
The immediate reason to discount a political analogy between then and now — between Nixon and Trump — is that Trump isn’t a challenger to the incumbent president; he is the incumbent. And whereas Nixon’s “law and order” was a contrast with and rebuke to Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party, a Trump attempt to play the hits and recapitulate that campaign would only be an attack on his own tenure. You can’t promise “law and order” when disorder is happening on your watch.
There are other unavoidable problems with any attempt by Trump to adopt Nixon’s 1968 campaign for his own purposes. As former vice president to Dwight Eisenhower — who led the nation at a time when the white American majority felt culturally and economically secure — Nixon could credibly claim to represent stability in the face of chaos, a steady hand in an uncertain time. Trump can do no such thing. He built his entire political persona around discord and disruption. Having promised to throw the system into disarray, Trump could not then sell himself as an avatar of order and control. He can sell himself as an avatar of violence — as he did when he ordered federal law enforcement to attack peaceful protesters for the sake of a photo op, after promising to use military force against protesters — but there’s no evidence that most Americans want that kind of “leadership.”
Nor could he present himself as a steadfast authority in the way that Nixon did throughout that campaign. In the face of unrest, Trump has all but abdicated leadership, retreating to a presidential bunker while he orders the nation’s governors to repress demonstrations. “You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks, you have to arrest and try people,” Trump said in a Situation Room phone call with the governors. “It’s a movement, if you don’t put it down it will get worse and worse. The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak and most of you are weak.”
When he did attempt to speak to the nation, through Twitter of course, it was to promise violent retribution against protesters. “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” he said, adding that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase first used in 1967 by Walter Headley, the chief of police in Miami, also in reference to stopping protests and civil unrest.
A “law-and-order” campaign just isn’t available to Trump. If there is anyone who occupies a similar position to Nixon in this campaign, it’s Joe Biden, the vice president to a still-popular former president who is running as the candidate of normalcy and stability.
The simple truth is that comparisons to 1968 should be made sparingly. Yes, we have mass civil unrest, but it’s impossible at this stage to say how it will play out in November and you can’t simply plot the circumstances of a half-century ago onto the present. There are too many differences. There is no Vietnam War or disintegrating Democratic coalition. Our unrest is happening against a backdrop of deprivation and deep inequality, not the relative prosperity of the late 1960s. And while Trump benefits from a devoted coalition, it remains a vocal minority, not a “silent majority.”
The protests are different too, encompassing a large, diverse cross-section of America. In turn, there appears to be greater sympathy for the protesters and their grievances, so much so that most public officials outside of the president and his closest allies have shown some understanding of the anger and discontent even as they oppose riots and disorder.
All of this gets to a larger point. History can be incredibly useful for analyzing and understanding the present — that is, in fact, the aim of much of my writing. But we shouldn’t forget that our circumstances are not theirs, and our future cannot be divined from the events of the past. We simply do not know what comes next, nor can we predict the events that — as we have seen with the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd — can move an entire nation from one path to the other.
As we try to understand the forces at work in this country, we should do so with profound humility about the limits of what we can know and what we can foresee. We should remember that the past, like the present, was contingent; that events that seem inevitable could have gone a different way; that those who lived through them were, like us, unable to see how things would unfold. 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.