Is It 1968?
Is it 1968 all over again? To the extent the Trump campaign for president has an organizing principle, that has become the organizing principle.
“I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first,” Trump told an interviewer for the New York Times on the eve of his convention in Cleveland. “The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”
In almost every measurable way, the United States is a more stable and peaceful country in 2016 than it was in 1968. That was a year of war abroad and crime at home; of the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King—and of the spasm of urban rioting after King’s killing. One hundred and twenty-five American cities were wracked by violence in April 1968. Tens of thousands of troops were required to quell the rioting: not only National Guard, but regular Army, too. Dozens of people were killed. Hundreds were arrested. Thousands were injured. Damage to property neared $400 million in today’s money.
Nineteen sixty-eight was also a year of profound political crisis. A sitting president—winner of 61 percent of the popular vote less than four years before—was forced from office by his own party. That party—the dominant party in U.S. politics for a third of a century—now ripped itself to pieces in fierce internal battles. Having won six of the previous eight presidential elections, losing only to the hero of D-Day in 1952 and 1956, it would stagger on to defeat in five of the next six.
Behind the crisis in politics loomed a larger crisis in authority of all kinds, especially academic and intellectual authority. The civil-rights challenge to segregation and white supremacy—followed by student protests against the Vietnam War—together rekindled radical politics in the United States. What happened next is the stuff of a thousand histories, memoirs, and documentaries.
Yet in all the chaos, the United States had one great resource then that it lacks today: a functioning conservative party. To be sure, the Republicans of the late 1960s were not yet the “movement conservative” party they would later become. But they were an institutionally conserving party: a party that believed there was more in the United States that was deserving of protection than in need of change. President Richard Nixon expressed that conservatism in his first inaugural address in 1969: “No people has ever been so close to the achievement of a just and abundant society, or so possessed of the will to achieve it. And because our strengths are so great, we can afford to appraise our weaknesses with candor and to approach them with hope.”
Against a surging political left that radically critiqued everything—not only the free-enterprise system and the U.S.-led world order, but everything in American life from suburban housing (“little boxes, made of ticky-tacky,” as the song went) to the cop on the beat (“off the pigs!”)—the Republican party of Richard Nixon upheld established rules and existing norms without surrendering to despair about the future. Against a left that championed “the poor, the black, and the young,” Nixon led a party, to borrow a phrase of Ben Wattenberg’s, of the “unpoor, the unblack, and the unyoung.”
These people weren’t reactionaries opposed to all change. Quite the opposite. Between 1969 and the November 1974 elections that broke the Nixon coalition’s power in Congress, the United States passed the most important of the environmental laws that to this day protect the air, water, and endangered species. The Nixon administration actively desegregated schools and founded the affirmative-action system to counter racial discrimination. With this agenda, President Nixon gained re-election with 61 percent of the vote, up from 43 percent in 1968.
His voters understood that the change Nixon backed was change intended to sustain the system, not overturn it. “Just as we cannot have progress without order, we cannot have order without progress,” Nixon told the 1968 Republican convention. Among the statesmen Nixon admired most was Benjamin Disraeli, the inventor of “Tory Democracy.” Disraeli’s government widened the British franchise in 1867 on the bet that bringing more people into politics would stabilize society. Through two world wars and the convulsions that brought Communism and Fascism to continental Europe, Disraeli’s bet proved sound. Nixon sought to replicate it.
There was another way that the 1960s were different from our era: It was a time of broadly shared prosperity when the tone of society was set by the middle class, not the very rich (when in fact there was almost no such thing, by our contemporary standards, as “the very rich”). It was a time of ethnic homogeneity, when the grandchildren of the Great Migration of the 19th century had bubbled into the melting pot of Americanism, and religious differences had faded into near meaninglessness. There was black and there was white, and the latter group was so big and broad that it could be challenged to share its advantages with the former without significant harm to itself. Most important as a matter of politics, Nixon could reasonably and rightly look to a great “silent majority” (as he called it in a famous 1969 speech) of middle-class Americans to back his goals abroad and at home. And they hearkened to him.
It was a time during which America was still impelled by grand national ambition. Richard Nixon cautioned his fellow Americans against imagining that poverty could be eradicated in a single term, or even two, but the ultimate eradication of poverty was a goal not only widely shared, but also widely regarded as feasible. The Nixon administration would experiment with a guaranteed annual income as a way to realize this aim. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had notoriously discussed the crisis in the black family, but in the almost 90 percent of American society that was not black, both marriage and married parenthood seemed robust and growing steadily more so.
No longer. Under the pressures of economic uncertainty, demographic change, family dissolution, and war, the old silent majority has become a fearful, angry plurality. Three-quarters of white voters saw the country on the wrong track in the spring of 2016. These feelings are most intense among Donald Trump supporters. A March Pew survey found that 50 percent of Trump voters called themselves angry with government, as compared with 30 percent of Ted Cruz’s supporters, and only 18 percent of John Kasich’s.
It’s not just about economics. Even during the Great Depression, life expectancy improved for Americans. But over the past generation, non-college-educated white Americans have begun to live less long, their chances blighted by addiction, obesity, and suicide. The voting base of the Republican Party not only feels, but actually is, itself under lethal pressure from social change.
Rapid demographic change has led less wealthy white Americans to feel themselves in danger of displacement and dispossession by competing races and ethnicities. The American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that nearly 75 percent of self-identified Trump supporters feel that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Sixty-nine percent of Trump voters, according to that same survey, regard immigration as a crucial issue for themselves personally. A plurality of white working-class Americans—almost half—believe the country’s best days are behind it.
Republican primary voters were not moved by the usual appeals. In 2016, as in every election since 1980, Republicans in the Reagan line presented themselves as candidates of optimism. “I am more confident than ever that despite our troubles, we have it within our power to make our time another American Century.” So said Senator Marco Rubio, launching his campaign in April 2015. Over the course of the campaign year, however, that music grew fainter and more uncertain. Eleven months later, as Donald Trump neared the nomination, House Speaker Paul Ryan pleaded for something better: “Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults. It can be about solutions. It can be about making a difference. It can be about always striving to do better.” And the country “can be a confident America, where we have a basic faith in politics and leaders.”
The forced optimism of politicians bumped into the grim pessimism of voters, who were seduced by the despairing message of Donald Trump. “The American dream is dead,” Trump declared in his announcement in June 2015. His campaign plumbed the vocabulary of failure. The military is a “disaster.” Leaders are “so stupid.” NATO is “obsolete.” Trade deals are “horrible.” The political system is “rigged.” Police are “executed” by Black Lives Matter. “Crime, terrorism, and lawlessness” haunt the land.
Only the most radical measures could save so miserable a country. We must end NATO guarantees, repudiate debts, rip up trade deals, ban religious groups from the country. We must impose order by any means necessary—above all, by concentrating power in the hands of the single man who “alone” can save us.
As one man’s program, all this is sinister enough. But it is not one man’s program. For the most astonishing thing about the Trump candidacy—the thing that politicians and pundits and historians will for years struggle to understand—is how broadly it commanded assent, or at least earned some kind of grudging fealty, in what for convenience sake we’ll still call the conservative world.
Once he had secured his party’s nomination, Trump carried with him the organized apparatus of the Republican institutions. He carried the planners and funders of the Cleveland convention and the 2016 campaign. He carried talk radio and Fox News. He carried conservative evangelicals like Ralph Reed and Northeastern moderates like Rudy Giuliani. He carried with him people who detested his ideas and distrusted him.
It was only the dissenters who found themselves isolated and condemned: Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz and the band of writers and thinkers who adopted the “NeverTrump” hashtag. “Everybody who bought the timeshare is mad at the guy who walked out of the sales presentation,” I tweeted on the night Ted Cruz urged delegates to “vote your conscience” and was showered with boos orchestrated by convention managers. But that was only part of the story. Trump’s message carried the day because so many were already prepared to accept it.
The American conservative movement has long been tinged with apocalyptic rhetoric. “We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” So said Ronald Reagan in his famous speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964. “America is drawing perilously close to a tipping point that has the potential to curtail free enterprise, transform our government, and weaken our national identity in ways that may not be reversible,” echoed Paul Ryan in 2011.But in the past, that apocalypse was a conditional apocalypse, ringed about with “if”s and “unless”es. The dark, threatening fate was what might be, not what must be, much less what is.
By Year Eight of the Obama presidency, however, the conditional clauses had ceased to operate. If Barack Obama was “the first anti-American president,” as Newt Gingrich called him in March 2016, how to explain that American voters had twice elected him by thumping margins? Perhaps the country had been hijacked. But after so many years of unsuccessfully demanding “I want my country back,” conservatives could no longer escape the thought: Maybe the hostile hands outnumbered the hands of the legitimate Americans.
One of the favorite memes of the so-called alt-right is the “red pill,” from the movie The Matrix. To swallow the red pill is to be liberated from the pleasing illusion that one lives in a thriving, happy country—and to awaken to the hideous truth that one is deceived and exploited, a captive in a ruined land. Trump ran the first red-pill presidential campaign—a campaign whose central theme was the brokenness of the American experiment. It is a theme that will only grow more powerful to its believers should Trump lose.
“We are a country that doesn’t win anymore,” said Donald Trump in his speech opposite the January 28, 2016, Republican debate. “We don’t win anymore. When was the last time we won? We don’t win on trade. We don’t win on the military. We don’t beat ISIS. We don’t do anything. We’re not good.”
Instead: “They’re laughing at us,” says Donald Trump—more than 100 times in total over his career in public life, according to a tally kept by the Washington Post.
How to regain respect? The Chinese Communists showed the way: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak…as being spit on by the rest of the world.” Trump’s other role model is, of course, Vladimir Putin, the leader he most admires.
The alt-right, the online mini-movement that backs Trump while hurling anti-Semitic imprecations at everyone who might doubt his greatness, is characterized by a reverse nationalism, in which sometimes Russia, sometimes Hungary, sometimes the Hohenzollern monarchy becomes the object of perverted patriotism. Their own mongrel country and its flaccid Constitution receive only disdain. While the content of this ideology remains marginal in American life, its alienation from its own country comes ever closer to the center of politics.
Isn’t that the central story of the Trump campaign? Only some Americans qualify as full Americans—and loyalty is owed not to the America that is, but to a false memory of America as it was and a sinister vision of the purged and purified America that could be, if only we can exclude enough people who don’t truly belong.
What to do?
In the years after 1968, many of those who had started in political life as liberals discovered that they had inherited an unexpected new political mission: to defend the institutions of American life against a radical critique of the country and its institutions. Not necessarily conservative in any ideological sense, they undertook a conservative role in politics: to defend an admittedly imperfect but still precious national experiment against the utopian fantasies of the left. That work helped establish conservatism in the broadest sense of that word as the dominant politics of the next generation.
We have entered another revolutionary moment. But this time, the attack on institutions that have served the country well and kept the peace of the democratic world is coming from a resentful right as well as a radical left. The unexpected origin of this new attack caught many Republican political leaders by surprise and left them soiled and humiliated as they tried to cope, accommodate, and ultimately survive a political insurrection few of them understand even now.
The work that preoccupied people of conservative temperament after 1968 is work that calls again after 2016: To defend this country’s institutions, alliances, conventions, and Constitution against all challengers—whether they base their challenge on a demand for economic equality or racial hierarchy. It’s possible that a Trump collapse will be so total as to discredit Trump’s candidacy entirely. Possible—but unlikely. George McGovern lost very badly in 1972, but his ideas shaped his party for decades after. So it may be for Trump and Trumpism.
When the verdict is delivered in November, the work does not stop. If anything, that work becomes more demanding and urgent. We of the center-right have learned something alarming about the susceptibility to extremism, not only of American democracy in general, but of our political coalition in particular. We’ve learned something painful about the dwindling relevance of the conservative doctrines of the past generation to the political needs of the present generation. We’ve learned something humbling about the character of many of our own friends and allies in submitting to a charlatan who never even bothered to pretend to be anything else. We’ve learned something ominous about the gathering power of tribalism in a society riven by rapid migration and slowing economic growth.
It’s our test now whether we can put this learning to timely and wise use to defend the American experiment against a dangerous and depressing insurgency by those people—and that party—who so long presented themselves as its most faithful champions. It’s time to take upon ourselves the mission of half a century ago: to mobilize the great conservative-minded American center to rescue the country from its ideological extremes.