In the spring of 2004, a senior White House official in the Bush administration told The Wall Street Journal, “It’s never stopped being 1968.”
The quote referred to the debate within the Democratic Party over the war in Iraq, but it’s a line that could refer to any number of chaotic events over the past five decades. No one year in American history more clearly evokes the feeling of national discord and dysfunction than 1968.
It’s why, in the wake of days of unrest in cities across America, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, the analogies to 1968 are being voiced again. The comparisons are understandable, but they also miss the mark. What’s happening in America’s streets is ugly, violent, and disturbing. It’s one of the most sustained periods of national unrest in decades. But it’s still nothing like 1968.
By the late 1960s, urban disturbances in the United States had become depressingly routine — and far more severe than what we are seeing today. In August 1965, the poor, black neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles exploded in violence that killed 34 people and left hundreds of buildings damaged, looted, or destroyed. Two years later, came the “long, hot summer” of 1967, when disturbances occurred in 159 cities, and there were riots in Newark and Detroit. The situation was so bad in Detroit that President Johnson was forced to call in the 101st and 82nd Airborne to restore order. In April 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., there were riots and looting across the country, as smoke wafted over the White House, and the United States saw the most sustained period of violence since the Civil War.
Thankfully, nothing we’ve seen so far in the response to the shooting or George Floyd can compare to this carnage.
While both now and then the kindling for national conflagration was racial discrimination, unlike in 1968 today’s protests are, for the most part, protests. They have been largely peaceful and diverse, with often as many white participants as Black.
The other major difference is what’s happening on the other side. Today’s police forces, for all their excesses caught on video and trumpeted by social media, are more professional and diverse than those in 1968. There are black mayors in many American cities and black and female police chiefs in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Dallas — something that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.
The violence that pummeled the nation in 1968 was not restricted to urban uprisings. Four days after Johnson stunned the nation by announcing that he would not seek reelection, King was assassinated in Memphis.
Two months later, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot and killed after winning the California Democratic primary (five years after his brother had been assassinated in Dallas). In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago would be rocked by images of the city’s police force attacking antiwar protesters.
Finally, there was the violence that affected Americans directly. In 1968, law and order would become a hot-button political catchphrase, because, in 1968, Iaw and order was a serious issue. From 1963 to 1968, every category of crime in America increased dramatically — murder, rape, robberies, auto theft, and burglaries.
No matter how much President Trump might want to talk about law and order today, the United States is a far safer, less crime-ridden place than it was 50 years ago. And contrary to media commentary, national unrest is not necessarily going to benefit Trump simply because he’s a Republican. While concerns about law and order arguably contributed to Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, he was the challenger that year. Rising crime rates and the sense of national disorder rebounded against Democrats, the incumbent party.
Oh, and did I mention that the most divisive issue in the country was the war in Vietnam, where there were 500,000 US soldiers fighting in 1968; April was the deadliest month of the war.
Today, we are dealing with a deadly pandemic that has taken more than 100,000 lives, added more than 40 million people to the unemployment rolls, and put much of the country on lockdown. The effects of quarantine, isolation, and anxiety are almost certainly feeding the current violence. At the very least, it’s created a feeling of national dislocation that rivals that of the late 1960s.
But there is one other key difference, and it’s perhaps the one that should scare us the most: our political leadership. As the Atlantic’s James Fallows put it yesterday, in the basest of terms, “Everyone contending for power in American politics in those days was competent.”
Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey had their faults, but each made the effort to be leaders for all Americans. They each sought to bring the country together, and they had an appreciation and understanding of basic democratic norms. None of this can be said about the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Trump has seemingly gone out of his way to pour gasoline on the fires burning in America. He has pledged to shoot looters, praised the Secret Service for allegedly manhandling protesters outside the White House, and criticized Democratic mayors and governors for not more aggressively shutting down demonstrations.
Before his latest transgressions, he waged an almost daily assault on the nation’s democratic institutions. He has fired inspectors general, pushed out civil servants whom he considers disloyal, and repeatedly ignored congressional subpoenas. He has launched dishonest attacks on mail-in voting and, last week signed an executive order seeking to shut down a social media company that angered him personally. And his attorney general, William Barr has so politicized the Department of Justice that it’s practically become a legal arm of the Trump White House. Of course, there’s also Trump’s abuse of power in seeking to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating his key political rival, which led to his impeachment.
During Nixon’s tenure in office, he would commit many of the same offenses as Trump — obstruction of justice, abuse of power, using government institutions to target his political rivals. Then there were Republicans who were willing to stand up to him ― and demand his resignation when his crimes were revealed. There is no such countervailing force on Trump. Each day, as his administration descends ever deeper into corruption, lawlessness, incompetence, divisiveness, and quasi-authoritarianism, Republicans stand by silently and do nothing.
This is the crucial difference between now and then. America might have been a more violent place in 1968, but the country survived the chaos of that year, its democracy largely intact. If Trump wins reelection in November, America may not be so lucky.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the manner by which Richard Nixon was removed from office. He resigned from office before he was impeached by the House of Representatives.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.