2018 marks the 50th anniversary of 1968, a year in which both Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated and several American cities went up in flames. In the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive blew apart Lyndon Johnson’s narrative of the war, the My Lai massacre occurred and nearly 17,000 Americans were killed in the deadliest year of the war. Avowed segregationist George Wallace ran for president, winning 46 electoral votes. Police brutally put down riots in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. The Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring. “Biafra” became synonymous with mass starvation. In short, 1968 was a horrifying year in which the United States seemed to many to be coming apart at the seams, and the world seemed doomed to a cycle of war, repression and deprivation. We were beset by internal divisions along racial, gender and generational lines.
As we go through 2018, we would do well to keep 1968 in mind, if only for the sake of some needed perspective. The country then experienced a level of domestic violence and rate of war casualties that today seem unimaginable. Women were scarce in the workplace by today’s standards, and the crime rate was alarmingly high. By most objective measures — life expectancy, rates of poverty for the elderly, educational attainment, clean air and water, medical technology, etc. — we are much better off today. And yet Americans often seem cynical, angry, resentful, stressed, anxious and alienated from one another and from our government. The sunny sense of optimism that has defined the United States seems to have dimmed. Put differently, most of the country (and the world) is far better off than it was 50 years ago, but we often don’t feel like it.
The good news is that it is within our power, individually and collectively, to change our outlook. Clearly, part of our national condition is self-imposed and self-inflicted. We can do more and rage from the couch less. We can use technology to make connections, mobilize and improve others’ lives and cut down on the Twitter fights, the nasty email barbs and the cable TV shouting matches.
Some of that engagement and positive communication has paid off as we reach the one-year point in the Trump presidency. In 2017, we saw the rise of the #MeToo movement, record numbers of Americans signing up to run for office, mass marches to defend science and democracy, and remarkable successes in the courts (fighting back against the Muslim travel ban and halting punitive measures against so-called sanctuary cities, to name two).
Yes, President Trump has launched a frontal assault on civility decency and democratic norms. However, as Jack Goldsmith points out:
Political appointees followed the rules, and numerous Republican members of Congress, those most sensitive to politics and the wishes of the people, signaled strong support for [Robert S. Mueller III’s] investigation. A “small but vocal group of conservative lawmakers,” bucked up by Fox News and the like, have started aggressively attacking Mueller, although a much larger group of Republican members of Congress, including senior Republican leaders, continue to express support. We should not expect Republican support for Mueller to be any more uniform than it was for Archibald Cox and then Leon Jaworski during Watergate. And yet I continue to believe, as I wrote last June, that if Trump tries to shut down Mueller through any of the mechanisms above, “Congress would rise up quickly to stop the President, and the pressure on the cabinet would be enormous as well.” I think that enough important Republican members of Congress would turn on Trump to cause him serious political damage.
If we’ve been dismayed and often disgusted by Republicans’ passivity and enabling of Trump, the good news is that we need not wait around for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to find his conscience and spine. “The ultimate check here, as always, is the American people. Right now they support Mueller and his probe,” Goldsmith writes. “We have midterm elections in eleven months that at the moment look bad for the Republicans. Any Trump shenanigans to stop Mueller would, I think, make the shellacking even worse. At the end of the day, the voice of the people is what ensures that Congress does the right thing and that the president does not defy the law.”
We came through 1968 with our country and democracy intact. It’s within our power to do the same in 2018 — and to remember we’ve been through worse times, if not worse presidents.