Historians and political scientists say the comparisons between 1968 and 2020 represent an acute case of historical whiplash because of seemingly analogous events repeating themselves, but also — and perhaps more importantly — the sense that America is on fire and coming apart at the seams.
“The parallels are there, especially in how just so many things seem to be happening at once — and almost all of them negative,” said Jeremy Mayer, a George Mason University political science professor who studies racial politics, the media and elections. “People really feel that.”
Peter Levy, a York College civil rights historian, agreed: “I think we all feel it and all know in general that there are some comparisons.” But, like Mayer, he says that “when you drill down into some of the specifics, they may not exactly be the same. It’s kind of like a composite.”
In 1968, the chaos was more violent and more destructive.
The riots that shook Washington, Chicago, Baltimore and other U.S. cities in 1968 were far more destructive and widespread than the looting and fires currently spreading around the country, Mayer said. The unrest shook cities but also college campuses. The protests then were about racism and police brutality, like today, but also the Vietnam War.
In 1968, more than 500,000 American troops were fighting in Vietnam, the bloodiest year of a long war far more divisive than the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan.
And while many Americans celebrated the recent launch of Space X’s rocket shuttling two U.S. astronauts into orbit as a hopeful advance of humanity in restless times, Mayer does not think the event compares to the Apollo mission of 1968 that produced the famous Earthrise photo.
“I’m afraid to say the space interruption of 1968 was a much bigger deal,” Mayer said. “It’s nice that a private company got to the space station, but it’s not like the Apollo mission.”
But there also comparisons that converge and evolve in interesting ways, the scholars say.
Take the pandemic.
Like the novel coronavirus, the flu pandemic back in 1968 had its origins in China. It was then pejoratively referred to as the Hong Kong or Mao flu. President Trump has called the coronavirus pandemic “the Chinese virus.” A half-century ago, the pandemic killed 100,000 Americans, a number the 2020 pandemic has already surpassed. But back then, the pandemic did not become a political issue. There were no shutdowns or broad calls for wearing masks.
“The pandemic, whether we overreacted or underreacted or whatever you think about it, it has affected all of us,” Mayer said. “Whereas in ’68, it was actually possible to ignore the news and not be affected by either Vietnam or the race riots, depending on where you lived. Here, the pandemic has touched every American in one way or another.”
Then there was the chaotic political environment.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, totally surprising the Democratic Party. The Democrats, like in 2020, ultimately nominated a vice president — the current one, Hubert Humphrey — at a convention marred by violence.
He ran against Richard Nixon, who lost as vice president himself his presidential bid in 1960 to John F. Kennedy. This time, Nixon ran on a “law and order” campaign in the wake of the riots, much like political observers expect Trump to do in this election.
In fact, he’s already started. He tweeted this on Sunday:
Though there isn’t a third-party candidate in 2020, there was an insurgent one in 1968 — George Wallace of Alabama. During his campaign, Wallace often repeated a line from Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who in 1967 threatened the black community with attack dogs and said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Nixon called his target voters the “silent majority.” Nixon’s running mate, Spiro T. Agnew, had mounted a fierce response to Baltimore rioters while serving as governor of Maryland. So Nixon sent him out to deliver some of the harshest law-and-order rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Agnew often dismissed the racial unrest in inner cities by saying, “If you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all.”
“One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that urban rioting in American history has almost always helped conservative forces,” Mayer said.
On Nov. 3, the country will find out whether that history repeats itself again.
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