There are moments that have signaled seismic shifts in U.S. history. The fevered pitch of McCarthyism was broken when Army counsel Joseph Welch, with tears in his eyes, asked Sen. Joe McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Ronald Reagan’s ascension to the White House began with the former actor grabbing a microphone in a high school gym and declaring it his own. And Donald Trump’s descent down a gold-plated escalator a generation later did the same for the reality TV star.
But perhaps no scene better dramatizes the turbulent political age that we have been passing through for half a century than the “Hard Hat Riot” of 1970.
That violent showdown in Lower Manhattan pitted antiwar protesters against enraged union members, who took umbrage at “long-haired hippies” they saw as desecrating the American flag. The chaotic event long ago passed into political folklore for conservatives, helping to mark the moment when White working-class identity shifted from economic to cultural. As Vanderbilt history professor Jefferson Cowie wrote in the New York Times in May, “The new class war would be waged not against the old corporate robber barons but the impudent snobs of the cultural elite.” That shift may explain why so many working-class Americans have been voting against their own economic interests for so long.
On May 8, 1970, the Times reported, union workers streamed out of the “soaring red steel skeleton” of Tower A on the construction site of the World Trade Center and raced to an antiwar demonstration underway on Wall Street. The workers later told reporters they were determined to stop protesters from denigrating U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam. “I’m doing this because my brother got wounded in Vietnam, and I think this will help our boys over there by pulling this country together,” one construction worker told the Wall Street Journal. Chants of “Love it or leave it” and shouts about killing “commies” rang out above the chaos, before workers seized an American flag at Federal Hall and began singing “God Bless America” under the watchful gaze of George Washington’s statue.
Then-President Richard Nixon declared “Thank God for the hard hats!” and began building a “New Majority” including White working-class voters who supported politicians they saw as backing the troops and revering their sacrifice. For decades, Republican politicians and thought leaders followed Nixon’s lead, even when that meant shamelessly attacking Democratic war heroes such as George McGovern, Max Cleland and John Kerry for the political crime of being insufficiently patriotic.
Given the party’s brash support of all things “patriotic,” the past week’s developments have been disorienting even for the age of Trump.
Post associate editor Bob Woodward’s new revelations regarding President Trump’s pandemic performance will forever tarnish the 45th president’s legacy, but Trump’s savage attacks on America’s military leaders and war dead will leave a lasting scar on his Republican Party. Woodward reported that the playboy scion, who avoided military service in Vietnam by claiming bone spurs, called the decorated military leaders who serve him “pussies” and “suckers.” It can be no coincidence that the president reportedly also called the 1,800 Marines who died at Belleau Wood “suckers” for giving their lives in war. After those comments were reported by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Trump predictably made matters worse for himself by mounting a defense that showed just how much he loathed the military and those who serve as its leaders.
“They want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,” Trump blurted out at a news conference. This commander in chief offering lectures on the excesses of the military-industrial complex is laughable. He has, after all, championed weapons sales like no president before him. Trump even refused to cancel billions in arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the killing of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi because he didn’t want to “lose an order like that.” He said doing so would be unfair to Boeing, Lockheed and Raytheon.
Trump’s Republican Party has been damaged yet again by its leader’s offensive statements. It has also lost any claim it ever had to being the U.S. military’s bulwark against left-wing attacks. A recent Military Times poll suggests that most active-duty troops agree, with a plurality supporting Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s presidential bid.
Perhaps Lindsey Graham was right when he predicted that Trump would destroy the Republican Party. The question that remains is why the South Carolina senator and so many of his peers stay silent while the honor of our military leaders is under attack by America’s president. One wonders what the hard-hat rioters would have thought about that.
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