A few weeks ago I started reading Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s 748-page social history of the 1960s and ’70s through the lens of Richard Nixon’s presidency. I’ve gotten most of the way through the book and have been reflecting on how we seem to have landed, once again, back in 1968.
Back then, following eight years of Democratic presidencies that brought unprecedented civil rights progress, the United States was riven by such a deep cultural divide that each half of the country seemed like an unknowable species to the other. Much of the populace felt like its traditional, honest lifestyle and economic livelihood were under siege. The rest believed that, despite legislative progress, the nation was failing to reckon with deep and persistent inequalities. Some of the latter took to the streets in protest; their neighbors vilified them as lawless agitators.
Some law-enforcement officers reacted violently to this upheaval (as they had earlier in places like Selma). Traditionalists gave the police a pass. During the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, an off-duty cop picked up a twenty-year-old hitchhiker, a supporter of Eugene McCarthy. Upon learning that his passenger had been protesting downtown, the policeman hit the young man in the head, broke his glasses, and forced him back into the car at gunpoint. A jury acquitted the officer so quickly that the judge asked the foreman, “Are you certain?”
In this crucible, the Democrats nominated a cautious and hawkish establishment candidate, Hubert Humphrey, whom progressives accused of rigging the primary process. Supporters of McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, many of them young, threatened to abandon the ticket. The Republicans were no more unified: during a divisive convention, they nominated Richard Nixon, an ideological chameleon who was capitalizing on the growing unrest and promising to restore law and order if elected. If Nixon’s campaign lacked the uncoded racism of Donald Trump’s, that was supplied by the American Independent Party’s candidate, George Wallace, an Alabama segregationist who stirred up white rural resentment of the power elites.
“They’ve called us rednecks, the Republicans and the Democrats,” Wallace said during the campaign. “Well, we’re going to show, there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country.”
Every time I turn the page of Nixonland, which was published in 2008, I stumble on a new parallel. Here are the goons at Republican rallies beating up demonstrators. Here are the GOP’s threats to curb the Constitution’s guaranteed press freedoms. Here’s the Republican nominee’s lust for revenge. Here are the cavalier treatment of facts, the spinning of counter-realities, and the swallowing of this misinformation by voters.
This week another Republican has won the presidency. Donald Trump is far more inflammatory than Nixon, and far less experienced in domestic and world affairs—”a twisted caricature of every rotten reflex of the radical right,” David Remnick wrote last week in The New Yorker. Trump’s victory feels like a terrifying upheaval; so did Nixon’s.
“Apocalyptic is not an exaggeration,” my friend and former editor Gay Daly, who was a college student in 1968, recently told me of that election. “The war would go on forever. My brother might be drafted. (He escaped by days.) The civil rights movement would die.”
The summer of ’68, Daly worked as a billing clerk at a Defense Department depot in her hometown of Memphis, six miles from where Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. In June, when Robert Kennedy was also murdered, she says, “most of the people in the office were thrilled.”
The chasm ran that deep. Then, as now, people of conscience—and people who were scared—talked about fleeing to Canada or beyond. I was eight at the time, too young to understand any of this. But in the days since last week’s election, I’ve been trying to figure out what we can learn from 1968, both about what to expect and how to respond.
First, it will get worse.
We don’t know exactly what the Trump presidency will look like yet from a policy perspective, but we know some of what it promises: the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act; the development of a new energy policy based on climate-change denial; the deportation of immigrants and turning-away of refugees; weakened gun laws; the embrace of torture in war zones; the diversion of money from public to private schools; the rollback of protections for consumers, workers, and the public health; and the long-term defense of that policy agenda when Trump nominates a Supreme Court justice to fill a seat that should have rightly been President Obama’s choice.
From the Nixon years, we know that a law-and-order president who lacks respect for the Constitution poses a critical threat to dissent. In 1969, Nixon dispatched his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to a Republican conference in Des Moines to deliver the implied warning that TV stations broadcasting unfavorable stories could see their licenses revoked by their Federal Communications Commission or their corporate structures dismantled by the Justice Department. (Similarly, in February, Trump vowed to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue journalists and “win lots of money.”) Broadcasters were only part of Agnew’s intended audience in ’69; he also sent out a Trump-like dog whistle by invoking the “fraternity of privileged men” who controlled the media.
“The theme that America’s press and television is controlled and dominated by a small group of Jews in New York and Washington is dominant among the anti-Semitic lunatic fringe,” wrote the Washington Post columnists Frank Mankiewicz and Tom Braden afterward. Agnew disavowed both the Jew-baiting and the censorship threat, but his tactic worked: two days later, the television networks ignored a massive antiwar rally at the Washington Monument. “Everyone is scared about licenses,” a network executive told the Los Angeles Times.
Nixon saved the violent repression for radical dissidents like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, leaders of the Illinois Black Panther Party who were slain by police during a 1969 predawn raid. The FBI, it later emerged, “had provided Chicago cops with the floor plan of the apartment, and an FBI infiltrator had slipped secobarbital in Fred Hampton’s drink the previous evening to make it easier to murder him in bed,” Perlstein wrote in Nixonland. Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic, referred to the assassinations as Nixon’s “gravest domestic crime.”
Whether Trump’s presidency brings us back to that period of dark operations on U.S. soil is, at this point, speculation. What is certain, though, because it has happened already, is the way this election has legitimized public expressions of hate and intimidation. In my hometown of Durham—the seat of a county that gave Hillary Clinton 78 percent of its vote and a city that prides itself on inclusion—two downtown walls were tagged with racist graffiti immediately after the election. “Black lives don’t matter and neither does your votes,” said one of them. On Thursday, Durham City Council member Cora Cole-McFadden, who is African American, removed her Clinton-Kaine bumper sticker, at her daughter’s request, after two white men in a car menaced her downtown.
There was a flipside to the Nixon age: It produced some of the most enduring progressive organizing in the nation’s history. The Stonewall Rebellion in New York City erupted in June 1969, launching the modern-day LGBTQ movement. Less than a year later came the first Earth Day. Second-wave feminism gained traction throughout that period and produced victories like Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
“A massive resistance movement emerged to make it harder for Nixon to govern,” wrote urban-policy scholar Peter Dreier in The American Prospect last week. After the ’68 election, Dreier had considered fleeing to Canada but opted instead to stay and agitate. “In 1970, we started electing antiwar candidates to Congress. We started a backyard revolution of community organizing in urban communities. Then activists also built the women’s movement, the consumer movement, and the environmental movement. Nixon did great damage (including the invasion of Cambodia, the killings at Jackson State and Kent State, the government infiltration and surveillance of dissenters), but the country survived.
“Yes, Trump is worse than Nixon,” Dreier continued. “He’s a demagogue, a white supremacist, a psychopath. But we’ll resist again.”
How do we collect ourselves and move forward? How do we not fall prey to a paralyzing sense of futility?
Step 1 is to squelch the impulse to pretend that things will be fine. Just before the election, I ate dinner with my friend Lynne Adrine, a journalism educator who is African American and has helped me think deeply about race and beyond. She talked about how this campaign has “ripped Band-Aids off several ugly wounds that Americans had been trying so hard to ignore.” Maybe this was necessary, she said. We need to confront ills like racism head-on before we can progress.
After the election, Adrine wrote to me, concerned that our journalist colleagues were moving too fast to normalize the news. “I see the TV pundits trying to quickly reapply the Band-Aids,” she wrote. “I hope we can stop them, or that the festering wounds ooze so much that the wounds continue to demand attention.”
Step 2 is to banish the false dichotomy between bridge-building and activism. If there is ever to be a majority national movement for social and economic justice, it needs to include whites who have suffered from deindustrialization, offshoring, the decline of unions, and the shrinking farm economy. Getting some of those Trump voters—in North Carolina, say, or the Rust Belt—to abandon the facile and xenophobic prescriptions of a demagogue starts with listening. (This is different from making nice with the demagogue himself or the white nationalists who have responded to his whistle.) At the same time, there is a lot of policy turf to defend—human rights, public education, the social safety net, the planet’s health—and those are areas where we need to redouble our grassroots efforts.
Step 3 is to protect from harm those in our communities who are most vulnerable both to the Trump administration’s policies and to the violence and intimidation we’ve already seen.
I see some of this work—both statements of intent and actual organizing—emerging in Durham already, as it is elsewhere. On Sunday, for example, city council member Charlie Reece posted his intention to use his office to protect his most vulnerable constituents.
“There will be times during the next four years when the values and goals of the Trump administration will conflict with Durham’s progressive values and goals,” he wrote. “In those cases, our city must be prepared to act to defend not only our progressive way of life but also the Durham residents who stand to be harmed the most if we stand aside.”
The Durham County school system autodialed parents last week with a bilingual message promising the schools would remain safe for all: “those who have been Durham residents for a long time, those who are new here, those who speak English as a second language, and those who are refugees.” The message offered counseling to any student worried about the election results. “You are all part of our community,” said Superintendent Bert L’Homme, “and we are here for you.”
And a group of North Carolinians, including former Durham County Board of Education member Sendolo Diaminah, devoted last weekend to bolstering their organizing skills and strategizing about the next wave of resistance. It included a seven-hour training at Duke University Saturday, followed by a Sunday rally in Durham Central Park in support of Muslims, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and other victims of injustice.
Conjuring up strength—and hope—is hard. For inspiration, I look not to the Nixon era but to the final years of the Cold War. Václav Havel was a Czech playwright and dissident who was locked up several times for his political activities, including a four-year stretch that ended in 1983. After his release, but before his 1989 election as president of Czechoslovakia, Havel started to correspond with the exiled journalist Karel Hvížďala. Their letters were later compiled into a book called Disturbing the Peace.
“Do you see a grain of hope anywhere?” Hvížďala asked the playwright.
“I should probably say first that the kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world,” Havel replied. “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and it is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
“Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed,” he continued. “The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
“It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “A Return to Nixonland”