Monday, July 25, 2016

Not the ’60s: Apocalypse Then and Now

By TODD GITLIN, NYT, JULY 23, 2016

ACCEPTING his party’s nomination Thursday night, Donald J. Trump used the phrase “law and order” four times. So as not to leave any doubt, he shouted it out: “I am the law and order candidate.”

Mr. Trump had recently told The Times that he was borrowing his model from Richard M. Nixon’s victorious run in 1968. “What Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first,” he said. “The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”

Mr. Trump is not alone in making use of the facile notion that history is repeating itself. Pundits reach for the same comparison, and reporters do too, hoping to sound historically expert. Commentators are looking for bearings in what appears to be a universe atilt. There are precedents for everything, but the disconcerting truth is that America’s political situation is downright weird today — too weird to be flattened into historical parallels, though as always there are precedents to study and weigh.

The feeling that “the world is falling apart” is easy to come by. It was surely how I felt in 1968 as a 25-year-old working for an underground newspaper in San Francisco, as unthinkable event followed unthinkable event. But as Tolstoy did not say, all chaotic times are chaotic in their own way. On the heels of the huge 1967 riots, and the police and National Guard killings that followed them, the upheavals of 1968 included the Tet offensive, the abdication of a president and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, police shootouts with Black Panthers, the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the deadly riots afterward, as well as rising street crime. They were, in sum, many orders of magnitude more grave and violent than what we experience now. American casualties in Vietnam reached their peak in 1968 — 16,889 dead — in a war fought by draftees amid huge and growing antiwar protests.

(More here.)

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