With ghosts of '68 haunting the midterms, Trump may soften rhetoric

With ghosts of '68 haunting the midterms, Trump may soften rhetoric
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Fifty years ago in 1968, the United States was a nation in crisis. It was, quite simply, a year of unprecedented public anger and protests that shook the very foundations of our society. The resistance at that time was a convergence of anti-war sentiment, calls for social justice as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, and increasing anti-capitalist fervor.

Opposition to the Vietnam War, now four years old, had begun with “teach-ins” on college campuses. As the anti-war movement grew, the “New Left” in the United States took form. This pushed liberalism farther to the left, abandoning traditional constituencies such as the working class for agents of change such as young intellectuals. The “Free Speech Movement” that began in 1964 at U.C. Berkeley, calling for more on-campus political activities, reached full bloom by 1968 — and the loudest, most pervasive speech was anti-war, anti-authority, anti-establishment and anti-police.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s push for social justice began to provoke fury among many white Americans. As he took his cause northward to protest inequality, the Polish, Italian and Irish residents of Chicago, as well as New Deal Democrats, raged against the peaceful black protesters. As a result, the relatively new “Black Power” chant was met with calls for “White Power,” Politico Magazine reported in a 2017 profile of King.


The pace of civil rights as a social movement, long overdue, moved quickly in 1960s America. As Politico noted, “White Northerners who may have supported the integration of lunch counters and voting rights in the South proved unwilling to forfeit the artificial privilege they enjoyed in housing and labor markets.”   

Politically, the convergence of the anti-war and black liberation movements provided energy and focus to a more sympathetic reassessment of socialism and communism in the United States. Writing in the International Socialist Review, Joel Geier said, “Internationalism began to overcome American nationalism. Activists began to recognize that so-called national interests were the interests of our rulers, not of the American people. There was identification with the victims of American imperialism.”  

Among the young revolutionaries was Bill Ayers, who would write in his manifesto, Prairie Fire: “[I]mperialism sought to tame its youth through tracked education, the draft, the oppression of women. These conditions produced a profound alienation in work, school, family, and an openness to revolutionary alternatives. … This means a substantial sector was torn away from sexist and competitive culture and gave birth to new cultures, fragile but real — cultures in opposition to the system.”

Within this backdrop of profound social disruption came a presidential election in 1968. President Lyndon Johnson, a champion of civil rights but the face of the Vietnam War, had won a landslide victory in 1964, winning 44 states and 486 electoral votes. Five of the states he lost were in the South.

Johnson’s Democratic Party was being pulled left and devolving into factions. Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war U.S. senator from Minnesota, challenged the president, banking on the youth vote and the intellectual elite to carry him to victory. Indeed, anti-war advocates went “Clean for Gene,” shaving their beards and working for their candidate. On March 12, McCarthy came within 7 percentage points of winning the New Hampshire primary. Then, on March 16, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy entered the race. As March drew to a close, Johnson withdrew from the race and threw his support to his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey.

The factions aligned thusly: Those who were college educated were likely to support McCarthy; African-Americans and the poor leaned toward Kennedy; and New Dealers and labor union members went with Humphrey. By the time Chicago hosted the Democratic National Convention, the party had imploded. Humphrey won the nomination but could not reconstitute the Democratic coalition.

When he won the Republican nomination, Richard Nixon had come full circle since his 1960 defeat to John F. Kennedy. This time, his campaign was based on a simple but profound insight: America is not the anti-war protesters, New Left, or Black Liberation Movement. Nixon promised to unite Americans, now weary from years of protests in the streets.

He would carry 32 states, relegating Humphrey to winning mostly northeastern states. With the help of George Wallace, Nixon kept the five southern states that Johnson had lost from going Democratic again, setting the stage for a political realignment in 1972 that would turn the South solidly Republican.

Today, as the midterm elections approach, the atmosphere feels much the same as 1968. Across the country, protests airing the rage of the far left are being amplified by the media. Many college campuses have closed their doors to conservative speakers and preventing students from airing conservative views. Incivility toward President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE is tolerated — even applauded — amid pervasive identity politics.

In several states, Democratic socialist candidates have won primary elections. And the Democratic Party is fracturing into factions: the followers of progressive Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMisguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon Biden's soft touch with Manchin, Sinema frustrates Democrats Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' Democrats' reconciliation bill breaks Biden's middle class tax pledge We have a presidential leadership crisis — and it's only going to get worse MORE (Calif.) versus those still supporting  minority leaders Sen. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper Hispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act MORE (N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats step up pressure on Biden on student loan forgiveness Climate activists target Manchin Democrats face growing storm over IRS reporting provision MORE (Calif.).

Perhaps forgotten in this ideological battle are the American people. The safe bet this fall may be on voters who will come to the polls wanting to lower the temperature of our politics.

For this reason, look for President Trump to begin to tone down his rhetoric, thereby positioning Republicans to win the “silent majority” who are fed up with the rage and unending protestations of those on the left. If he is successful, he likely will set the stage for another political realignment just in time for the 2020 election.

Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell, a national public affairs consultancy headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. He has been involved in more than 300 political campaigns doing strategy, messaging, polling, and fundraising, including coordinating fundraising and outreach in Pennsylvania for President George H.W. Bush’s campaign. He was retained for six years by Trump Entertainment Resorts to build coalitions