Our consciousness-changing moment — and a reckoning for 1972?

Our consciousness-changing moment — and a reckoning for 1972?
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This is a consciousness-changing moment. Those are the moments when public sentiment shifts, virtually overnight, because of a dramatic and compelling event. In this case, two related events: the murder of a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer and the use of military force to clear demonstrators from Lafayette Square near the White House so President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE could stage a photo opportunity.

The repercussions were not what President Trump expected. With his ratings slumping because of his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn, the president clearly expected to enjoy a boost by labeling himself “your president of law and order.” His threat — “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” — enraged the protesters and dismayed people across the country, and the world. It is not 1968, and Trump is not Richard Nixon.

This time, to the amazement of many conservatives, the public’s reaction is more anti-Trump than anti-protesters. Public consciousness has changed over the last 50 years. Americans are far more conscious of systemic racism, police brutality and inequality. In a Washington Post-Schar School poll, three quarters of Americans say they support the protests following Floyd’s killing. More than 60 percent disapprove of President Trump’s response to the protests.


Former President Barack Obama called the Black Lives Matter protests “as transformative as anything that I’ve seen in recent years” and “an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened.” That is precisely what happens in consciousness-changing moments.

In 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., her action released the pent-up anger and frustration of millions. Southern whites, who had allowed themselves to believe that segregation worked, suddenly saw how outraged black people were to live under Jim Crow laws. Their consciousness changed, and eventually a social order was transformed.

Until Anita Hill testified at the Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Justices rule Manhattan prosecutor, but not Congress, can have Trump tax records OVERNIGHT ENERGY: WH pushed for 'correction' to Weather Service tweet contradicting Trump in 'Sharpiegate' incident, watchdog says | Supreme Court rules that large swath of Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribe Clarence Thomas's wife criticized her town's 'Black Lives Matter' banner: report MORE confirmation hearings in 1991, most men regarded sexual harassment as something of a joke. They saw it as “flirting.” They failed to comprehend women’s anger and humiliation. Professor Hill’s testimony about her degrading experiences changed sexual harassment from a joke to a crime.

Rarely has investigative journalism had such a powerful impact as it did following the revelations of sexual abuse by former film producer Harvey Weinstein. Women, including leading Hollywood actresses, bravely allowed their names to be used. Within days, the social media hashtag #MeToo was promoted by actress Alyssa Milano, who tweeted “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” They did, and perpetrators of sexual assault have faced disgrace and ruin.

Why is the public’s reaction in 2020 so different from what it was in 1968? In 1968, Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, was the challenger. Democrats were the incumbent party under President Lyndon Johnson, and LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was the Democratic nominee for president. In 1968, voters were enraged by the disorder racking the country. They voted for change, and change meant the Republican. In 2020, Donald Trump is the status quo candidate. Voters who are dissatisfied today with the disorder afflicting the country are likely to vote for the Democratic challenger, Joe BidenJoe BidenDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Teachers face off against Trump on school reopenings Biden wins Puerto Rico primary MORE.


In 1968, voters longing for normalcy voted for Nixon, who was deeply experienced in national politics. This year, the candidate who represents normalcy and relief from turmoil is certainly not Donald Trump.

Voters are also becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that President Trump deliberately divides the country. Other presidents have been divisive (Ronald Reagan, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance McCain's reset: US-Vietnam relations going strong after 25 years Facebook ad boycott is unlikely to solve the problem — a social media standards board would MORE). But Trump is the only president who deliberately exploits the division. “I bring rage out,” Trump told the Washington Post in 2016. “I always have.”

Every politician needs a base. Your base is the people who are with you when you’re wrong. Pat Robertson, a leader of the religious right and founder of the Christian Coalition, criticized Trump for his threatening message to protesters. “You just don’t do that,” Robertson said on his television newscast. “We’re one race, and we need to love each other.” Evangelical Christians joined the protests in Washington. Pastor David Platt led the group in a prayer repudiating racism, saying, “We pray You would forgive us for our history and our present. God forgive us for the sin that so infects our heart.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, who is African American, instantly became a contender for the Democratic vice presidential nomination when she rebuked President Trump for provoking division. “He should stop talking,” Mayor Bottoms said on CNN. “He speaks and he makes it worse.” Her words evoked a famous line of dialogue by Ring Lardner: “’Shut up,’ he explained.”

The latest CNN poll shows 91 percent of Republican voters still loyal to Trump. What’s happening to the GOP?

Back in 1968, Mississippi was Richard Nixon’s worst state. The Republican candidate got just 13.5 percent of the Mississippi vote. Independent George Wallace won Mississippi that year with 63.5 percent. Four years later, in 1972, Mississippi was Richard Nixon’s best state. He got 78 percent of the Mississippi vote.  Nixon ’68 plus Wallace ’68 became Nixon ’72. Nixon used his “southern strategy” to fold the Wallace vote into the Republican vote.

It was Richard Nixon who invited George Wallace supporters into the Republican Party. Under Donald Trump, Wallace voters have finally taken the party over. And the public is becoming conscious of it.

An African immigrant attending the memorial service for George Floyd in Minneapolis told the Washington Post, “I believe that history has begun in Minnesota.”

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).