Finding hope in the aftermath of the 2016 election
Out of the despair of 1968 and Nixon’s presidency we strengthened our republic
There’s no way around it, we are in trying times — we are facing daunting and scary problems. A reality TV star, with little relevant experience or understanding of the mechanics or functions of the federal government won the U.S. presidency and he won by presenting himself as the unabashedly disrespectful, angry, kamikaze candidate with little regard for many of the norms that help hold the fabric of society together. This all at a time when our nation faces a deep chasm of political and cultural divisions and when faith in society’s institutions are at historic lows. This is not the first time we’ve faced challenges like this. As before, we can come out of it stronger.
In 1968, the country was faced with a pivotal election. Under President Lyndon Johnson, the country had seen one of the most productive legislative periods in history, which included passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act as well as major entitlement programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Racial tensions were high and the Vietnam war was raging. In March, Senator Robert F. Kennedy captivated the nation by announcing he would seek the presidency — laying out a platform of ending the War in Vietnam and advancing racial and economic justice. Kennedy’s candidacy brought hope in a time of despair. But just a few weeks after his campaign kicked off, the global icon of progressivism, equality, and non-violent political organizing — The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Bloody, racially charged riots erupted across America. Eight weeks later, the only remaining hope left for many people in the country was extinguished — on June 5, 1968, seconds after finishing a campaign event to celebrate his momentous victory in California’s presidential primary election, Senator Kennedy was assassinated. The country was left wondering whether, like so many other societies around the world, we would devolve into chaos and instability. That fear and unrest paved the way for the original “law and order” presidential candidate Richard Nixon to eek out a narrow victory over his Democratic rival. Although Nixon won in November, he did so with a tiny plurality of the country voting for him — winning with 31.8 percent of the popular vote compared to Senator Hubert Humphrey’s 31.3 percent, and segregationist candidate Governor George Wallace receiving 13.5 percent of the vote.
President Nixon would go on to become infamous for his racially charged policies, risky military ventures, and his notorious abuse of power. Despite running on a platform of ending the war in Vietnam, Nixon actually secretly advocated against a 1968 deal for peace. After taking office, and frustrated that he couldn’t end the war, Nixon initiated a risky strategy to win a peace agreement: In October of 1969, President Nixon sent a squadron of 18 B-52s — massive bombers with eight turbo engines and 185-foot wingspans — toward the eastern border of the Soviet Union. Each plane was loaded with fully armed nuclear weapons — hundreds of times more powerful than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nixon believed if he threatened an unpredictable nuclear strike it would convince the communists to start making concessions at the negotiating table in Vietnam.
A few years later, despite a lack of progress in Vietnam and after sending hundreds of thousands of more Americans off to war — including tens of thousands who were killed — President Nixon was reelected in one of the largest electoral landslides in American history.
The country would soon learn that President Nixon and his administration had been orchestrating some of the most direct and severe assaults on our Constitution — including major affronts to the Bill of Rights and our republic’s fundamental Separation of Powers. Despite the strong political pressure from the White House, journalists and Congress investigated and uncovered the president’s unprecedented actions. President Nixon was despondent but was also clinging tightly to power. The level of fear in the country and around the world was palpable — even Nixon’s own Secretary of Defense, sensing that the President was unhinged, issued an extralegal — perhaps mutinous — directive to divert Nixon’s military orders, especially relating to the use of nuclear weapons. Powerful members of Congress from both parties, the Supreme Court, major global media outlets, world leaders — both friends and foes — watched and wondered whether our system of government could peacefully resolve an attempt to remove an entrenched president from power.
In the end, a defiant and dangerous president was ousted as the result of heroic efforts from journalists, members of the president’s own political party, and our judicial branch of government. In response to Nixon’s egregious actions, Congress, the media, and the courts all undertook efforts to strengthen and protect our institutions and our freedoms. The Supreme Court issued landmark rulings espousing vital protections inherent in the First Amendment and in the Constitution’s Separation of Powers. Congress took it upon itself to impeach the President and later to investigate infringements of important rights guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment — ultimately passing major legislation to preserve our civil liberties and also to improve the culture of politics. The media sharpened its role as a major check on government — ushering in a new era of journalism and new norms, rights, and roles of reporters.
This year, candidate Trump took it upon himself to highlight the parallels to the election of 1968. His calls for “law and order” and deportations have been coupled with the emergence of overt racism and bigotry — not far off from the brazen segregationists of 1968. Trump has also demonstrated parallels to Nixon’s risky military strategies — suggesting he will try to keep the world guessing what he actions he will take. To many, this appears to be very risky and scary. For many others, there is grave concern about President Trump rolling back progress on public health, the environment, scientific discovery, equality, worker protections, criminal justice, consumer protection, and stability in our nation’s fiscal, and monetary systems. Just as President Nixon took the country in a new direction after President Johnson, President Trump will almost certainly take the country in a new direction on many fronts. But progress in any specific area or on any specific public policy does not just originate or lie solely in the federal government — progress comes from the private and non-profit sectors, from state and local governments, and in traditional and social media. Already, many institutions including members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, the media, non-governmental organizations, as well as state and local governments have expressed a keen focus on continuing or protecting progress under a Trump Presidency. They will not be surprised by Trump; they will be ready. As Nixon’s abuses of power prompted us to address problems fundamental to our Republic, Trump’s presidency already appears to be doing the same.
In response to the election, one of the newest and most influential institutions of modern life — Facebook — is reassessing its role in our democracy. Reporters, who have experienced unprecedented vitriol for simply doing their job and exercising their first amendment rights, are facing challenges that they can’t ignore. Meanwhile, newspapers around the country — nearly all of which chose not to endorse Donald Trump — will surely continue to hold our new president to account.
None of this is to suggest everything will be okay but it should provide some useful perspective and hope for the future. By remaining vigilant we’ve made it through some extremely tough times in the past — even strengthening many of our most fundamental institutions.