On April 3, 1968 Martin Luther King gave a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. He spoke for 40 minutes without notes, pressing his case for non-violence in the fight for racial justice but also preaching how the greatness of America lay in the freedoms of the press and right to protest. Famously, he ended with prophetic words that there were “difficult days ahead” and his people would get to the Promised Land, even if he might not be there alongside them. These were his last words in public. The next evening, the civil rights leader was shot dead on his motel balcony.
As furious crowds flooded on to streets across the country, Robert Kennedy landed in Indiana on the stump to win the Democrat’s presidential nomination. He was, of course, a man who had suffered personal loss in another terrible political murder. Police advised him to cancel his event but instead he spoke from the heart for a few minutes. “What we need in the United States is not division,” he said. “What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another. And a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country whether they be white or they be black.”
Some listeners cried. Others stood still in shock. But elsewhere rioting broke out and cities burned. It was start of the country’s worst unrest since the Civil War, with dozens killed, hundreds of shops destroyed, thousands of citizens injured and tens of thousands arrested. Two months later, Kennedy himself was shot on the campaign trail in California. It felt as though American society were falling apart as cultural, political, social and racial fissures beneath the surface of the nation erupted. African-Americans, anti-war protesters, hippies and women were fighting for profound change. Yet that summer of fire and fury ended with election of Richard Nixon as president.
Now look across the Atlantic. Once again, the US is horribly divided, its cities burn with rage and the curse of racism continues to corrode the world’s richest nation in an election year. Nixon, the former vice-president who had slunk away in 1962 after defeat in his previous presidential campaign, won through overt appeal to white anxiety as he promised to restore order and played into fears of his ‘silent majority’. Today we see Donald Trump pursuing the same strategy but in far less subtle style. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted, reviving a phrase popularised by the segregationist George Wallace in 1968 as he sent troops on the streets.
History never repeats itself exactly, even when it ricochets through time. Now there is rioting over the murder of another black man taking place against backdrop of a public health battle rather than bloody conflict in Asia. Yet there is one clear political continuum that links these two turbulent years half a century apart. For 1968 was the year in which the Right took firm control of the Republican Party, driving away the liberals in a strategy that has reached its dark apotheosis in Trump.
Nixon won as a populist, using the language of law and order to lure fearful white Southern, suburban and working class northern voters into the Republican fold to create his conservative majority. This was nasty party politics: brutal, divisive but effective. He repudiated a liberal consensus that had held sway for four decades, speaking directly to some citizens’ anxieties on crime, economic status and racial integration. The success of this strategy, four years after the crushing defeat of conservative champion Barry Goldwater, confounded many analysts.
Nixon’s coalition was solidified by Ronald Reagan as he seduced Southern Democrats with sunny optimism and cemented by the Bush dynasty, then the politics of fear revived by Trump to win narrowly in 2016. The narrative remained much the same: that government is bad, spraying around cash on anti-poverty programmes and threatening traditional values. There was a clear racial subtext. And this contempt for consensus and its ultimate embodiment through the state ended up with the fanaticism seen on the American right today, resisting controls on anything from firearms through to a new disease even as they cause carnage.
It seems strange to recall when we look at today’s America that it was once — and within my lifetime — southern Democrats who defended segregation. Wallace, the repellent Alabama governor called “the most dangerous racist in America” by Martin Luther King but now quoted admiringly by a president, ran three times for the White House as a Democrat. Meanwhile there was a strain of liberal Republicanism that sought to use the state for progressive ends. Their last standard-bearer was Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York who sought to prevent developers such as Donald Trump’s father, Fred, from practising housing discrimination. King once said that inequality might have ended in months if the south had leaders like ‘Rocky’.
Instead these progressive Republicans were driven out to the delight of centrist Democrats. That seminal election of 1968, with defeat for Rockefeller’s belated bid for the Republican nomination, marked the extinguishing of liberalism in their party. It died when John Lindsay, the New York mayor and another prominent liberal, finished speaking at the convention with an appeal for unity — as noted by Lawrence O’Donnell in Playing With Fire, his fine book on the campaign. Some hoped Lindsay might have become Nixon’s pick for vice-president. Instead, he ended up running for the White House four years later as a Democrat.
This Republican strategy proved electorally successful, winning eight out of 13 presidential races since 1968. But it has ended up handing the party to Trump, backing someone obviously unfit for office while descending into the cesspit of his hate-fuelled populism. Bear in mind that Trump’s first political action in public was paying for full-page newspaper advertisements demanding the execution of five ethnic minority teenagers accused of rape who were later exonerated. Like father, like son. Typically, he has never apologised. Yet the Republican Party remains in thrall to him, even when he advocates the injection of disinfectant to beat a disease that has killed more Americans than the war in Vietnam.
There is a straight line from Nixon in 1968 to Trump in 2020, a pair of rogues who ended up as president, and it runs straight through the heart of the Republican Party. Shortly before winning the party’s nomination four years ago, Trump even praised his predecessor, a disgraced crook yet a far more serious political player than the reality television star. “What Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first.” His team embraced Nixon as a role model with his appeal to those citizens alarmed by conflict, disruption and racial unrest.
Nixon was a big admirer of Benjamin Disraeli — yet could the US have moved any further from the concept of One Nation politics? Trump has taken that populist appeal to the silent majority and, pushing it to the limits, infused it with Wallace’s bigotry and his own vanity to appeal to a shrinking demographic. Even the right to protest, hailed as a key part of America’s greatness in King’s last speech, seems in jeopardy. So a party that talks of faith and freedom is undermining democracy by colluding with a president who teargases peaceful protesters so he can pose for a publicity stunt with a bible. And a political force that wraps itself in the flag ends up assisting in destruction of America’s global leadership while China uses a pandemic that erupted within its borders to extend its influence.
There are still some liberal conservatives trying to resist the Republican descent into darkness, including prominent governors and members of Congress — although the loss of the combative and widely-respected John McCain leaves a big gap. There are groups such as Defending Democracy Together, founded to fight nativism infecting their party as “antithetical to what it means to be a Republican and what it means to be American”.
The decision of the former president George W Bush to speak out this week on racism is signifiant on several levels, not least since he has been battling behind the scenes for the soul of his party. If the Democrats can travel from supporting segregationists to backing the first black president over four decades, there must some hope the party can pull back from its far-Right flirtation before it is too late.
Among the most prominent Republican voices against Trump has been David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and author of Trumpocalypse, a savage indictment of his party’s current leadership. Frum wrote in 2018 about how class and racial divisions enable demagogues. “For two political generations, Republicans have proclaimed the purity of their conservatism. But in a democratic society, conservatism and liberalism are not really opposites. They are different facets of the common democratic creed. What conservatives are conserving, after all, is a liberal order. That truth has been easy to overlook in the friction of partisan politics. It must be reaffirmed now, in this hour of liberal peril.” His wise words ring even truer today.