"Lawmakers burst into debate over gun control, philosophers analyzed the nature of violence, and the nation was described as grieving.
"Yet 'grief' suddenly seemed like a faintly obsolete word. Nor would 'shock,' 'rage,' 'dismay' do, either. Such anthropomorphic words have been, for generations, the most convenient shorthand of political observation, inviting writers to describe millions of people as if their emotions were fused by a single spasm of 'agony,' 'despair,' 'vengeance' or 'sorrow' — as if, indeed, they were one community. But it is impossible ever to describe a great nation as if it were a community — and, in 1968, the essence of the matter was that the old faith of Americans in themselves, as a community of communities, seemed to be dissolving."
Theodore H. White, 'The Making of the President 1968'
Donald Trump's meteoric rise in the polls — in defiance of all conventional wisdom — is clearly baffling to many people (although the latest poll from Iowa hints that Trump may finally have peaked). They don't know what it means. Is it racism? Is it fascism? Should we pass more laws that would have been totally ineffective in preventing the latest massacre?
I think it is fairly easy to see what is happening in this country today — in large part because I can remember what happened in this country many yesterdays ago — and I have formed a theory about it and the 2016 presidential campaign.
I am speaking of a time when the United States really appeared to be coming apart at the seams — 1968 — when political assassinations and violence in city streets were commonplace.
I was only a child at the time, and I didn't fully understand everything that I saw and heard, but I could comprehend a lot of it. I saw TV reports of riots in the streets of big cities. I saw protesters being beaten by police, and I saw protesters throwing rocks and bottles at the police in response. I saw reports of prominent Americans being assassinated.
I knew fear and chaos when I saw it, and I see the same thing happening now.
Don't get me wrong. There was unrest all over the world. There always is — somewhere. But not usually everywhere — and that is what seemed to be happening in 1968. I'm not saying that actually is what was happening. But it sure seemed like it.
And it was frightening.
You had a pretty good idea in those days which places were best to avoid. In the summer of '68, for example, you didn't want to be near the Democrats' convention hall in Chicago.
You could avoid the obvious places for protests — but those places aren't so obvious anymore. We've seen riots recently that occurred in unpredictable places. That kind of thing tends to make people feel unsafe, you know?
So do seemingly random attacks like the one in San Bernardino, Calif., less than two weeks ago.
Now, we all know that bad things can happen to any one of us at any time. That's life. And, eventually, life is going to end for us all. We may get sick or injured and never recover, or we may be in a fatal accident of some kind. Or any of 10,000 or so other potential causes of death. (The list is virtually endless.) I think most of us have accepted that. So we continue to drive our cars to restaurants and concerts and work, always with that reality tucked away in the backs of our minds.
We know that we will never get out of this world alive. We don't like to be reminded of it on a daily basis. And we don't expect death to come when we're shopping or eating — or participating in an office holiday party.
I think it was Woody Allen who said, "I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens." If we're honest with ourselves, no matter what we think happens or doesn't happen when we stop breathing, that's how we feel, too.
Of course, the kind of spiritual leaders that we have historically had here in the West — ministers, priests, rabbis — remind us that we will die, but they do so as part of a long–term campaign for souls, not to encourage listeners to hasten the day when others' souls will be won or lost — for good. That image, fairly or not, is what many Americans see in their mind's eye when they think of mosques and Muslims.
I think Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are probably correct when they say that most Muslims are peaceful, but you can't ignore the fact that most of the recents terrorist acts, both here and overseas, have been committed by Muslims — and that causes fear. And when refugees are streaming across the border, it isn't possible to tell which ones can be trusted and which ones cannot.
I see 1968 and 2016 as being comparable. Then, as now, people felt unsafe, and they looked for a leader who would take a firm stand against what scared them. President Johnson left a vacuum in this regard, much as Barack Obama has left a vacuum; Hubert Humphrey was left holding the bag for the administration in '68, and he lost a close race to Richard Nixon — the only man in modern American history to win the presidency after having lost a previous presidential election — because the administration had repeatedly demonstrated that it didn't have a clue what to do.
And Nixon won with a third–party firebrand named George Wallace running. Wallace received more than 13% of the vote, with most of those votes coming from the South, and he carried five Southern states that almost certainly would have voted for Nixon if Wallace had not been in the race.
History tells us that the Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections — in large part because they won the battle for the hearts and minds of the voters on the issue of law and order.
I hear many Republicans fretting about Trump running as an independent if denied the GOP nomination. If that happens, the logic says, Hillary Clinton will be the beneficiary just as they allege that her husband was elected because Ross Perot got one–fifth of the popular vote in 1992. I don't think that is true. History shows that third–party candidacies, when they are most appealing to voters, tend to be a problem for whichever party is in power.
Exit–poll surveys in 1992 indicated that, if Perot had not run, Clinton and George H.W. Bush each would have picked up about 40% of his supporters, and the remaining 20% would not have voted at all. The numbers would fluctuate by state, of course, and it is fair to suggest that states where the race between Clinton and Bush was close could have swung the other way if Perot had not been on the ballot. But in the states where Clinton or Bush had decisive leads, it is unlikely that Perot's absence from the race would have meant much.
If the '92 exit polls are correct — and I have neither heard nor seen any evidence that would lead me to believe they are not — I suppose many Republicans believe Bush could have won that 20%, but I'm inclined to think those voters wouldn't have chosen from the major parties' nominees. They were drawn in to the process by Perot and most likely would have receded into the shadows from which they came if he had not been on the ballot. They weren't responsive to Bush or Clinton.
A dozen years before that, in 1980, there was talk right up until Election Day that Rep. John Anderson would siphon off enough votes from both President Jimmy Carter and former Gov. Ronald Reagan to force their race into the House of Representatives. Anderson had run against Reagan in the Republican primaries before deciding to mount a third–party campaign, and he was widely praised as an alternative to the major nominees. But the experts overestimated his influence on the campaign. Anderson won no states and received only 6.6% of the vote.
Perhaps Carter would have won most of Anderson's votes if Anderson had not run as a third–party candidate, but, outside the South, where Carter lost nearly every state but held Reagan under 50% in most, it hardly seems it would have mattered. Reagan won in a landslide.
The issue right now is not whether Trump would fracture the party and allow Hillary Clinton to win next year. The issue for voters is who makes them feel safe. Trump has been successful at that. If his Republican challengers want to be relevant in the 2016 campaign, they will need to address it, too.
Because 2016, like 1968, is going to be about an increasingly insecure nation and how it deals with its greatest fear.