Fifty-one years ago, Americans were asking whether President Lyndon Johnson could be re-elected in 1968. The escalating Vietnam War triggered major demonstrations at college campuses and in Washington, and Democrats began questioning Johnson’s foreign policy leadership. In 2019 the political climate is less severe, but Donald Trump triggers anxiety even among Republicans about his leadership, especially his escalating trade war with China and a potential shooting war with Iran.
A new book, “The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968,” traces the campaigns of eight serious contenders for president 50 years ago. Four were Democrats, three were Republicans, and one formed his own party. The book’s author, historian Aram Goudsouzian, writes in his introduction: “The echoes of 1968 reverberate in our contemporary politics.”
The two earliest Democrats in the race were Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and President Johnson, who everyone assumed would seek re-election. As the Vietnam War reached a turning point in February 1968 following the communist Tet Offensive, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York decided to enter the Democratic race. But in March, after Johnson stunned the country by declaring he would not seek re-election, Vice President Hubert Humphrey decided to run, and Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota also joined the race.
Three Republicans — former Vice President Richard Nixon, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and Gov. Ronald Reagan of California — competed for their party’s nomination. Nixon and Rockefeller competed early, but Nixon had already won most of the votes necessary to get the nomination. Reagan entered the race late and was viewed as a potential rather than a real contender. Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, renegade Democrat and ardent segregationist, formed the new Independent Party and pledged to fight for the forgotten man against the Northern elites.
Impact of assassinations
Two tragic events occurred in spring 1968 that profoundly affected the mood of the country and the political outlook in an election year. Renowned civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in early April, which triggered massive rioting in many American cities, especially Washington, where entire blocks in the city’s center were gutted by outraged black rioters. Two months later, Robert Kennedy — presidential candidate and brother of slain President John F. Kennedy — was gunned down following a political rally in Los Angeles.
Suddenly, the political and cultural landscape of the country shifted. Supporters of King’s and Kennedy’s views captured the more liberal side of American politics, while other Americans embraced conservatives’ emphasis on law and order. Republicans easily nominated Richard Nixon, a staunch conservative, but the Democratic convention in Chicago turned into a bizarre couple of days as anti-Vietnam rioters and leftist groups tried to stop the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Similarities with 2020
The most striking similarity between 1968 and today is the personalities of the two presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Donald Trump. Both are high-energy, egocentric, sometimes brutal leaders determined to force other countries to bend to their will through use of military and economic power.
A second similarity is the reality that both men became involved in serious tests of will with two Asian leaders. For Johnson, the enemy was Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s communist leader, who aspired to conquer South Vietnam. For Trump, the apparent adversary is China’s leader Xi Jinping, who refuses to bend to Trump’s demands that he change China’s damaging trade policies. A major difference from 1968 is that tariffs, not troops, are a new-style economic warfare.
A third similarity with 1968 is that George Wallace exploited growing populist sentiment in the country and threatened the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey. Wallace not only captured Southern states but also appealed to working-class voters in the Midwest. In 2016 Donald Trump tapped into that populist sentiment and added enough states in the Midwest to win the presidency.
The U.S. economy is much stronger in 2019 than it was 50 years ago, and Donald Trump’s approval ratings in September this year are higher than Johnson’s were in 1967.
But if the economy falters seriously in 2020, Trump may face a similar, although less severe, challenge as that confronting Johnson in 1968: “Should I run again?”