It's 1968 again — and maybe that's good for America
The fragmented American left now has a common enemy in the White House.
On the wave of eight years of seeming progressive progress, a Republican who was once written off by the political establishment has won the presidency. He did it from his high-rise offices in New York City, cobbling together a team of political novices to craft a message that appealed to millions of white voters who are frustrated by calls for black liberation and an end to U.S. imperialism. Roger Ailes was by his side. College campuses across the country have been upended in protest — students striking over outdated, Eurocentric curriculum. He would, ultimately, hone his message's audience more clearly, to what he called "the silent majority" — those Americans who pined for the America of yesteryear, where opportunities were plentiful and Americans were proud to be Americans.
This isn't 2016. It's 1968. The man elected to office isn't Donald Trump, but Richard Nixon.
It's not a perfect parallel, of course. Nixon was a career politician who wound up uniting the Republican Party, while Trump openly warred with party leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan. Nixon succeeded another career politician, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had inherited the presidency after John F. Kennedy's assassination. Trump has never ever held elected office.
But the times were remarkably similar. The country was openly divided about its future. Political movements that were pushing the country to re-evaluate its values were happening inside and outside of U.S. borders.
In Nixon's 1968 speech at the Republican National Convention, he strikes a much more unifying tone than anything Trump has said thus far. But his appeal to so-called "ordinary" Americans in a time of great political upheaval is worth noting now:
"We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish ... it is another voice. It is the quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators. They're not racist or sick. They're not guilty of the crime that plagues the land."
And here's Trump at 2016's Republican National Convention, also appealing to white Americans who feel their voices aren't being heard:
"I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice."
Nixon's racially coded appeal to the "silent" (read: white) majority was the dog whistle that Trump did away with in 2016. But the effect was still the same: it galvanized white voters who felt they were being pushed to the fringes of American society by people who'd moved from those very same margins to demand political power. It was a time, as Jeff Chang has noted in his book We Gon' Be Alright, when Negros became black, Orientals became Asian-American, wetbacks became Chicano.
And white people became scared.
Nixon's election marked a critical turning point in American history. In many ways, 1968 was the beginning of what would turn into a decades-long battle waged by the right to slowly and methodically chip away at the hard fought gains of the civil rights movement. Though the Nixon administration would eventually initiate a plan called the "Philadelphia Order" to integrate construction jobs, its definition of affirmative action as "racial goals and timetables, no quotas" would be seized upon by future Republican administrations to drum up white resentment.
That fear — or, rather, the ability to tap into it — has become a tried and true characteristic of American right-wing politics ever since. It would become a hallmark of the Reagan administration's reign in the 1980s, when it railed against mythical welfare queens who milked hardworking white American taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year while living jobless in the projects of Chicago. George H.W. Bush tapped into it brilliantly in 1988 with his Willie Horton ad that drummed up fears of black predators on the loose. Hillary Clinton spoke to it in 1996 when she advocated publicly for her husband's disastrous crime bill that would, as she put it then, bring so-called "super predators" — marauding black and brown youth who wound up filling up America's jails and prisons — "to heel."
But fear has never proven to be an adequate substitute for freedom. One unspoken truth about white privilege is that it entices people to act against their own interests. When Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, it was celebrated as a bipartisan feat that finally made good on Reagan's attack against so-called welfare queens. But what it also did was signal the final shift away from Johnson's War on Poverty, a concerted effort by the federal government which recognized class inequality in America across race, and tried to do something about it.
The result of Clinton's bill was that welfare reform didn't just gut opportunities for black families, it plunged millions of other white households into poverty — the very same poverty that allegedly drove them to the polls en masse to cast their votes for Donald Trump.
Here's where we can find hope.
Movements need political moments, and this is one. Already, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest Trump's election and proposed political platform. The stakes seem insurmountably high. Immigrants, activated by legitimate fears that they will be rounded up and deported, are taking to the streets, daring to be seen and heard.
There's truth in words that, "Once black people get free, everybody gets free." That means that policies of policing, surveillance, social welfare, even drug reform, that begin in black communities are often scaled to white ones. Black activists have been saying this throughout 2016.
We didn't have to be in this moment, but here we are. We've been here before. And we'll no doubt be here again. History is not linear, it's cyclical. And in this case, that's a powerful statement of what's to come for grassroots organizers and activists across the country.
Much like Trump's election, Nixon's ascension to the presidency marked a moment when radical activists accelerated their calls to action. Black Panther Party members noted Nixon gave more power to America's surveillance forces to "oppress without restriction." But they didn't cower, they doubled down and ran candidates for public office in local and state elections, ultimately helping to elect Lionel Wilson as the first black mayor of Oakland, California. The anti-war, women's liberation, and gay rights movements became stronger and louder in the decade that followed.
The majority, it turns out, weren't very silent at all. They loudly called for their freedom. Now, more than ever, we need to listen.