Fifty-one years ago, Americans were asking whether President Lyndon Johnson could be re-elected in 1968. The escalating Vietnam War triggered major demonstrations on college campuses and in Washington, and Democrats began questioning Johnson’s foreign policy leadership. In 2019, the political climate is less severe, but President 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 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America,” traces the campaigns of eight serious contenders for president 50 years ago. Four were Democrats, three 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.”

1968 contenders. The two earliest Democrats in the race were Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and President Lyndon 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 President Johnson stunned the country by declaring he would not seek re-election, Vice President Hubert Humphrey then decided to run, and Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota also joined the race.

Three Republicans — Richard Nixon, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, and Gov. Ronald Reagan of California — competed for the party’s nomination. Nixon and Rockefeller competed early, but Nixon already had won most of the votes necessary to get the nomination. Reagan entered the race late and was viewed as a potential, rather than 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. The renowned civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis in early April, which triggered massive rioting in many American cities, especially Washington, D.C., where entire blocks in the city’s center were gutted by outraged black rioters. Two months later, Democratic presidential candidate Robert 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 view of American politics, while other Americans embraced the hard-line of conservatives demanding “law and order.” Republicans easily nominated 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 Humphrey.

Similarities with 2020. The most striking parallel between 1968 and today is the personalities of the two presidents, Johnson and 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 1967-68 is that tariffs, not troops, are a new-style economic warfare.

A third similarity with 1968 is that Wallace exploited growing populist sentiment in the country and threatened the candidacy of Humphrey. Wallace not only captured Southern states but appealed to working-class voters in the Midwest. In 2016, Trump tapped into that populist sentiment and added enough states in the Midwest to win the election.

The U.S. economy is much stronger in 2019 than it was 50 years ago, and 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 might be faced with a similar, although less severe, challenge that Johnson had: “Should I run again?”

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville. Contact him at nuechtd@cstone.net.

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