Why 2020 Isn't Quite 1968 : Throughline Protests, racial divisions, political polarization, and a law-and-order president – it's easy to draw comparisons between 2020 and 1968. But, Adam Serwer, who covers politics at The Atlantic, says that a much better point of comparison actually starts a century earlier – 1868. This week, we share an episode we loved from It's Been A Minute with Sam Sanders that explores a moment when white Republicans fought for years for the rights of Black Americans, before abandoning them to pursue white voters.
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Why 2020 Isn't Quite 1968

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Why 2020 Isn't Quite 1968

Why 2020 Isn't Quite 1968

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Hey, everyone. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.


I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And today we have a special episode for you from our friends over at NPR's podcast It's Been A Minute With Sam Sanders.

ARABLOUEI: Given all the recent protests across the country and the world, a lot of people have been drawing comparisons between 2020 and another tumultuous year in American history - 1968. And last week, Sam dug deeper into that comparison through a fascinating conversation with Adam Serwer of The Atlantic, drawing out how this moment is both similar and different, and why we may have to go much further back in time to find an even better comparison.

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, 1968 and now.


SAM SANDERS: Hey, y'all. Sam Sanders here. You are listening to It's Been A Minute from NPR. All right. If you're like me, right now you are looking for something to explain the crazy that is 2020 - a global pandemic, a near Great Depression and the largest wave of protests we've seen in this country for years, if not decades. I find myself wanting someone - anyone - to tell me if it's ever been like this before. And if it has, what can that moment teach us about now? To find answers, I called up an old friend of the show who, as it happens, actually lives right now in my hometown.

ADAM SERWER: And Sam knows this. It's summer in San Antonio, so basically, I just - I wear pants and a tank top every day of my life now that I don't have to go to work because it's, like, 105 degrees every day. So...

SANDERS: So that is Adam Serwer, newish Texan. He covers politics for The Atlantic, and he has been thinking a lot recently about race and America and history. I mean, he always is. Adam's actually been on this show before, and he talked with me about white nationalism about a year ago - tough topic, but a good listen. Go back and check it out, if you haven't already.

Anyhoo (ph), I wanted to talk with Adam about how race in politics is playing out in 2020 and about this thing a lot of people have been saying - that if you want to know how race is working here now, look at 1968. That was a moment in our history when race and protests were also unavoidable.

SERWER: As 1968 is happening, we've had the Civil Rights Act. We've had the Voting Rights Act in 1965. We've had the most liberal domestic policy since Roosevelt. And we've had that, unfortunately, combined with an expansion - of a very bloody expansion - of the war in Vietnam, which has, you know, seriously weakened Lyndon Johnson's support on the left. And in 1967 and 1968, you see a lot of urban unrest. You see a lot of riots and violence. And these incidents are far more...

SANDERS: And Adam and I talked about how, in this other big way, 1968 is a lot like today because both the president then, just like President Trump now, they both made a big deal about restoring so-called law and order.


PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: And to those who say that law and order is a code word for racism, there and here is a reply. Our goal is justice, justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect.

SANDERS: That, of course, is Richard Nixon accepting the presidential nomination at the 1968 Republican Convention. But, ultimately, Adam says comparing this national moment to '68 isn't enough. He says there is another year, even further back in America's history, that can teach us even more about the now. He will tell us what that year is and explain more later in this interview. But first, let's keep talking about Richard Nixon and what he and Donald Trump do and do not have in common.


SANDERS: Talk a little bit about one of the big comparisons people make when they try to square 2020 with 1968, and it is basically saying, well, Donald Trump is just a new version of what Richard Nixon was doing back then. They both used some of the same language - phrases like law and order, phrases like silent majority. But I'm sure that they aren't both exactly the same in how they've been dealing with this. Can you talk about what Nixon was doing then and how much it has in common with what Trump has been doing now and for the last few years?

SERWER: Well, so Nixon was actually triangulating between liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey and segregationist George Wallace. So when George Wallace talked about law and order, everybody understood that he meant, you know, kicking the crap out of black people. Nixon, who had, you know, a kind of reputation at the time - and people forget this because we all remember Nixon as the racist Nixon on the White House tapes. But Nixon had a reputation as a pretty pro-civil rights guy.

During the Eisenhower administration as vice president, he had been the point man on civil rights. He had supported Eisenhower's 1957 civil rights bill. He - you know, his nemesis in that conflict was, ironically, Lyndon Johnson, who at that time was not a pro-civil rights guy and was trying to water down the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

So what he did was very clever. He triangulated between the sort of explicit racism of George Wallace and what he portrayed as the permissiveness of Hubert Humphrey. And that - the reason it worked is because that's where most white people in America were in 1968. And I think that the country is both demographically different than it was in 1968, but also, white people are a lot more progressive on issues of race than they were in 1968.

SANDERS: And it feels like Nixon was trying to talk to a larger swath of America than Donald Trump has ever tried to.

SERWER: Yeah. I think the - that's the other thing, is that in the 1968 analogy, Donald Trump and his rhetoric much more resembles George Wallace and sort of its naked obviousness about which groups that he's talking about, as opposed to Nixon, who tried very hard to make his appeals coded rather than overt in the way that Donald Trump does.


SERWER: I mean, you could see today, Donald Trump - you know, Mitt Romney, who's, you know, just - it's sort of - sometimes it feels like the country is, like, being scripted by a roomful of TV writers, and this is one of those cases.

SANDERS: Drunk TV writers.

SERWER: Right. Drunk TV writers. Mitt Romney, whose father George Romney, was a very pro-civil rights Nixon official and who was pushed out for that reason - Mitt Romney was marching yesterday, and he said - on camera, he said black lives matter. And today, Donald Trump mocked him on Twitter as insincere. And so, I mean - and it's telling in some ways that Donald Trump considered Mitt Romney saying Black Lives Matter as a rebuke to him. But it also illustrates the extent to which Donald Trump envisions himself almost identically to the way that liberals envision him, even if he might not use the same words.

SANDERS: Gotcha (ph). I want to - so one thing that I can't make sense of seeing right now is the ways in which Donald Trump has tried to unleash federal military power and been thwarted. He, you know, had these blustering performances and these big visuals in which he said he was going to restore law and order and send the military here and do this and do that. And almost immediately, members of his own administration said no. These things did not happen. I am guessing that when candidates or presidents in '68 or '67 talked about law and order, they had a more organized way of just doing it.

SERWER: Well, so here's another thing that I think is, like, really - it's - this is related - the scale of the destruction does not justify the kind of military intervention that Donald Trump wanted to engage in. And I think it's important to remember - one of the reasons it's not 1968 is that this is, in a way, a backlash to the world that was created by 1968.

So Nixon initiates the war on drugs, which is then accelerated by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. And so this sort of world of mass incarceration that the protesters are reacting to was the result of the world that was created by Nixon's victory and by the policy path that the United States took from that point on. It's not just that Donald Trump doesn't fit the analogy of a Nixon in 1968; it's that he is dealing with the reaction to the policies that were created by 1968 or at least the path that we were placed on.

SANDERS: Is a lot of the reason why this actually is not 1968 is just because the makeup of America looks different? It's more diverse. It is - there's more black people and brown people. There are more politically enfranchised minorities. It just can't go down that way again?

SERWER: So you have landed on a point that is extremely important both for - because it relates to Trump's success in 2016 and because it illustrates a difference in why it's not 1968. I mean, what we've - I mean, the election of Obama - Trump was absolutely a backlash to the election of Obama. And Obama was himself a expression of the political power that you're talking about that - the increasing political power both of black voters and Hispanic voters and of racially liberal white people.

It's important to remember that there's a segment of the Democratic - of white voters in the Democratic Party who have become substantially more progressive on issues of race. And that's in part because of Trump, but it's also because the invention of - I think the invention of cellphone cameras and their usage to document police brutality has provided a glimpse into a world that - as I've described here, that was - has been existent - in existence for centuries, this relationship between black people and law enforcement, but that white people could not conceive of existing in large numbers until cellphones documented it in ways that simply could not be waved away.


SERWER: And I think that Trump has also - because his political identity is so explicitly built around hostility towards the political power of ethnic and religious minorities, I think that that has created a backlash among white voters who have become more politically progressive on matters of race almost as in a backlash to Trump because of his political identity.

SANDERS: But that's what I find so interesting. Like, when I'm out here at these protests, the crowds are literally half white, and they are louder than the people of color there, and it seems particularly earnest this time. And I can't help but thinking, like, half of that energy wouldn't have come from them unless they were responding to someone who seemed as toxic to them as Donald Trump.

SERWER: Right.

SANDERS: So, like, it's half about watching the George Floyd videos, but I'm guessing half of it is also watching Trump for three years.

SERWER: Right. So I think, like, the growing power of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States is both a significant factor in the rise of Obama and how he represented that power and was a huge factor in the election of Donald Trump, which was a reaction to that expression of power. I think what we're seeing now is unique in American history because we don't - we've never seen this much of white America be this progressive on matters of race.

SANDERS: I'm telling you. Can we just pause on this for a second 'cause I - it is - I'm not going to say unbelievable. But never would I ever have thought that this would be a reality for large swaths of white America right now. I mean, does that surprise you at all, any of it? I know that you're sitting here saying that there's an explanation for it, but it still feels surprising.

SERWER: So it doesn't. And I'll tell you - I'll say to you what I said to you last time I was on the show, when we were talking about the midterms in 2018, which is that the emergence of a - at least for the moment - politically anti-racist majority in 2018 had just not existed before. When you look at, like, what - the kind of campaign that Donald Trump ran in the midterms where he sent the military, I mean, we sort of almost forgot about this. But he sent the military to the border for no reason to sort of imply that he was willing to use deadly force against poor Central American migrants who he was characterizing as an invasion. I mean, this was an explicitly racist politics that was supposed to save the Republican majority in the House. And instead, they got, like, the biggest loss since Watergate. And so - you know, I think the question is, how much of this racially progressive awokening among white American voters - how much - how far are they really willing to go beyond dethroning Trump? I think we don't know the answer to that question.

But if you wanted to be really cute - if you wanted to be really cute about which year we should compare this to, you might compare it to 1868.

SANDERS: More from Adam on why the right '68 to compare 2020 to is maybe 1868 - after the break.


SANDERS: OK. Let's do 1868. Tell me why. Set up that year. Let's go there.

SERWER: So this is obviously a very imperfect analogy. And you can - and folks who are listening, you can feel free to drag me on social media in all the ways that it's not true. But I would say...

SANDERS: I'm going to jump in and say, listeners, don't drag him 'cause we like him. But go ahead.

SERWER: But if - in 1868, the Republican Party had emerged victorious from the Civil War and had an explicitly anti-racist identity that was built around the construction of a multiracial democracy in the South, where the political interest of the Republican Party and the ideal of racial justice was one and the same. So for the Republican Party to be viable in the South, what they needed was an enfranchised, politically active black population. Their political interests coincided with this desire to create a very real democracy - or something close to it - in the South because obviously, you know, they wanted to enfranchise black men but not black women. And I don't want to minimize the extent to which that is not real democracy. But it is the closest...


SERWER: It is the closest thing that the United States would have had to that at that time.

So in a way, that's a little bit like what we're seeing with the Democratic Party today, including, you know, with some of the class elements of that, which is that you have these racially progressive whites who envision their political identity as, like, intertwined with the advocacy of political rights for the people who are - the nonwhites who are part of their political coalition.

And so you know, in a way, that is - that more resembles what's happening today than 1968 with Nixon. And in fact, it is not exactly unusual to compare Trump to Andrew Johnson, who was the explicitly racist president who was holding office at the time who, you know, very much envisioned himself as the champion of the lower-class white man who was also explicitly racist and saw efforts to enfranchise black men as a kind of discrimination against white people and said so explicitly. And he was a demagogue, and he encouraged acts of political violence against his political opponents. I think in some ways, we're looking at the wrong '68.

SANDERS: I - that's what - this is - OK. Thank you for saying that. Thank you for - we're looking at the wrong '68, yes.

SERWER: So you know, if you want to get really cute there, you can do that. There are obvious - there are very clear places where the analogy breaks down. But there is another way in which that analogy offers a warning, which is that while the Republican Party was willing to fight very hard for black rights for a number of years, they also eventually gave up. And they saw it in their interests, ultimately, in later years not to protect black rights but to win the votes of those white voters who were not so interested in protecting black rights.

And so this is obviously a moment of hope for people on the left in terms of watching white Americans come out on the streets to demonstrate for racial justice. That commitment is very strong at this moment in time, but that doesn't mean it's going to last forever.

SANDERS: To last forever - well, and I also think that, like, it is a lot easier for a larger swath of Americans to march saying, we don't want to see those George Floyd videos anymore; it is a very different thing for a large swath of Americans to keep marching when activists are saying disband the police, when activists are saying, white people, give up your resources and more of your stuff to help people of color.

SERWER: Right.

SANDERS: Like, I think that, like, a lot of activists that are involved - and perhaps for the first time right now - are seeing the first wave of demands, which is just stop killing us. But how many folks stick around for the laundry list that comes after that?

SERWER: Right. So when you start talking about integrating schools and integrating neighborhoods, that's when we'll see how far...


SERWER: ...This actually goes because, as you point out, please don't kill us or beat us is such a reasonable demand that it's hard...

SANDERS: Yeah (laughter). Sounds pretty straightforward.

SERWER: ...For almost anyone who does not envision the police as the enforcers of the color line to reject it.


SERWER: But once the demands go beyond that, once they go to more material questions, much as King's civil rights movement went beyond questions of political power to material dimensions, there is often a tremendous backlash. And it was true in 1972, and history suggests it may be true here. So we'll see.

SANDERS: So you wrote an article - just back to Trump for a bit. You wrote an article last week about Trump and the police and his worldview when it comes to our justice system. And you had this line that really stuck with me. You said Donald Trump proclaimed himself the law-and-order candidate; this is what law and order without justice looks like, a nation without law, order or justice. That was powerful. Explain what you mean by that.

SERWER: What I meant by that was that the president has made it clear that law and order means the use of state violence against his enemies and the protection of his allies against enforcement of the law. So, you know, when Nixon ran on - law-and-order candidate, remember - like, we remember Nixon as a lawless president, but that was not clear in 1968 that he was that type of person. Donald Trump by contrast is, you know, at best - at best, in the most charitable way you can describe him - is as a scofflaw.

SANDERS: The law matters not to him. Yeah.

SERWER: You can say that his violations of the law are, quote-unquote, "unserious." But you can't say that he's never broken the law or that he's a strict adherent to it. He then goes on to pardon U.S. service members who have engaged in war crimes against Muslims. He pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known for his brutal, unconstitutional violations of the law against Hispanic people in his custody as sheriff.

So Trump is a person who views law enforcement's job, ideologically, as enforcement of the color line. And this is why when he took out that ad against the Central Park Five, saying bring back our police, bring back the death penalty. And then it turned out, of course, that the Central Park Five were innocent and Donald Trump refused to apologize for that. That's...

SANDERS: He never apologized. Yeah.

SERWER: ...Because he still sees the Central Park Five as the type of people that the police are there to keep in line. And it is an obnoxious one. It is a morally important one, but it is a consistent ideological view and one that has shaped American law enforcement for a long time. It's not like Donald Trump came up with it.

SANDERS: All right. Time for a break. When we come back, the future of the Republican Party and the lessons we can learn from this moment. B-R-B.


SANDERS: This is my bigger question with the Republican Party, writ large - how much does Trump speak for that party, and how much is Trump just being Trump and a lot of the party is forced to follow him because he's the president right now? We saw Mitt Romney, Republican senator, in a Black Lives Matter march this weekend saying Black Lives Matter. Are there actually more Romneys in the party than we know, and they're quiet because Trump is at the top? Whose party is it?

SERWER: So I think that Mitt Romney is an outlier in the sense that he has a direct personal connection to the anti-racist history of the Republican Party.

SANDERS: Through his father.

SERWER: Through his father, who was - as I said - a true believer in civil rights. I think that Mitt Romney is making a bet. I think that, you know, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are also making bets. They're making bets on what the future of the Republican Party is. If Trump loses big, I think that there will be a reevaluation of Trumpism as a viable political ideology. I don't think that it's possible for the Republican Party to turn away from white identity politics completely, as long as the party remains as white as it is. Ultimately, a different kind of Republican Party has to come from integrating the Republican Party.

SANDERS: Well - and also, part of why the Republican Party has to rely on that kind of politics is by the way in which our elections are held. If you are trying to win these Midwestern states, where it's all-or-nothing - and these are relatively small states in terms of population, with mostly white people - you campaign a certain way.

SERWER: I think that's right. But I also think that it is having a party that is - I mean, historically, what happens when you have a party that is almost entirely white is that party becomes - views, you know, nonwhite constituencies as sort of enemies of its own political power. And what you have to do, ultimately, is you have to build a coalition of - a political coalition where you're sharing power with those people so you don't view them as a threat. And that's what I think has happened with the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party is not more progressive on race because liberals are - white liberals are inherently better people; they are more progressive on race because they have to share power with nonwhite people. That is the actual source of the Democratic Party's progressivism on race.

SANDERS: Say it louder for the ones in the back.

SERWER: (Laughter) And that was also true, by the way, of the Republican Party in the 1860s and early 1870s. The people who are going to lead the Republican Party and conservative voters away from Trumpist ideology are just not going to be liberals. It's just - that's not possible.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

SERWER: It's going to have to be people who are inside the party.

SANDERS: And who's the loudest.

SERWER: Right.

SANDERS: Exactly. So one question I have for you is, has anything Donald Trump has done in this moment surprised you?

SERWER: That's a good question. OK, yes.

SANDERS: Well, that...

SERWER: But it's not what you think it is.


SERWER: I have been surprised to see Trump as fearful as he appears at this moment. He seems genuinely concerned about his own reelection in a way that I did not expect. The way that Donald Trump deals with fear is by projecting a kind of very transparent effort at strength. Remember - he went out and he did that photo op at the church, where he gassed the peaceful protesters because he was angry about news coverage that had revealed that he had, you know, gone down to a White House bunker because of the protests.

So I think, you know, Donald Trump is never going to express, you know, I'm scared of losing reelection. But his particular grievances in the past couple - in the past month or so have revealed someone who is very scared of losing. And I think that shift in tone has been a little surprising for me. It doesn't mean he's actually going to lose, but I don't think he's a particularly good pundit, and I don't know what's going to happen in November. But his fearful tone is something that is generally surprising to me.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Last question for you. If there is any historical lesson in this conversation, it is that we don't do our history justice when we make comparisons and analogies that are too simple. So this idea that it's just 1968 - actually not true. There's some 1868 in there. There's some other stuff in there. And thinking of this idea that our understanding of the now has to be informed by a more complex and nuanced view of our history. What, if you had to sum it up in, like, three or four lines, is the lesson from our history for now, whether it be 1968 or 1868 or any other previous year?

SERWER: There are moments where tremendous progress is possible because Americans of very different backgrounds are willing to come together in defense of the political ideals that they have come to view as essential to their identities. There is also, in every instance, a tremendous backlash to that. And I think we are seeing a backlash to the backlash at this particular moment, and I think we don't know whether there will be a backlash to the backlash to the backlash or what that will look like and what political effect it will have.

SANDERS: Well, I tell you what - whatever the backlash to the backlash to the backlash is, I will probably have you back on this show to unpack that as well (laughter).

SERWER: I will - hey, I will be happy to do it. Thank you so much for having me, Sam.


SANDERS: Thanks again to The Atlantic's Adam Serwer. Always a pleasure to chat with you, man. Come on back anytime.

This episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry, with help from Hafsa Fathima. Our editor is Jordana Hochman. Listeners, till Friday, stay safe. Talk soon.

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