Was 2016 a Replay of 1968?

Protests, racial unrest, unconventional presidential candidates dominated both 1968 and 2016 in the U.S. Stringer/Pacific Press/Drew Angerer/Bettmann/Getty
Protests, racial unrest, unconventional presidential candidates dominated both 1968 and 2016 in the U.S. Stringer/Pacific Press/Drew Angerer/Bettmann/Getty

If history is doomed to repeat itself, then 2016 looks like a good candidate as the second coming of 1968.

Both were presidential election years marked by massive political and social unrest, protest and violence. But while the events of 2016 showed clear echoes of the late 1960s — civil rights marches, anti-establishment movements and stark political division — there's really no comparison to the abject chaos of 1968 and the relative stability and sanity of 2016.



Violence Then and Now

With more than 370 mass shootings in 2016 alone, including the deadliest shooting in American history at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla. in June, it's easy to surmise that violent deaths are at a peak. We mourn the more than 1,806 individuals shot or killed by police officers in 2016, and the 316 officers shot or killed by citizens. But how does this year's unrest compare to the culture and turmoil in the late '60s?

For starters, both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. And nearly 17,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam in 1968 — the most killed in one year during a highly contested war that ultimately took more than 58,000 American lives.

Police officers also shot live bullets into crowds of civil rights protesters. In February 1968, cops fired at students demonstrating on the campus of South Carolina State College, killing three young black men. And outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, police officers brutally clubbed anti-war protesters in plain view of TV cameras. One report says that in the late 1960s, nearly 100 young black men were killed by police each year in the U.S. In the 2000s, the rate was about 35 per year.

While 1968 tops 2016 in terms of real political violence, 2016's election saw new levels of violent political rhetoric, according to historian Maurice Isserman of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.

"Violence is not unknown in American political history," says Isserman, co-author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s." "But it's rare to find a major candidate for a major party who actively encouraged his supporters to at least imagine violent acts, 'second amendment' solutions and so forth. I think we're in uncharted territory."

Frustrated Voters and "Protest Candidates"

Isserman notes that both the 1968 and 2016 elections were plagued by massive voter disaffection, but that the frustration manifested itself in two very different kinds of protest votes. 

"In 1968, there were candidates on both the right and the left who ran as protest candidates and people voted for them to send a message," Isserman says. George Wallace ran on a pro-segregationist ticket and picked up 13 percent of the popular vote, mostly in the Deep South. Eldridge Cleaver, a Black Panther leader, ran as the nominee of the Peace and Freedom Party.

"Nobody who voted for Cleaver thought there was a chance he was going to win," Isserman explains. "The difference in 2016 is that it was a major party candidate, Donald Trump, who was the protest vote being used to send a message that business as usual can't go on, that something has to change fundamentally."

Is Trump Wallace or Nixon?

The unconventional Trump campaign forced many comparisons between 1968 and 2016. For example, Trump has drawn unfavorable comparisons to third-party conservative Wallace, who bragged in 1968 that if protesters laid down in front of his limousine, he'd run them over.

Trump took a similar line with demonstrators at his campaign rallies. After a Black Lives Matter activist was shoved and kicked at an Alabama rally in 2015, Trump commented that "maybe he should have been roughed up."

And after a heckler disrupted his stump speech at a rally in Nevada, Trump said, "I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks."

But the most pointed comparisons have been made between Trump's anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim proclamations and Wallace's stance against racial integration in the South.

Interestingly, though, while Trump's campaign certainly courted the same disaffected whites as Wallace's, Trump himself says that he modeled his 2016 message on the ultimate winner of the 1968 race, President Richard Nixon.

When Trump delivered his Republican National Convention speech in Cleveland, Ohio, he repeatedly cast himself as the "law and order" candidate, a phrase explicitly borrowed from Nixon.

"I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first," Trump told The New York Times after the speech. "The '60s were bad, really bad. And it's really bad now. Americans feel like it's chaos again."

Although Trump may have successfully capitalized on the same fears — real or imagined — that helped Nixon win in 1968, historian Isserman says that the similarities end there.

"In 1968, people voted for Richard Nixon, not the most likeable of human beings, but someone who brought years of experience as a Washington insider — as a congressman, as a senator, as a vice president — who was a plausible presidential candidate," says Isserman. "This year, Republicans and many disaffected Democrats voted for somebody who brought none of that to the table."

What Mattered Most to Voters?

One of the biggest differences between 1968 and 2016 is what drove voters to the polls. In 1968, the Vietnam War was the most pressing issue for many Americans, especially younger voters exposed to the draft. The split within the Democratic party between pro-war and anti-war delegates nearly led to the party's collapse at the Chicago convention.

In comparison, foreign policy had almost no impact on the 2016 election — not even the ongoing war on terror. Instead, the overriding issue was the "rigged" economy. Trump supporters continually said they felt abandoned by an economy more interested in moving jobs overseas than protecting the middle-class. And liberal voters, led more by Sen. Bernie Sanders than Sec. Hillary Clinton, railed against income equality and the tyranny of the "1 percenters."

Interestingly, 1968 might represent the very era of widespread economic stability that so many Americans in both parties are nostalgic to re-create.

"In 1968, we were still in that post-war plateau of prosperity, what some economists call ‘The Great Compression,' the lowest level of income inequality since forever," says Isserman. That economic plateau started to crumble in the early 1970s, and income inequality has grown exponentially ever since.

Will 2016 Change Everything?

The year 1968 is burned into the American psyche because it was a clear turning point in our nation's history. The political and social movements born in 1968 — from the anti-war and anti-establishment protesters to the entrenchment of conservative ideals — helped create the divided America in which we still live.

But even Trump critics like Isserman don't believe that the events of 2016 will push the country in an entirely new direction.

"The history of reform in America is always two steps forward and one step back," he says. "We haven't returned to the 1960s by any means. I don't think we're returning to ‘apartheid' America or Jim Crow America. It's a much more diverse and tolerant society. Just look at the achievement of gay marriage."

Then again, Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen made similar statements in a Vox interview back in July. Asked if he thought that 2016 represented an historic "inflection point" like 1968, Cohen said no.

"I can imagine a scenario in which the country moves in an even more liberal direction," Cohen told Vox. "I can't imagine the country moving in a more conservative direction. But that's because I assume Trump is going to lose. If Trump does win, it's a total inflection point."