Trump’s convention is scary, but unlikely to match the chaos of Chicago in 1968

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A Chicago police officer leads a demonstrator down Michigan Avenue in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. - AP PHOTO
  • AP Photo
  • A Chicago police officer leads a demonstrator down Michigan Avenue in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention.

Between Donald Trump's Republican Party coup, racial tension and protests, and unstable international politics, are we—as more than one recent headline suggests—reliving the dark days of 1968 all over again? 

A survey of Republican activists by Politico this month found that nearly half expected there to be some kind of violence around this week's Republican National Convention. One Ohio Republican noted that "far-left agitators in Cleveland will make the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago look like a fourth-grade slap fight."

Americans have had plenty of reasons to feel an ambient fear in the months leading up to the 2016 RNC convention. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police inspired protests across the nation, which were followed by the assassinations of several police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. ISIS has torn apart Syria and Iraq and has claimed responsibility for and inspired attacks abroad and, in recent months, the U.S. Destabilizing political events such as the Brexit decision and the attempted coup in Turkey add another layer of uncertainty.

This week thousands of protesters, including armed white supremacists and members of the New Black Panther Party, will reportedly gather outside Quicken Loans Arena at the RNC. Some, if minor, doubts remain about whether Trump will be handed the nomination, which could cause chaos on the convention floor. In response to the threat of violence, Cleveland officials plan to recruit 4,000 officers to handle this week's convention.

It's tempting to draw a line between Chicago's past and Cleveland's present, but the lead-up to the '68 convention were some of the most tumultuous in American history: The Vietnam war was increasingly looking unwinnable, and young men were resisting the draft in growing numbers. Two months after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from the election. Four days later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and riots consumed many major cities, including Chicago. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was killed two months later.

The unrest in '68 came to a head during the Democratic National Convention at the International Amphitheatre when Mayor Richard Daley deployed 12,000 police officers and 15,000 state and federal troops to rein in a few thousand antiwar protesters. Policemen beat and gassed demonstrators, and the subsequent riot known as the "Battle of Michigan Avenue," broadcast on television, helped energize the national antiwar movement.

A woman high-fives a police officer outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 18. - ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
  • ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP / Getty Images
  • A woman high-fives a police officer outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 18.

While it's unlikely that 2016 will match the deadly and destructive violence that animated '68, the parallels between the political climates and presidential candidates are striking.

George Wallace was the 60s Donald Trump, a candidate who tapped into the resentment and anger of (mostly white) voters with violent language and race-baiting. Wallace energized the electorate in a way that mesmerized the press and confounded the political establishment. He positioned himself as outsider, appealing to working-class anger by blaming the country's problems on people whose race, religion, or nationality made them outsiders.

Bernie Sanders evokes Senator Eugene McCarthy: another older white fringe candidate who aimed to overthrow Washington's status quo, in McCarthy's case by immediately ending the Vietnam war. Both campaigns were less organized than those of their more formidable opponents, and each was beloved by college students but lacked enough traction among racial minorities and older voters.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey parallels Hillary Clinton. He was an early front-runner who was a bit too centrist for the base but garnered the unwavering support of the political establishment, unions, and African-Americans. Like Humphrey, Clinton is running on a similar platform to the current administration's, and is weighed down in part by foreign policy decisions of the past that have proved unpopular in the present.

So, who's the Richard Nixon of today? Arguably, both Clinton and Trump are different shades of Tricky Dick.

Clinton is a cautious and familiar establishment candidate. Even before 1968, Nixon had waged five major campaigns: two in California (for governor and Senate), two in the 50s as Eisenhower's running mate, and as the GOP's presidential nominee in 1960. Nixon won out in the end because his experience was an asset; Clinton's greatest strength is hers.

Meanwhile Trump is attempting to position himself as the "law-and-order" candidate, playing up crime in "inner cities." Very Nixon. The Donald also boasts of a "silent majority" (though neither silent nor a majority) that stands behind him and the unexpected number of people he's brought out of the woodwork to support him.

Though the candidates and the chaotic feeling surrounding the elections seem to have symmetry despite being separated by nearly five decades, societal issues such as racial tension and police brutality are arguably in a better place than they were in 1968.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control reported by Mother Jones, the rate of cops fatally shooting black Americans has fallen steadily in the decades since 1970. In 1970, 8.4 out of every million African-American deaths were due to "legal intervention" involving guns. In 2011, the most recent year cited in the statistics, the rate is 2.7—an improvement but still more than twice the rate for white Americans.

Last week, the New York Times and CBS News released a poll showing that negative views of race relations were at a historic high, with 71 percent of white Americans and 72 percent of black Americans responding that "race relations in the United States are generally bad." Still, the number of Americans who perceived race as the most important problem in the U.S. was much higher in 1968 than it is today. In that year, 35 percent of Americans ranked race or race relations as the country's biggest problem. In 2014, that number was 13 percent.

Arguing that the nation is running off the rails can push voters toward candidates who claim their dramatic, if bigoted, solutions can help put the country back on track. After the violence of the '68 DNC, George Wallace surged in popularity. It remains to be seen, as this week's RNC drags on, in what shape Donald Trump will emerge from the tumult of 2016. 


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