The year 1968 -- whose blood-splattered, baton-swinging 50th anniversary party is about to peak this Memorial Day weekend with the 4-hour 1968 documentary on CNN -- was truly a season for the good, the bad and the ugly. I mean that literally -- Hugh Montenegro's version of the theme song to the hit spaghetti-Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was all over the AM radio that spring, with its unforgettable ocarina opening and its "rep rup rep rup" chorus. But figuratively, the Ugly walloped both the Good and the Bad in the wider world of 1968 by a big margin.
It's easy to forget that. Those round, tinted spectacles that the likes of John Lennon were wearing in 1968 were the ultimate rose-colored glasses, after all. And so the purple haze of nostalgia can cling to glib Time-Life-infomercial-style memories of the halcyon daze of the decade that changed America -- bright tie-dyed colors illuminated by a strobe light and pulsating to the fuzzy guitar riffs of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. "I think it's so groovy now," an act called Friend & Lover sang in the summer of 1968, "that people are finally getting together."
The song was pure wishful thinking. Ask anyone who lived through 1968 -- even those of us who were bright-eyed grade-schoolers then -- and we can tell you that the year was experienced in real time mostly as hell on earth. No, you really didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, not when these things were in the air: The Tet Offensive, with planeloads of American-flag-draped caskets flying home from Vietnam every week. The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. -- the latter followed by days of urban rioting that claimed dozens of lives. And student and youthful uprisings that were put down with violent force -- from Columbia University and Chicago here at home to the streets of Mexico City and even Czechoslovakia, where Soviet troops crushed Prague's spring awakening.
If you didn't experience 1968 as a sentient human being, or if you were looking out the window that day in 10th-grade history class, you would probably be shocked by the CNN documentary. It was shocking. It felt like the End Times. Such a momentous year would have sparked a flurry of anniversary books, articles, and TV specials under any circumstance. But 1968's 50th birthday bash has arrived with unexpected resonance, because in 2018 it seems to many people like the world is crashing down all over again.
Indeed, America's blend of paranoia and angst seems remarkably similar to the late 1960s, albeit without the great musical soundtrack, and a different storyline -- a corrupt and autocratic government, but minus war and bloodshed in the streets"so far. The irony is that you can draw a straight line and see how the war for America that essentially began in 1968 brought us to the current battlefield that is 2018.
The legacy of 1968 is complicated. It was the start of many good things -- a freer spirit of expression in the arts and fashion, a movement for female empowerment, gradual (albeit too gradual) gains for African-Americans for other non-whites, and for the LGBTQ community. But politically, the legacy of 1968 is largely backlash (highlighted by that year's election of Richard Nixon on a "law and order" platform) and repressive moves such as "the war on drugs" and a regime of mass incarceration.
And here's the ultimate irony: Two things happened in so-groovy-now daze of 1968 that paved the way for the authoritarian presidency of Donald Trump.
No one would have been more surprised than the 22-year-old Donald Trump who roamed the streets of Philadelphia in the spring of 1968. A mediocre transfer student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Trump's only noteworthy achievement of his late-'60s stint in Philly was convincing his classmate, the glamorous future Hollywood star Candice Bergen, to go out on a date with him (don't worry"nothing happened). The 20-something, bone-spur-plagued Trump was bound not for 'Nam but for New York, where he and his dad would be devoted to violating the one landmark liberal law of 1968, the Fair Housing Act. It's doubtful that The Young Donald had any inkling of the changes in the political landscape that set the stage for a demagogue to rule America -- let alone that the demagogue would be him.
The paradox of 1968 and Donald Trump comes into focus if you read the defining political book, so far, of 2018: How Democracies Die, by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The book makes the case that in the 21st Century democracy is less likely to collapse through a dramatic coup than through a slow erosion of established norms such as a free press, voting rights or an independent judiciary -- something that's happened with elected governments from Venezuela to Hungary and is happening right now in the United States.
In America, the chaos of 1968 hacked at our democratic norms and traditions in a couple of ways. One of the changes was very specific but critical. In August 1968, thousands of antiwar demonstrators who were in the streets protesting the Democratic National Convention as it voted down an anti-Vietnam-War-plank were clubbed and bloodied by cops in what an investigative panel later called a "police riot." The mayhem was captured by the newfangled medium of live TV (as memorialized by the protesters' famous chant, "The whole world is watching!") and was largely blamed for nominee Hubert Humphrey's narrow loss to Nixon that November.
The disaster inspired Democrats to change the rules -- so that going forward the vast majority of convention delegates would be chosen not by party bosses but by the people, in state primaries. The idea of making presidential nominations so much more democratic and thus eliminating "the smoke-filled room" was wildly popular -- so much so that Republicans adopted similar rules. What could go wrong? Well, as Levitsky and Ziblatt chronicle, party elites lost their ability to screen out candidates who appealed to voters through racism or other ugly strains of populism. Leaders in both parties had once thwarted the worst populists like George Wallace or the anti-Semitic industrialist Henry Ford (whom many wanted for president in the early 1920 s). But GOP elites who scorned Trump in 2016 had no way to stop him.