There are elections that parallel in American history. Many compare the election of 1932, which saw the end of Republican domination of the White House for a generation and a radical shift in the nation’s politics, to 1980, which saw the end of Democratic dominance and a shift toward the right. Mind you, Reagan and FDR are highly admired for revitalizing the nation and bringing a major conflict (World War II for Roosevelt, the Cold War for Reagan) to an end.
Then we have the hot messes that are 1968 and 2016. And in Playing With Fire, NBC reporter Lawrence O’Donnell posits that Donald Trump is what might have happened if Wallace had won in 1968. Instead of Trump, we had Richard Nixon, the ultimate non-ideologue.
In 1967, Lyndon Johnson looked like a shoe-in for a term in his own right. He rode high on the Great Society and JFK’s civil rights program. The only thing that could stop LBJ, it seemed, was Bobby Kennedy. And what did the GOP have? They might have stood a chance with George Romney or Nelson Rockefeller, who could be true liberal alternatives to Johnson. The right was ready to bolt the Democratic Party when a new firebrand named Ronald Reagan rose to prominence. All the GOP really had, though, was the New Nixon, Richard Nixon, who famously told reporters only a few years before they wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore. So how did Johnson’s lock on a second term come apart so spectacularly?
Well, for starters, he lied to Congress about America’s involvement in Vietnam. This outraged Democratic stalwarts like George McGovern, William Fullbright (who had an intern from his home state named Bill Clinton), and the most unlikely candidate for president, Eugene McCarthy. Upon discovering that Johnson treated his authorization for military force in Southeast Asia as a blank check, he told an aide, “I’ll stop Johnson if I have to run myself.”
Before long, Johnson was faced with an insurgency within his own party. Before long, the swell of opposition to the war put the party in open rebellion. Soon, Kennedy was in the race in a time when primaries didn’t really matter much. In California, he all but sowed up the nomination, thanked his supporters, and took bullets to the head and chest. RFK was gone.
Meanwhile, Richard Nixon bided his time, making himself palatable to everyone and no one. As “Rocky” sabotaged Romney and Reagan waited too long, Nixon smiled and schmoozed his way into the nomination. As Johnson would not seek, nor would he accept, the nomination of his party for another term as your president, the Democrats now had to figure out life after Bobby Kennedy. McCarthy ran out of gas, Humphrey could not get up to speed in time to put himself over the top, and Richard Nixon basically coasted to the presidency.
O’Donnell spins a fascinating tale of how American politics can shift unexpectedly. His parallels to the 2016 election are uncanny. But while Trump is controversial (First president I’ve trolled mercilessly), at times, O’Donnell drifts into Trump bashing for the sake of Trump bashing. The similarities to Wallace are indeed uncanny, but sometimes, O’Donnell goes for Trump’s throat when it really adds nothing.
Still, it should be required reading for anyone who thinks they can predict the political future. They can’t.