As much as I despise Donald Trump and all his nefarious works, the Divided America that commentators bewail daily, and which may yet threaten his presidency, is nothing new. Not even in my lifetime.
That thought occurred to me last week as I watched a television programme about the Seventies, when Richard Nixon (for the first half) occupied the White House after pitching his electoral appeal, in the face of widespread anti-war and civil rights protests, to the so-called ‘Silent Majority’.
Those ‘forgotten’ electors, like Trump’s, were largely blue-collar workers who traditionally voted for Democrats but felt that their allegiance to the ostensibly more socially-enlightened party had been taken for granted. In the end, Nixon was brought down not by the voters but by Congress, after his now infamous sponsorship of electoral ‘dirty tricks’ was exposed on tape recordings.
There may be a lesson here for the present incumbent, although he has left it rather late to learn it, even assuming that he is the kind of person who pays attention in class, which plainly he is not.
Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had been driven from office by those same dissidents, despite strong-arming through Congress the most radical civil rights legislative programme in history. It was, of course, the Vietnam War that was his real undoing, but discontent among blacks who still felt disenfranchised, or at least neglected, was not far behind.
Both Nixon, and Johnson before him, the one forcibly removed from office, the other declining to run for re-election, presided over a republic no less divided than it is now. At least the violence has not returned. So far, I suppose one should add.
The television programme I mentioned took me back to the first time I set foot in the United States. I was not a visitor. I had been sent to New York by my employer, Reuters, on a six month assignment (which turned out to be twenty-six years) to help establish a North American financial news service. The year was 1967. Within weeks I felt that I had landed in a country filled with self loathing and intent on self-destruction. There were riots in the streets of New York, and several other cities seemed to be permanently on fire. The demonstrators were divided between those who wanted an end to the Vietnam War, and those who wanted yet more recognition of the plight of America’s black citizens.
I had arrived in New York City (courtesy of a Boeing 707 in the livery of Pan American World Airways) in October, 1967. Weeks later, early in January of the following year, Johnson went on television to make his now famous and startling declaration: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president”. The street riots continued, culminating in horrifying scenes at the Democrats’ national convention when the Chicago mayor Richard Daley turned loose his police force, in all its savage fury, against anti-war demonstrators – a phenomenon described by Abe Ribicoff, a Democratic senator, as “Gestapo tactics”.
Between those two shocking events there had been even worse horrors. Civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King was shot dead on the balcony of an Atlanta motel, and Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen after winning the California primary. The rioting continued.
That year, 1968, more than any other in my lifetime, remains engraved in my memory – as it does, no doubt, in many others. America seemed to be coming apart at the seams in a million acts of self-harm.
I recall those events not to draw a parallel with the present situation but to introduce a measure of perspective.
I still think Trump is bad for America, if only because he has forgotten history – not that he seems to have studied it – and is encouraging the same racial and cultural divisions that brought down two of his predecessors.
He would be well advised to take measures to avoid suffering the same fate.