New York – The American death toll is rising. An unpopular president fears for his re-election chances. The United States sends men into space. Down on Earth, the economy is in trouble. Racial tensions boil over into rallies, looting and violent confrontations with police in cities across the nation, intensifying political polarization and widening the generational divide. The president considers invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act, which empowers a president to deploy the armed forces and National Guard in any state.
Yes, as writers across the political spectrum such as David Frum, James Fallows, Max Boot, Julian Zelizer and Zachary Karabell have pointed out, 2020 is looking a lot like 1968. For Vietnam, read COVID-19. For Lyndon Johnson, read Donald Trump. For Apollo 8’s successful orbit of the moon, read the docking of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon with the Space Station. And for Washington, Chicago and many other cities in 1968, read Minneapolis, Atlanta and many other cities in the last few weeks.
Ah yes, interjected Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, but today we are dealing with a pandemic. Actually, they had one in 1968 as well: the Hong Kong flu, caused by the influenza virus A/H3N2, which was ultimately responsible for more than 100,000 excess deaths in the U.S. and a million around the world. It’s easy to forget that Woodstock, the following year, was a super-spreader event.
True, since Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in the street outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis on the night of May 25, there have been protests and riots in dozens of American cities. More curfews have been imposed than in any year since, you guessed it, 1968. But is this the correct analogy? Or is the baby-boomers’ obsession with their own exciting teenage years leading us, not for the first time, to think too much about the late 20th century and not enough about other, more relevant periods?
Like the over-used Weimar analogy, allusions to 1968 are a kind of shorthand — just a superior way of saying, "This is really bad.” I’m betting that most of the people bandying these analogies about haven’t ever pored over documents from 1968 or 1933.
The destabilizing power of pandemics
For millennia, historians have noted that pandemics can destabilize the societies they strike. Of the Athenian plague of 430 B.C., Thucydides wrote: "The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” Defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War was followed by a period of political instability, culminating in a temporary breakdown of Athenian democracy in 411 B.C.
The two great plagues that struck the Roman Empire — the Antonine Plague (165-180 A.D.), probably a smallpox pandemic, and the Plague of Justinian (542 A.D.), which was a bubonic plague — also weakened the structures of Roman rule, allowing barbarian invaders to make significant inroads.
Recent scholarship on England after the Black Death of the 1340s shows that efforts by the landowning class to offset the effects of chronic labor shortages led to escalating tensions that ultimately erupted in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Across Europe, the Black Death prompted a wave of millenarian movements, notably the flagellant orders, groups of men who roamed from town to town whipping themselves in the belief that acts of penance might ward off the Last Judgment. These religious cults often had a revolutionary undertone and came into conflict with local temporal and spiritual hierarchies.
The devastation caused by waves of bubonic and pneumonic plagues — which killed more than a third of the population in many parts of Europe — also led to widespread violence, particularly outbreaks of anti-Semitism. In 1349, for example, the Jewish communities in Cologne, Frankfurt and Mainz were wiped out. Conspiracy theories circulated widely that the Jews had caused the Black Death by poisoning the water supply. The Jews of Strasbourg were offered a choice between conversion and death. Those who refused to convert were burned alive in the Jewish cemetery.
The recurrence of bubonic plague in the 1890s led to conflicts between British rulers and their subjects from South Africa to India. In Honolulu and San Francisco, it led to measures that discriminated against the local Asian population. Such ethnic scapegoating often occurred in situations where a disease seemed to take an outsized toll on a specific community. The 1907 and 1916 polio epidemics hit wealthy, white New York especially hard. (In poorer populations, infants were routinely exposed because of bad sanitation, and therefore were more likely to have antibodies.) Southern European immigrants, particularly Italians, were blamed for the outbreak.
In short, history shows that pandemics all too often exacerbate existing social tensions between classes and ethnic groups. It also provides numerous examples of quarantines and public social restrictions intensifying citizens’ mistrust of the state. In 19th-century Europe, cholera riots were frequent, from St. Petersburg in 1831 to Donetsk in 1892. In North America, smallpox quarantines led mobs to burn down hospitals and police stations. The residents of Marblehead, near Boston, twice rioted against smallpox inoculation, in 1730 and 1773.
The spread of COVID-19 from China to the rest of the world, and the generally inept responses of the U.S. authorities to the pandemic, have combined to create perfect conditions for urban unrest. The disease has disproportionately hurt minority communities, especially African-Americans. In the U.S., as in the United Kingdom, people of color are more likely than whites to work in contagion-exposed, low-skilled, "essential” occupations; to live in crowded conditions; and to have co-morbidities such as obesity and diabetes. The economic consequences of lockdowns have also hit African-Americans harder than white Americans. You really don’t need 1968 to explain 2020.
The politics of race in America
As a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class immigrant, I’m hardly the person to speak to the politics of race in America. So I turned to an African-American friend, the economist Roland Fryer, whom I’ve known since we were colleagues at Harvard.
In 2016, he published a brilliant but controversial paper which argued that the police did not disproportionately use lethal violence against African-Americans, though they were more likely to use non-lethal force against them. (Shootings made up more than 90 percent of fatal incidents.) A paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lent strong support to Fryer’s thesis.
He has a new, unpublished paper that looks at a perverse effect of investigations into police shootings. I asked Fryer to walk me through the argument.
"If you have a police shooting that goes viral online but isn’t investigated,” he explained, "then nothing changes — levels of police activity and crime are about the same. But if you have a viral shooting that is investigated, then police activity plummets, and crime goes up dramatically.” In just five cities — Baltimore; Chicago; Cincinnati; Ferguson, Missouri; and Riverside, California — this led to excess homicides of almost 900 people in the subsequent 24 months, 80 percent of them African-American, with an average age of 28.
It's a dangerous Catch-22: You're damned if you don't investigate "viral” incidents, and in even worse shape if you do.
How does Fryer interpret the current protests? "People are fed up,” he told me. "They are frustrated by the disparities they see in educational outcomes. Frustrated by the disparities they see in criminal justice. Frustrated by racial disparities in life expectancy. We are all to blame — this happened on our watch.” And when you add to that the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately affected the African-American community: "Folks have had enough. People are very much on edge.”
Such conversations, as much as any article or book, change the way I look at an issue. For years, I have confidently said that 1968 was much worse than the present. But could it be the other way around — not in terms of standards of living or rates of violence, but in terms of politics and the perceptions that shape it? That was a question put to me by Coleman Hughes, another African-American friend, whose recent essays on race in America have been essential reading.
In calling himself the "president of law and order” in the White House Rose Garden last Monday, Trump (or more likely his speechwriter) was echoing a mantra of Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign. But Trump is the incumbent, unlike Nixon in 1968. The pandemic and the recession have hit Americans on his watch, just as surely as the Vietnam War escalated on Lyndon Johnson’s.
A pandemic at home is very different from a distant war which, in mid-1968, more than a third of Americans still supported. The devastating economic consequences of the lockdowns make the early signs of inflation in 1968 seem trivial. The electorate is radically different from that of 1968: older, but also more ethnically diverse because of immigration and variations in birth rates. Traditional news media did not cover violent protest sympathetically in 1968. In all these respects, Trump’s chances of re-election should look worse than Johnson’s.
Yet on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term because, as he put it on prime-time television, "There is division in the American house now.” Do not expect any such capitulation from Donald Trump. Division in the American house is precisely what gives him a shot at four more years.
Unlike in 1968, in other words, urban unrest with a racial dimension might actually save a beleaguered incumbent. The current wave of protests is in many ways a repeat of more recent events — Ferguson 2014, Charlottesville 2017 — and its main significance may be to shift the American political conversation away from the Trump administration’s incompetent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, back to the terrain of the culture war, where Trump is an experienced combatant.
Even in 1968, merely using the phrase "law and order” was to invite accusations of racism. In the case of a president who last week fantasized about a MAGA mob joining the fray outside the White House, the charge of insincerity seems well-founded. Trump is indifferent to the law by nature; he thrives on disorder. And he understands much better than his opponent how to spread his message through the complex networks of online "influencers” — many of whom promote conspiracy theories — through which more and more Americans receive their news.
Finally, and perhaps crucially, unlike 52 years ago, November’s election seems very likely be a two-horse race. There is no George Wallace, the segregationist candidate who took millions of former Democratic votes in 1968, ensuring Nixon’s triumph. Any last-minute third-party candidate — Green, Libertarian or otherwise — is unlikely to garner anything like Wallace’s 13.5 percent of the popular vote.
The result of 2020’s election will look very different from 1968’s. The nightmare is a result like that of 2000: too close to call and decided in the courts.
History strongly suggests that pandemics tend to widen class and ethnic divisions. COVID-19 is no exception. Small wonder a hideous incident of police brutality ignited a wave of outrage: harder hit by the disease, harder hit by the lockdown and the recession, African-American communities were ready to boil over. Scenes of mayhem in nearly every major city in America ought not to bode well for an incumbent on whose watch excess mortality has already surged by 26 percent, and who is now presiding over an unemployment rate three and a half times higher than in 1968.
Yet the return of the culture war might just prove to be the deus ex machina that extricates Trump from the quagmire of COVID-19. If so, Trump’s many detractors in the commentariat — who have long hoped that he is Richard Nixon without the second term — may come to rue the day they drew the wrong historical analogy.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was previously a professor of history at Harvard, New York University and Oxford. He is the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC, a New York-based advisory firm.