I've seen some commentary in the last few days saying that 2020 is shaping up as America's worst year since 1968. Martin Walker, the journalist and novelist, suggested as much by linking to a column by James Fallows, who says that it likely is. I respect their opinions.
Certainly, 1968 had a skein of atrocities and tragedies. The killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy skewed our history in a terrible direction. There were riots in the streets. The war in Vietnam was at its height--or nadir. Mayor Daley's police crushed protesters in Chicago. George Wallace ran for president. Richard Nixon got elected.
But, as I look back on it, I don't remember feeling that 1968 was terrifying. Part of that is because I was 19, and if one can't be blithe at 19, when can one? Part of it is because I was cocooned in an upper-middle-class suburban family and a conservative Southern university. Part of it was the sense that whatever might be happening at the moment in 1968, America was changing and moving slowly and erratically in the right direction. Simon and Garfunkel won the Grammy that year for best recording. An anti-racism film, "In the Heat of the Night" won the Oscar for best picture. I had my initial foray into public affairs via a spring break trip to Wisconsin, where I canvassed voters for Eugene McCarthy's anti-war candidacy. At the end of that spring break, President Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. The system could work! With the naive arrogance of youth, I felt that when my generation came of age and assumed power, things would be better.
Of course, they aren't. And that's one reason I fear America's 2020 might be worse than America's 1968, worse than any year in my memory. This year, I feel like the country is again going through miserable times, that we're on a downhill slope. But this time I don't see much reason to think that things will change for the better.
I took the pictures in this post on the afternoon of June 1. I am not, any longer, one to venture down to the White House area during a disturbance to get pictures. I am not nimble enough to get out of the way of a charging cop or a fleeing protester. And, lest we forget, there's a pandemic going on, and how can you be certain to maintain social distance during a melee? Kudos to those photographers who did go there and recorded the event. Just don't cough around me.
But then, on the night of May 31, the disturbances came closer. I live about a mile from a neighborhood called Friendship Heights, which straddles the border between Maryland and the District of Columbia. It's an affluent neighborhood, which is why once-louche merchant brands like Bloomingdales, Saks and Neiman-Marcus maintain stores there. And it, along with the northwestern areas of D.C. and the inner suburbs like Chevy Chase and Bethesda, had always felt insulated from whatever trouble might be happening in the city. It's an area dominated by liberal white people, who get to have their security along with their political piety.
From what I could gather, there was not that much damage done by the vandals who came to Friendship Heights late Sunday night. The man supervising the boarding of windows at Paul's Liquors in the picture above left told me the store's surveillance cameras recorded a group of about six or seven people who grabbed bricks and smashed windows up and down Wisconsin Avenue. They fled when the cops showed up. Their names and motives remain unclear. Maybe they were rioters who wanted to take the violence to where it would more directly affect white people. Maybe they were provocateurs; I've seen film that suggests white supremacists were among the early window-breakers in Minneapolis.
Whatever the case, the vandals seem mainly to have helped Fox News proclaim "a nation in flames." As I saw in 1968, when that trope asserts itself in the public mind, it benefits Republicans. Is that what the protesters want? To help reelect President Trump? I get that people are rightfully fed up and desperate. But four more years of Trump is not going to make things better. Of course, maybe the vandals think that only by making things bad enough to discredit Trump and the Republicans for a generation can they effect fundamental change. I can't argue against that idea with the certitude I once might have.
I do know for certain that four more years of Trump can only make things worse. As if to prove that, the only violence that occurred in D.C. on Monday was instigated by Trump, who ordered that demonstrators be cleared from the area around the White House so he could walk across Lafayette Square and pose in front of St. John's Church with a Bible in his hand. The police cleared the way for this photo op with tear gas and rubber bullets. I suppose we should be thankful that he didn't have an AR-15 in the other hand, to energize the other wing of his Know-Nothing base.
I guess it's the persistence of that base that bothers me the most about this country. It's the fact that 40-odd percent of my fellow Americans think that it's democracy in action when they march on the state capitol brandishing assault rifles. Forty percent overlook the qualms they might have about Trump because he's lining their pockets with tax cuts that exacerbate our growing income inequality. Forty percent will gladly let the next generation deal with the effects of climate change as long as Trump rolls back regulations that cut profits by hindering their ability to pollute. Forty percent of Americans are happy to overlook Trump's lies and general amorality as long as he holds up a Bible occasionally and nominates judges who might one day let them prohibit abortion and teach creationism in the public schools. When I see that great numbers of Americans think it's their right to shop in our grocery stores without wearing masks in the midst of a pandemic, I wonder. Who are these people? They're my compatriots?
I see now that many sensible leaders are urging protesters to take their energy and their fury into the political arena, to register voters, get voters to the polls, and remove Trump and his supporters from office. It's the right thing to try. But I fear that what we are going to see is another minority victory in the election. It will be enabled by our archaic electoral college, abetted by Republic efforts to suppress the vote in areas inhospitable to them and skew the results through gerrymandering. If that in fact happens, 2020 will indeed be the worst year America has had in a very long time.