Those of us living antiques who can remember what was going on in this country half a century ago — space shots, race riots and a guy pushing a “law & order” strategy to get himself elected — can’t help feeling a bit of deja vu (but definitely no nostalgia) over recent events on the national scene.
There was a space launch on May 30, just as there were many missions during the late 1960s, at the height of our Space Race with the Soviet Union. And there were urban riots across the country, just as there were after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And there was a man (Richard Nixon then, Donald Trump now) looking ahead to Election Day by taking a “tough guy” stance while visions of burning cities were still fresh in his supporters’ minds.
Nixon’s Southern Strategy was in large part a scheme to take votes away from third-party challenger and dyed-in-the-wool racist George Wallace, but he also attacked college anti-war protesters and his enemies in the press. It worked in 1968, and even better in 1972.
And now, shades of 1968, a week after the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by police in Minneapolis (yet another black person killed by police in recent years, like Eric Garner in New York City in 2014, and Breonna Taylor, shot eight times in her bed in Louisville in March) we have the spectacle of Trump standing in the White House Rose Garden to proclaim himself an “ally” of “peaceful protesters” while a couple of blocks away, on schedule, a phalanx of police were using “riot-control agents” to clear peaceful protesters out of the way so he could march across the street, under heavy security, for a flagrant photo-op in front of a church.
And there he stood, holding up a Bible for no apparent reason other than to pander to his evangelical supporters. And this is the guy who’s so unfamiliar with the contents of that book that he once referred to “II Corinthians” as “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians,” as anyone else, even many of the unchurched, would have known to say it. Coming from Trump, it sounded more like the start of a joke: “Two Corinthians walk into a bar ...”
Even the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, to which that particular church belongs, was outraged that he held up a Bible “as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position.” She called it “an abuse … of our sacred space."
This was a few days after Trump had tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a quote Miami Police Chief Walter Headley used in 1967, during racial unrest back then.
What’s changed? Well, not that blacks are more likely than whites to be killed by police. In 2019 1,099 people were killed by police in this country — 24 percent of them black, while black people make up only about 13 percent of the population. In earlier generations, lynchings and other killings were all too frequent. What’s different today is that people capture some of these events on their cellphones, a technology that didn’t exist for most of our history.
What’s changed? The killings are just as bad, but today they’re harder to hide. Other than that, not very much.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.