Oct. 11, 2016
By George Friedman
Is the 2016 Presidential Election Unique?
A look back at past turbulent times reveals the U.S. has seen elections like this before.
There is a sense that the 2016 election is unique. There are two candidates who are enormously unpopular, each utterly loathed by the supporters of the other. Each candidate has sought to make the case that the election of the other would have catastrophic consequences. Each has their albatross to carry, whether it is a mail server or an old video. Many believe that we have never seen an election like this.
Defining how this election is different is important. It is not simply the fact that two candidates who are both widely disliked according to the polls are running. What is distinctive about this election is the extent to which large segments of the electorate are not merely divided but are actually enraged at each other. Supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton not only hate the opposing candidate, but they hold the other’s supporters in contempt.
According to Trump supporters, they are running against the financial, media and other elites who have imposed an alien ideology on the United States in order to serve their interests. Clinton represents that ideology. According to Clinton supporters, Trump’s campaign represents a fascist movement built on racism and ultra-nationalism, presided over by a personality not unlike Mussolini. It goes beyond the candidates, and that’s what’s important. Clinton’s supporters think of Trump’s supporters as rednecks and trailer trash. Trump’s supporters think of Clinton’s supporters as politically correct snobs, attempting to impose foreign values on the country.
It is the bitterness that is striking and the sense that the country has culturally ripped into two parts. But there is a third part of the country as bitter and alienated as the other two. These are the voters that despise both candidates, their supporters and the manner in which they think the country is being wrecked. It is not appropriate to call this group the center. At the moment, there is no center, since the Republican is running against Wall Street and the Democrat is saying that not only half of Republican supporters are racists, but that the other half are economic losers. Historically, Republicans have been seen as backing the financial community, while Democrats have been seen as supporting the little guy. The world appears turned on its head, and the third group wants to take it back to the way it was, ideologically and in terms of demeanor. This group should not be disregarded, as it is rarely aroused, but when it is, it can reset the system.
The political and social situation has certainly deteriorated. But it is important not to think of this as unprecedented. Since World War II, we have seen approximations of this mood twice before. Once was in 1952, when Harry Truman was forced to decline a run at re-election because of overwhelmingly negative poll numbers. The second was in 1968, when the campaign was punctuated by gunfire and riots. This is not the first campaign built around apocalyptic paranoia, where everyone is convinced that if the other side wins, the country will collapse. The personal clash between the candidates might not have been the same, but the canyon dividing the country was.
When Harry Truman declined to run in 1952, Adlai Stevenson won the Democratic nomination and Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination. There was nothing odd about this. What was not normal were the circumstances around the election and the role of Joseph McCarthy. The Cold War had broken out, with a crisis in Berlin and a war in Korea. McCarthy and his team began searching for communists.
Now, that was not unreasonable, although good spies are hard to catch. Obviously, Moscow had spies in D.C. just as Washington had them in Moscow. What McCarthy did, however, was speak of conspiracies so vast they had never been seen before. He created a sense that the United States had been penetrated at the highest levels by communist agents. He would wave papers saying that he had a list of communist agents serving in the State Department, but never actually showed the list to anyone. He also charged, after the election, that George C. Marshall, who served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II and then secretary of defense and state, was himself a communist agent.
McCarthy had a huge following. The apparent failure of the United States had to be explained. The Korean War wasn’t going well, casualties mounted and by the time of the election, it was a stalemate. Using nuclear weapons had been rejected. The Soviets had set up puppet regimes in Eastern Europe and there were large communist parties in France and Italy, while communist-driven civil wars had been fought in Greece and Turkey. In addition, there was a wave of strikes in the United States. In one strike, Truman drafted all railway men into the Army to keep the trains running – a move that some perceived as having communist overtones. Given the tensions, the case that communists had influenced Franklin D. Roosevelt when he met with the leaders of the U.K. and Soviet Union in Yalta and had weakened the United States everywhere was persuasive.
McCarthy’s opponents saw him as a fascist and believed he was trying to drive liberals out of government and into prison. Some of his opponents also believed that there was no communist threat and that it had been manufactured by McCarthy’s ambition to impose a reign of terror in the United States. The fact that the Soviet Union was ruled by Josef Stalin did not give them pause. McCarthy made it all up, they asserted. And McCarthy used the criticism to demonstrate that his critics were communists.
This was the framework in which the 1952 election took place, and lest you believe I am exaggerating, the reality was 10 times as intense. The United States was being torn apart between the fear that the U.S. had fallen under the control of the communists and the left’s view that McCarthy was part of a fascist plot. Eisenhower and Stevenson were nominated at a time when primaries didn’t dominate the landscape, so the party bosses picked two candidates who were relatively moderate. But the country was likely more divided then than today, kept in check by centrist and credible candidates.
The country was even more divided in 1968. The leading candidate of the Democratic Party, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated on the night he won the California primary. This happened two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. The tensions over the Vietnam War had reached a boiling point. The Democratic convention was held in Chicago with 10,000 demonstrators as well as police and national guards in the streets. There were over a thousand injuries, and police raided the offices of Eugene McCarthy, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, and arrested his staff.
The anti-war movement was powerful, but it went beyond being an anti-war movement. A large part of it morphed into a movement arguing that the Vietnam War was not only an imperialist war but a war fought to generate cash and support the economy. Others went further, claiming that the United States was utterly corrupt and a revolution was needed to redeem it. Had this been simply an anti-war movement, it might have won over the public. But it became an attack on American life – or else appeared to be.
Richard Nixon cast himself as the spokesman for the silent majority, as he put it. The demonstrators did not represent America, he claimed. Rather than defend the war, he cast the demonstrators as opposed to all things American – and the extremes of the movement played into his hands. He made the election about American values.
Nixon was not particularly admired, having lost the presidential race in 1960 and the race for governor of California in 1962. His opponent in the 1968 campaign, Hubert Humphrey, was also not liked. He was seen as a stooge for Lyndon B. Johnson, who declined to run for the same reason as Truman – because he knew he wouldn’t win. Humphrey was Johnson’s vice president, and supported the war. Therefore, the Democratic Party was torn. If they voted for Humphrey, they would be supporting someone who betrayed them. If they voted for Richard Nixon, they would be supporting a man they despised (and regarded as part of McCarthy’s witch hunt). The Republicans could live with Nixon but no one really liked him. He won, but by a very small margin in the popular vote.
Then there was Watergate, but that’s another story.
The point is that paranoia, and worse, violence, have been seen in presidential races before. The issue is whether there is any commonality. There is one. The tensions around the 1952 race came after years of frustration in Korea. The 1968 race came after years getting bogged down in Vietnam. 2016 comes after 15 years of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. It would seem that when there is an extended and large-scale war that appears to have no end, what we might call extreme elections follow. It is the only common denominator I can see.
But it is a reasonable one. The United States sees itself, reasonably, as a powerful country. When it goes to war, there is an expectation that it will be successful. When it is not successful, people search for an explanation or demand that the war be ended. There are frequently two camps. First, there is the camp that wants to be more aggressive. Second, there is the camp that wants to withdraw. There is also the camp that wants to find the culprit who drew the U.S. into the war, and the culprit who caused us to lose.
In Korea, Douglas MacArthur, who led the United Nations forces in the war, wanted a more aggressive policy. Joseph McCarthy wanted to identify the people who caused the U.S. to lose, while many on the left wanted the U.S. to leave.
In Vietnam, Barry Goldwater, Republican candidate for president in 1964, wanted the U.S. to be more aggressive. Many Vietnam veterans wanted to know who caused the U.S. to lose, and the anti-war movement wanted the U.S. to leave.
In the war on terrorism, Donald Trump plays two roles. He argues it was a mistake to go into Iraq and wants to leave. He simultaneously argues that we are losing the real war on Islamist terrorism, and blames Barack Obama and Clinton for the U.S.’ weakness. It is not altogether clear what role Clinton plays at this point, but the entire war has not yet sorted itself out as the others did.
There are always other issues, such as the economy in 1952 and 2016, or opposition to the “Great Society” programs introduced by Johnson. None of these are simple. But the fact is that the United States has had elections that were seen at the time as a total breakdown of a coherent order. All are different. But they have two things in common: they are all seen as unprecedented (and in a sense they are) and all three came at a point where everyone was frustrated by a war that couldn’t be won.
What is noteworthy about both 1952 and 1968 was that the more extreme elements were defeated. McCarthy was eventually crushed, and Eisenhower governed for those who were neither McCarthyites nor insensitive to the communist threat. The anti-war movement was also crushed. In 1972, when pro-war Nixon faced anti-war George McGovern, Nixon devastated the anti-war movement. Those who recall the anti-war movement as forcing an end to the Vietnam War tend to forget the election. Later, Nixon was destroyed by Watergate. Gerald Ford formed a government that neither sided with the counterculture, as it was called, nor tolerated Nixon-style government.
Healthy societies have a tendency to reset themselves after imbalances appear. During turbulent times, it is difficult to imagine the country finding its balance again. However, it is remarkable how quickly after McCarthy was crushed and the anti-war movement scattered, the third force – those enraged at the other two factions – reasserted itself. From 1953, when Eisenhower was sworn in, until the middle of Johnson’s campaign, there was a period of relative stability. From 1974, when Nixon resigned, until now, there was another period in which there was enough consensus that the election of either candidate did not arouse fears of disaster.
American politics are rough, but the sense that the current situation is unprecedented comes from Americans’ failure to remember their own history. To this point, the 2016 election has not broken any records. It is interesting to look at the aftermath of 1952 and 1968 to get a sense of where the United States goes from here.
I might add that the foreigners, who really don’t begin to understand the United States, would also be well served to remember what followed the self-destructive phases the U.S. puts itself through. As it recovered from each, it reasserted itself and forgot what came before. Having no sense of history sometimes is beneficial.
The greatest compliment you can give us is a recommendation to your friends and colleagues. Please feel free to share this piece with anyone you think would enjoy reading it.