Mark Twain supposedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The phrase resonates in 2017: There are uncanny connections between the first 100 days of President Trump and much that occurred a half-century earlier in 1967, the year of “the Summer of Love.” As weird and dark as things seem to many of us in 2017, this is not the worst time that America has gone through. Notwithstanding a much better middle-class economy, stronger labor unions, and a more progressive Supreme Court, the political establishment of 1967 was in many respects even worse than that of 2017.
Existential dread is nothing new. The nuclear arms race spawned ubiquitous fallout shelters and air-raid drills. (They may be returning after all this time. Last month, Hawaii’s House Public Safety Committee passed a resolution stating it’s in the state’s “best interest” to update its fallout shelters.) Twenty-five million young men were subject to the military draft during the Vietnam War in which more than 50,000 of them would be killed. Police relations with the black community in most of America were even worse in 1967 than they are today. Urban disturbances that summer, and police reaction to them, resulted in unprecedented carnage. (Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit, about the 1967 riot in which 43 people were killed, will be released in August.) By the following year, the “white backlash” (which Martin Luther King Jr. acidly called “a new name for an old phenomenon”) was the basis for the “Southern strategy” that helped Richard Nixon convince a lot of racists to vote Republican—a campaign that inspired many aspects of Trump’s in 2016.
Trump and his allies have yet to conjure up anything as dangerous as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which a nonexistent attack on an American warship was used as the pretext for escalating the Vietnam War from 20,000 at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to over a half a million when LBJ left office five years later. The Johnson administration boasts about the war were so unrealistic that the phrase “credibility gap” was coined to describe what is now called “fake news.”
Today’s alt-right has its antecedents in slave owners, plutocratic haters of FDR, and the John Birch Society. J. Edgar Hoover, Paul Ryan’s idol Ayn Rand, and Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn who were all alive and spewing poison in 1967.
Trump is not the first president to invite speculation about his mental health. In Remembering America, Johnson speechwriter Richard Goodwin writes that he was worried about “certain episodes of what I believe to have been paranoid behavior.” Both Goodwin and fellow LBJ staffer Bill Moyers consulted psychiatrists because of their worry that the president was unhinged.
Like Trump, President Johnson demonized the media, telling Goodwin (without offering any evidence), “The communists control the three major networks and the 40 major outlets of communication.” LBJ bad-mouthed The New York Times to Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge: “There are two or three Jewish boys there that are—according to our phone taps—on the communist side of this operation.”