Trump: The New Eugene McCarthy

A quick followup on a comment I made here – another parallel for the Trump experience, if you’re still looking for those, is Gene McCarthy in 1968.  RFK’s assassination invalidates a lot of comparisons, but look at what McCarthy did before that — an outsider, he focused popular anger in a way no mainstream politician could.  He shifted the Overton Window so far that, by the end of 1968, the Democrats were the antiwar party…. running against the war they themselves started.

A quick recap:

The sainted JFK put American involvement in Southeast Asia on steroids, culminating with his order to bump off Ngo Dinh Diem in late 1963.

After a suspiciously convenient attack on the USS Maddox in 1964, Congress issued the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving Lyndon Johnson a blank check for war.  Which Johnson promptly used — US conventional forces were undertaking offensive ground operations in South Vietnam by early summer 1965.

By the election of 1968, then, the Vietnam War was 100% the Democrats’ baby.  In fact, Richard Nixon ran on an anti-war platform.  Somehow McCarthy got his entire party to reverse course, outflanking Nixon to the left.

To put this in modern terms, it would be like George W. Bush dropping his re-election campaign in 2004 and being replaced by John McCain… who suddenly goes full Cindy Sheehan on the war he himself helped start, and drags the whole party with him.

As I said, the analogy breaks down pretty fast.  McGovern wasn’t the Democratic nominee; Hubert Humphrey was.  (Which may be good news for Marco Rubio).  And there’s no hippy-dippy antiwar movement for both sides to play off — Nixon ran on law-and-order more than anti-war, and Humphrey represented the “Old Left” against the kids’ worst excesses.  But as an example of an out-of-nowhere radical figure galvanizing the debate, it’s one of the more recent ones.  Maybe it’s time for a second look at Gene McCarthy.

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