Related Link The Bobby Kennedy Myth By Joshua Zeitz
Amid the tragedies and upheavals from 1968 that we are reliving via media today, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination may be the one that most powerfully bent the river of American history in a direction that would eventually lead to the election of President Donald J. Trump.
We will never know if Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination for president that year – historians debate whether Kennedy with his charisma, money, grassroots energy, and primary wins would have prevailed over Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the party organization that fortified his candidacy. We will also never know if Kennedy would have beaten Richard Nixon that fall.
But let’s assume he had.
Set aside the strong likelihood that a President Robert Kennedy would have extracted us from Vietnam early in his first term, saving thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives – and salving some of the cultural and political wounds from this grievous military and policy mistake.
Perhaps even more important to the arc of our political history is what Kennedy never would have done that Nixon instead exploited: prey on our racial divisions and cynically fuel resentment for political gain.
America was at a racial inflection point in 1968. When the Kerner Commission pronounced in February that "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal," Martin Luther King called it "a physician's warning of approaching death – with a prescription for life."
That approaching death seemed more certain when King was assassinated in April and more than one-hundred cities spiraled into fiery despair and unrest.
Robert Kennedy was heading to Indianapolis for a campaign rally the night King was shot, and despite police warnings that they couldn't protect him if violence erupted, he stood on the back of a flatbed truck, broke the news of King's death, and gave one of the most poignant, powerful, and memorable political speeches in our history.
Quoting Aeschylus about the pain that "falls drop by drop upon the heart," citing his own agony over his brother's death, he pled to the largely African American crowd – and to America as a whole – to bind rather than poison our wounds.
"What we need in the United States," he said, "is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
No riots broke out in Indianapolis that week.
But Kennedy was equally comfortable with white working-class and union voters – connecting with their worries and aspirations, appealing to their hopes and not their fears. He would dive into rallies, shake so many hands his own would bleed, and walk away with torn shirts from people grabbing at him. He somehow brought together anti-war protesters and hardhats, students and parents, and his candidacy was built on a coalition of young people, blacks, the dispossessed, and working-class ethnic whites.
White working-class voters who would eventually migrate to Nixon and the Republicans supported him. As historian Godfrey Hodgson notes in his 1976 book America in Our Time, "a high proportion of those who, in Indiana for example, had voted for Robert Kennedy in the primary, went on to vote for George Wallace in November."
Kennedy's campaign – and arguably his presidency – may have been the last line of defense against the political exploitation of race that has sadly dominated national politics in the five decades since.
Deprived of the possibility of Kennedy, we ended up with dark political calculus of Richard Nixon. Instead of Kennedy's effort to glue together a disparate nation, we got Nixon's Machiavellian approach to dividing America.
Nixon's Southern Strategy and cultivation of the Silent Majority and working-class whites are well-documented, as are his covert appeals to segregationist leaders during the 1968 campaign – such as Senator Strom Thurmond – with promises that he would do their bidding as president.
But nowhere was his racial cynicism more evident than in the Philadelphia Plan he implemented in 1969 to impose racial hiring quotas on construction trade unions working on federally funded projects. Nixon knew exactly what he would accomplish with this single act: he would inoculate himself from charges of bigotry, but even more importantly he would split apart two core Democratic constituencies, blacks and labor, forcing the Democrats to choose between them.
Nixon of course knew the Democrats would side with blacks, which would anger labor and further push white working-class voters into the Republican fold. He then campaigned around the country against quotas, telling his supporters that it was wrong to condemn whites angry over affirmative action as "insensitive or even racist." Nixon believed that most whites basically hated blacks, but also that most of those whites didn't want to see themselves as bigots. Here was his racial strategy all rolled into one.
Whereas Kennedy understood the racial tensions roiling America and sought to heal them, Nixon grasped the racial realities and proceeded to exploit them.
As early as October 1964, the journalist Theodore White described in a Life Magazine article the racial "backlash" brewing among white working-class voters in the North who feared integration and didn’t want blacks working at their factories, living in their neighborhoods, and attending their schools.
Backlash, White wrote, would force "the great Republican party, born in racial strife, to choose whether it abandons its tradition and becomes the white man's party or refreshes its tradition by designing a program of social harmony."
Whether the Richard Nixon of 1960, a racial moderate, would have refreshed that tradition and designed a program of social harmony is an open question. But we do know that the Richard Nixon of 1968 chose instead to make the GOP a party of backlash and whites.
And in the process, he normalized racial resentment as an underlying strategy of far too many Republican campaigns in the decades since. Studies today correlate levels of racial resentment among whites with support for Republicans and Donald Trump.
As we look back on Robert Kennedy's death, we can trace a straight line from that tragic moment 50 years ago at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to the racial resentments and grievances that Richard Nixon validated to the presidency of Donald J. Trump today.