America is coming off one of the most difficult three-month stretches in its history. First came a devastating pandemic that has killed more than 108,000 Americans and destroyed more than 40 million jobs. Then came protests in more than 580 cities and towns -- and some rioting -- touched off by the brutal Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis -- one more grim example of decades of police violence against African Americans.
But by the numbers, matters were far worse in America in the mid- to late 1960s. Deadly police-related riots in 1965 in Los Angeles, in 1967 in Detroit and Newark, N.J., and across the nation after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 make the violence seen since May 25 seem tame. Exact figures are unavailable, but hundreds were killed and many thousands of stores were ransacked and emptied.
Yet historical accounts that focus on these riots and the assassinations of King and Democratic presidential front-runner Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 miss the extent of anti-government dissent in the late 1960s. Bombings of government buildings, banks, corporate offices and other symbols of the establishment by revolutionary groups such as the Weather Underground were common. A phenomenon that began with campus radicals throwing Molotov cocktails at police during protests evolved into domestic terror campaigns by revolutionaries that hit an early apex from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12, 1969. In New York City alone, the landmark public library, the Rockefeller Center, Chase Manhattan headquarters, and offices of Hanover Trust and General Motors were all firebombed. A shopping center in St. Louis and a power plant in Seattle were also bombed.
The onslaught led a shaken President Richard Nixon to tell FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that "revolutionary terror" was a genuine threat to democracy. And that was before an 18-month stretch in the early 1970s in which the U.S. averaged nearly five bombings a day.
While recent looting and violence have unnerved many Americans, they don't compare to what the U.S. faced back then.
But the bad news for modern America is that while actual arson was far worse a half-century ago, the society that weathered the tumult of the Vietnam War was stronger and more cohesive than our present society, which has faced a steady increase in what might be called partisan civic arson over the last 30 years. In the 1960s, there were still conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. In 1964, a higher percentage of congressional Republicans voted for the landmark Civil Rights Act than congressional Democrats.
But Nixon's cynical 1968 presidential campaign began the makeover of U.S. politics. Strategist Kevin Phillips persuaded the campaign to use the passage of civil rights laws to draw Southern Democrats into the GOP by using barely coded racial appeals. The makeover did not come quickly. In 1974, for example, there was true bipartisan support for Nixon's impeachment after the worst revelations in the Watergate scandal.
But now the parties are far more likely to constantly be at each other's necks, especially among the most active members. True believers on each side increasingly view reality through different filters.
Consider the protests in recent weeks across the nation by those who thought quarantine policies adopted in more than 40 states violated their freedoms and destroyed their ability to provide for their families. Many on the right are bitter that these protesters were scorned by the media, not widely praised as the nonviolent George Floyd protesters have been. Meanwhile, many on the left are bitter that quarantine protesters were not treated as roughly as some police forces have treated George Floyd protesters.
The era of perpetual 24/7/365 grievance started years ago. But now it's been supercharged, both by racial unrest driven by police violence and an unprecedented instant recession after a long boom.
And, or course, by a president with easily the most bizarre view of the job of anyone who has ever held it. I bet even many of Donald Trump's millions of fans wish that -- like Ronald Reagan after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster and George W. Bush after 9/11 -- this Republican president tried to bring the nation together to mourn the tragedies we collectively face.
Yet Trump is a symbol of American dysfunction, not the cause. Our divisions may be less endlessly aggravating and acrimonious under President Joe Biden, but the mutual loathing now on mass display isn't going away.
By then we can hope that the soundtrack of our times will something less troubling than the clashes of police and protesters.