Michael Cohen On Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon And What 1968 Says About 2016

Richard Nixon at the 1968 Republican Convention. (AP)
Richard Nixon at the 1968 Republican Convention. (AP)
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Although he describes himself as having always been “obsessed with and fascinated by history,” Michael Cohen also does a pretty good job of keeping up with current events.

In addition to being an opinion columnist for The Boston Globe, Cohen is also a contributor to The Guardian and Observer and a fellow at The Century Foundation. Furthermore, he spent the whole of the current decade working on his latest book “American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division,” which Oxford University Press published in May as part of its Pivotal Moments in American History series.

On Wednesday, Cohen will appear with Sarah Jaffe, author of “Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt,” at Porter Square Books in Cambridge.

Cohen recently spoke by phone about how the legacy of the 1968 election is evident in today’s presidential election.

Blake Maddux: What does “American Maelstrom” add to the literature about one of the most written-about years of one of the most written-about decades in American history?


Michael Cohen: One of the goals of the book was to look at this election anew from the perspective of where we are 48 years later and give a sense of why this election matters and how it transformed American history. From the perspective of history you can really see so much of what we take for granted in modern American politics today: the polarization and the sense of the radicalization of the two parties. Radicalization is probably too strong of a word, but at least the more ideological focus of the two parties as the direct result of ’68.

You just mentioned, and also wrote in the Acknowledgements section, that this book took more than five years to write. Is it therefore incorrect for readers to presume that you wrote it specifically to compare and contrast the 1968 election with the current one?

Yeah! This is an idea that I conceived of maybe as much as 10 years ago and didn’t get it germinated and to a publisher until 2010 or something. I think that what happened in this [the 2016] election kind of validates my rationale for writing about the [1968] election. My whole theory on it was that the narrative that came out of ’68 — the stereotypes of the two parties, the language about American politics that emerged out of that election, the polarization — becomes the defining characteristic of American politics today.

In what ways was Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s campaign a precursor to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders?

The similarity, the thread that connects them, is that McCarthy was challenging the status quo and that he was an outsider. His major goal was to give the antiwar wing of the party and the liberal activists of the party a voice, an outlet, a way to make their views heard. In a lot of ways, that’s what Sanders did. I know how the race ended up, but he began as a protest candidate, and that’s how McCarthy started out, too. And I think without McCarthy democratizing the political process, without him creating this idea that you could run a campaign with the objective of just bringing more voices to the table and more ideas, I don’t think you’d have a Bernie Sanders.

Do Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump also have 1968 counterparts?

I wrote a piece in May for The Daily Beast basically arguing that Hillary Clinton is Richard Nixon. I mean that in the sense that she’s a status quo, establishment politician, fairly unpopular, as Nixon was, not just with the other party but among his own party. Certainly viewed with some suspicion, you might say. And I think that the way that Nixon ran in ’68 was to run against the liabilities of his opponents. In a lot of ways, I think that’s kind of the campaign she’s running. It’s obviously very much against Trump. What’s even more so is that the other party [the Republicans] looks like it’s falling apart. It looks like it can’t manage itself and it can’t govern. So in a sense that is what happened in ’68. Nixon wanted to contrast himself with the dysfunctional Democrats.

The other connection is Trump and [Democratic governor of Alabama George] Wallace, and I think the connections there are very direct. The kind of populist, anti-elite, tell-it-like-it-is approach that Wallace had in ’68 is very similar to what Trump is doing today.

For Wallace, the enemy was minorities, it was the government for putting the needs of minorities ahead of whites. I think in some ways that’s what Trump’s doing now. To me, the connections between the two of them are remarkably similar. There’s an authenticity to both of them. I mean, it’s a faux authenticity, of course, but to their supporters, there’s an authenticity, and that is a lot of their appeal.

In terms of hawkishness, is Trump is also reminiscent of Wallace’s running mate, Gen. Curtis “Bomb them back to the Stone Age” LeMay?

Yeah, absolutely, but one difference I would say is that LeMay was sincere in his insane hawkishness. I’m not sure that Trump is sincere in some of the things that he says, but I think old Curtis believed what he was saying about nuclear weapons.

One theme of the book is the contrast between the “ideological conservatism” and “operational liberalism” of the American public in 1968. Is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — aka, Obamacare — a good present-day manifestation of opposition to big government in the abstract but support of it in the concrete?

(Laughs.) I could have written a whole chapter on what you just asked me! There’s no question about it.

A lot of what I think opposition to big government comes down to is parochialism. People are afraid that if you take a little bit of the pie off for somebody else, it means less for me. You can’t expand the pie, you know, the pie is static. That is, to me, the most powerful, most dangerous, and most destabilizing idea that comes out of this period of time, this notion that when government acts on behalf of poor people, on behalf of minorities, that ultimately someone else suffers as a result. That not all ships rise. Politics is a zero-sum game. And this is the idea that conservatives began to use in the late ‘60s and I think really kind of perfected it over the next several decades.

Blake Maddux Twitter Writer, The ARTery
Blake Maddux writes about nonfiction, popular music and stand-up comedy for several publications in the Boston area and on the North Shore.