I have been an attentive observer of political protests for many moons. You might say I was present at the creation. For me, that would be back in 1968 at Chicago’s Grant Park. My brother and I stood between a line of young Chicago policemen as they grew increasingly anxious, their backs to the hotels that faced the park and in which such luminaries of Democratic politics as Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey were putting the final touches on their convention performances. What provoked the young cops — mainly of Irish and Italian descent — was a mob of college-age demonstrators, members of the vaunted youth movement of 1968, in other words the New Politics. They were about to get what any sane observer would have anticipated. The Tyrrell boys were reliably sane, and we faded from the scene.
Shortly thereafter the cops rioted. Blood was spilled and bones were broken. Years later I appeared on the Bob Grant radio show with one of the organizers of the Chicago mayhem, Tom Hayden. Tom looked great. Well… he looked about as great as a dissipated middle age and his genetic endowment would allow him to look. I asked Tom to tell Bob Grant’s radio audience what his youthful provocateurs were taunting the cops with that faraway afternoon. Tom blanched and hesitated. I helped him, reminding him that the demonstrators were taunting the cops with lines such as “Hey, Pat, who’s home f–king your wife?” Kaboom! and thankfully we Tyrrells were safely back in the Conrad Hilton hotel.
So it has gone for all the decades between Grant Park in 1968 and this past weekend at the Trump rallies in Chicago and Ohio. I did not have to be at these rallies to report on them. Cable television provided me with the local color. The local color was pretty much the same as 1968: smug young people, provocative language, menacing gestures, middle fingers in the air. Some things, however, were new: professionally printed anti-Trump signs, professionally printed Bernie Sanders signs, and cell phones. What is more, smug demonstrators were not as badly beaten as in 1968, but then the police are better trained.
One thing has not changed. These demonstrators along with the earlier demonstrators have now experienced the high point of their lives. From now on it will all be downhill: perhaps some mediocre degree from a third-rate diploma mill, years of middle-aged tedium, then the ravages of old age — for some an early old age. Those will be the lucky ones. Others will not do so well. I know. I have followed generations of protesters.
Moreover the billionaire Donald Trump plans to prosecute each arrestee, and it will not cost him much of his fortune. If we had been serious about keeping the peace and maintaining the rights of peace-loving citizens back in 1968, American democracy would have been spared a lot of angst with no loss to peaceful protest whatsoever. Incidentally, Bill Ayers was out on the street in Chicago over the weekend. At 71 years of age he looked about as pulchritudinous as Hayden, and he is still stirring up trouble despite his convictions for bombing government facilities and notwithstanding all the death and destruction that he and his radical colleagues have left in their wake.
One thing was different from 1968. Then only the demonstrators and their leaders like Hayden blamed the political candidates for the youthful demonstrators’ violence. Today all the candidates running against Trump — the Democrats Sanders and Hillary Clinton but even the Republicans — blamed Trump and his followers for the demonstrators who were assailing them. One opportunist, the Mitt Romney supporter Stuart Stevens, even compared Trump to the 1968 segregationist George Wallace. Which is ignorant, but not as ignorant as the commentators who compared Trump to Hitler and to Stalin. Obviously the Derangement Syndrome of the Bush years is still with us.
Meanwhile, Trump continues his astonishing campaign. He has even had a heroic episode, though it went largely unreported. In Ohio as he was speaking to a vast throng on Saturday there was a disturbance behind him. It sounded to me like a gunshot, though it was not. Some lunkhead leaped a fence and was headed in Trump’s direction. Barely fazed, the candidate lunged not in the opposite direction of the disturbance but directly toward the source of the trouble. The Secret Service ascended the stage to surround him.
Now, Donald, you have had your Ronald Reagan moment and passed the test admirably. Get on with the campaign in the dignified tone that you and your opponents struck Thursday night in debate, when all the Republican candidates were more statesmanlike than crazy Bernie or Hillary. We need to replace these 1968 Democratic retreads next year.