Recently, during a brief visit to my hometown — Westmont, NJ — I checked out the site of the old local office of the McCarthy for President campaign. I volunteered for this campaign in 1968 at the age of 16. It was where I got started in activism.
Although the stop by the old campaign office was short, time enough only for a couple of photos, I’ve been thinking about the 1968 campaign itself. Not the small town New Jersey campaign, which was a great experience, but the bigger picture. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it may hold a lesson for us in this presidential campaign season.
In 1968, the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, was running for reelection. No one was expected to oppose him in the Democratic primary. While the Vietnam War was unpopular, Johnson’s domestic achievements were popular. And, of course, one doesn’t challenge an incumbent president of one’s own party.
In late November 1967, Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota formally announced his entry and filed papers to enter four primaries, beginning with the important first primary in New Hampshire. McCarthy was a prominent anti-war voice in the Senate and he made ending the war in Vietnam his central issue.
Two months later, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the war. The initially successful assault on US troops stunned the country and turned more people against the war.
Two weeks later, McCarthy won a surprising 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, coming a close second to Johnson.
Four days after the primary, Sen. Robert Kennedy announced he was entering the race.
And two weeks after that, Johnson announced he was dropping his bid for reelection. It was late March 1968, more than seven months before the general election.
Back here in 2019, we might wonder whether a similar scenario could play out with the Republicans and Trump. Maybe the trade war goes completely off the rails, the economy tanks, and the plutocrats decide they’ve had their fill of Trump.
Finding a “legitimate” Republican candidate to take on Trump wouldn’t be easy for the plutocrats. The Trump Stench has spread far and wide over the GOP. Certainly no senator could run. It would most likely have to be a governor, less stench and actual governing experience.
Would Trump actually drop out of the race if seriously challenged? The idea does seem to fly in the face of Trump’s insatiable narcissism. But if he was confronted with the possibility of a humiliating defeat, he just might jump before getting shoved.
Johnson took a half-hearted stab at playing the devoted public servant when he announced his withdrawal from the race, saying he couldn’t spend time on “personal partisan causes” while he had to shoulder “the awesome duties of this office—the presidency of your country.”
If Trump did decline to run for reelection in the face of a strong challenge, you can be sure it will be the greatest act of public service ever recorded in the history of human governments. No one has ever been more hugely devoted and humble than Trump.
If this unlikely but possible circumstance was to occur, it would mean Trump would most likely never be held accountable for his many crimes. A sitting president, of whatever party, isn’t fond of the idea of prosecuting former presidents for acts performed while in office. Whoever is in the Oval Office will be a former president one day.
Trump must be held to account, somehow, for the damage done. There needs to be a reckoning. An electoral defeat of Trump would serve as a kind of accounting, no argument. But that’s by no means assured. The ability of the House to impeach Trump right now is.
It does not matter whether or not the Senate would convict. The ultimate winner of the 1968 election, Richard Nixon, resigned from the presidency rather than see himself impeached.
Impeachment is for the history books. And future presidents