Stranger than Fiction: American Maelstrom

As George Santayana once wrote, those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. In the recently published American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, Michael A. Cohen argues convincingly that the 1968 presidential election in the United States laid the groundwork for the bitter politics we see today. Both the Democratic and Republican parties splintered along ideological lines. The New Deal Coalition was shattered. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy – at this point, a primary frontrunner –  were assassinated. George Wallace ran a populist campaign on a segregationist platform.  Ronald Reagan created the hard right turn for the Republican party, which fully blossomed twelve years later. Protesters gathered outside the Democrat convention hall, inspiring an orgy of police violence and rioting. The candidates eventually selected for nomination by both parties were uninspired and untrustworthy. The Vietnam War was a leviathan in the background, with constant pressure on candidates from all sides to either withdraw or escalate the conflict. Sound familiar?

It should. Cohen analyses the background context, profiles each candidate on both sides of the aisle, narrates the events at both conventions, and finally concludes with a discussion of the general election itself. In an afterword, Cohen runs through the presidential cycles up to Obama’s presidency and describes how parallels can be drawn with 1968. The writing style is accessible and compelling, without necessitating a detailed knowledge of history. Each of the main figures is fascinating to read about, with anecdotes about their quirks and personalities humanising them greatly. American Maelstrom is popular history at its best, and essential reading for anyone seeking to make sense of the origins of Trump and his firebrand of populist politics.

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