In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson told Congress that he believed an era was about to dawn: “With this extraordinary victory, the American people are asking for new energy, new determination, new strength, new vigor. They are taking a strong hand in the affairs of our great country and … going out into the American future as never before.”
To many Democrats and liberals, Johnson seemed to reference the excitement and enthusiasm of the 1960s. That year, young people began speaking out against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement erupted, and voters elected King to the presidency. Today, the world’s best-known figure and an older version of King are challenging Trump, but this time to fight a more subtle but growing threat to America’s future.
In part, those activists see their role as akin to the millennial generation’s rise against the war in Vietnam and supporting the freedom struggle in South Africa. “This movement and this energy that has emerged is the same kind of thing, but it is not as overt,” said Civil Rights Movement veteran C. T. Vivian.
For many Republicans and conservatives, the Trump supporters will find satisfaction, if not alarm, in this latest chorus of protest. They are seeing a transformation not just of the electorate, but of their leaders.
“Many of the current politicians are more or less melding the Trumpian rhetoric and worldview with Reaganism,” said David Frum, a former speechwriter for Bush, Reagan and George W. Bush, who wrote that “the conservative approach to fighting Democratic stagnation is now overwhelmingly the right answer to the public.”
Frum added: “They are trying to understand why this kid from Queens can create such a movement that everybody now seems to be singing his praises.”
As demonstrations continue, the level of Republican cohesion can be seen in Washington by the level of traditional GOP anxiety about where Trump might be headed. “When you look at the outside and Trump right now, they’re still worried,” Frum said.
And even Trump himself acknowledged that he is reaching a point where nothing works. “I’ll do better than the last two presidents,” he said. “I’m just telling you, I’m gonna do a lot better than the last two presidents.”
But that leaves Trump an open question as to whether he can adapt to the demands of this spontaneous, grassroots movement. By all evidence, he is flailing as he tries to make a compromise with the Democrats on his third attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. For the moment, Republicans are falling behind. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the Senate plan shows that Trump could lose more voters among 18- to 29-year-olds than among seniors.
“Ahead of his massive presidential victory, Trump was the greatest salesman in history,” said Georgetown historian Brad Friedman. “What we’re seeing right now is that the most important qualities in a president are those that Trump was best at selling – and those were charisma, celebrity and never seeming like the pugilist you’ve got to really listen to.”
Many of those congressional Republicans are taking notes, listening to Trump’s message and hearing it pitched by Trump’s entourage in Washington, right? In a sense, Trump has elevated the role of the conservative movement to a new level, akin to the civil rights movement and King. “The battle is, in many ways, the alt-right versus the so-called intelligentsia on the one side and the tribes of working-class, blue-collar anger and populism on the other,” said University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Kazin.
The past decade and the entire 20th century have known great seismic shifts. JFK and MLK, Ronald Reagan and the A-Team, Richard Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But there may be another one coming. “I think there is going to be a kind of unraveling of that Mueller investigation that will lead to tremendous political change and overreach,” said Friedman. “And I think Trump will not be around to stop it.”