I have long regarded 1968 as the worst year for America since the Civil War. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the violent protests it sparked; the killing of Robert F. Kennedy and the Democratic Party’s subsequent self-immolation at the Chicago convention; intensifying controversy over the Vietnam War, which divided classes and generations; George C. Wallace’s racist and populist presidential campaign, which garnered 13.5% of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes—these were but some of the milestones in that annus horribilis.
April 1968. Smoke was billowing in the distance—from the South Side—as I drove in Chicago, where I was a student at the time. I remember saying to myself: It can’t get worse than this. For more than half a century it didn’t—until now. A health crisis, an economic crisis, and a racial crisis have converged to produce a clear and present danger to American democracy. U.S. enemies abroad cannot contain their glee; America’s friends regret our plight—and fear for the future of a world order that was built on a foundation of American power, principles and persistence.
Adam Smith famously remarked that there is “a lot of ruin in a nation.” But there are limits, and we are testing them. Previous crises have always summoned the leadership the U.S. needed. Will our current crisis do the same? I’m not sure. I fear, as never before, for the future of my country.