The thought came to me as I watched the Cleveland police clear away protesters from the city’s Public Square. Half a dozen on horseback, nearly a dozen or so on heavy-duty bikes, the cops deftly corralled the protesters without so much as touching anyone, much as a border collie channels a flock of uncomprehending sheep.
Then it struck me: What I was seeing was not the real thing, not a genuine spontaneous protest, stoked by anger and with the constant potential of breaking into unstoppable violence. Instead, I was watching a group of re-enactors, wearing costumes copied from the past and carrying signs minimally updated.
And what can be more American and 21st century? Every month, thousands of people re-enact, in authentically scratchy uniforms and on the same killing grounds, the great battles of the Civil War or American Revolution. So it’s not so odd to see national convention re-enactors reprising the protests of 1968 or 1972.
Re-enactors are admirable for their determination to get in close touch with our history, its triumphs and tragedies. And of course it’s heartening that re-enactments, unlike the actual events, are almost entirely harmless to participants and spectators.
I remember the smell of tear-gas-induced vomit and the sight of bloodstains on sidewalks in Chicago in 1968. I witnessed nothing like that in Cleveland’s Public Square (itself a monument to the Union’s Civil War victory) or in the streets of Philadelphia where the more numerous Bernie Sanders protestors were re-enacting the antiwar, anti-corporate protests of half a century before.
The protesters aren’t the only re-enactors active this year. Donald Trump’s rallies are larger than those any candidate has attracted in a couple of decades and more raucous and unruly and defiantly delighted when the candidate transgresses the unwritten but fiercely media-enforced rules of political correctness.
Trump rallies can be seen as re-enactments of the rallies for George Wallace in his three campaigns for the Democratic nomination and his third-party race in 1968. But like the riot re-enactors in the Public Square, the air of menace is almost totally absent. Wallace was an outright segregationist, willing to condone violence against peaceful protestors. Trump wants different trade agreements and enforcement of current immigration laws — mistaken policies, you may believe, but not denials of basic rights.
There is an element of re-enactment, too, in the Black Lives Matter movement. But the property damage in Ferguson, Missouri, and other recent riot sites was microscopic next to the destruction of much of Newark and Detroit in 1967. The police tactics that have raised complaints also pale in magnitude next to what was standard operating procedure in the 1960s.
The #BLM re-enactors are doing some actual harm, unfortunately. As the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald has documented, their protests have led police in cities such as St. Louis and Baltimore and Chicago to draw back from proactive enforcement in high-crime neighborhoods, resulting in sharp increases in African-American deaths. Not as bad as the ’60s, but bad enough.
The surprise re-enactor of 2016 turns out, given the events of last weekend, to be Hillary Clinton. Like another past Democratic nominee, she decided to “power past” (the verb form uttered in stentorian unison by her admirers) warnings of illness to risk the consequences of outdoor campaigning in New York City.
The analogous previous nominee was Franklin Roosevelt, seriously ill as he ran for a fourth term as president at age 62 in 1944. Roosevelt decided to campaign through the four large boroughs of New York City in an open car on Oct. 23, a cold, rainy day. The photos show a wet but smiling candidate, waving a soggy hat as crowds of 1 million people cheered him.
That was four months after D-Day, three days after Gen. MacArthur returned to the Philippines: Victory was in sight. New York City cast 7 percent of the nation’s votes that fall, 61 percent for Roosevelt. The president died six months later.
Hillary Clinton’s version took the much milder form of appearing at a 9/11 commemoration on a breezy, sunny, 79-degree morning, two days after being diagnosed with pneumonia. Reportedly dehydrated, she collapsed and had to be lifted into a car, losing a shoe in the process.
Clinton seems less unhealthy and less lucky than Roosevelt, whose trip around New York was a success. But Clinton is also less accomplished: Supervising the reset with Russia and the pivot to Asia doesn’t compare with promising and achieving absolute victory in World War II. Re-enactments, however earnest, are not the real thing.