In 2016, the American electorate polarized to a historic degree, though not by race or sex. The Democratic nominee performed worse with working-class whites than any other nominee, of either party, since World War II. Years later, elites continue to be confounded by how Donald Trump happened, whether he could stun again, and what his presidency has revealed about American life. Sometimes, the contemporary can best be understood by the lessons of history, including one story that shifted history.
May 1970 was a tumultuous month in a tumultuous era. After Cambodia and Kent State, the antiwar movement radicalized as never before. Even after Watergate, Richard Nixon recalled these days as “among the darkest of my presidency”—until, as his speechwriter William Safire put it, the hardhats helped “turn the tide.”
The Hardhat Riot is a book about a city, a mayor, a president, and a diverging people living different cultures, different wars, different economies, until the American experience became so fragmented that the singular became an anachronism. It was when the “silent majority” first took to the streets. When Gotham, of all places, became a microcosm of the “Middle American Squeeze” and class conflict. When FDR’s “forgotten man” turned against liberalism and the New Left captured popular culture and then the Democratic Party, but lost working-class whites along the way. And that conflict never burned brighter and more brutally than during the Hardhat Riot, when two archetypes of liberalism clashed, presaging the long Democratic civil war ahead.