As we search for some historical parallel for an American President inciting an insurrection, perhaps the most relevant example is offered by Ronald Shafer who points to the aftermath of the 1960 election where Kennedy squeaked by Nixon. The post-election period in that race closely mirrors the situation we face today and would have probably also resulted in an open insurrection if the extremists had had access to social media and a national TV propaganda network and Nixon had opted to contest the results in the way that Trump has.
In 1960, Kennedy won the popular vote by a little under 113,000 votes out of the 69 million that were cast. That slim margin eventually translated into a rather substantial 303–219 Electoral College victory. In the 2020 election, Biden’s popular vote victory was a resounding 7 million votes which translated into a substantial 306–232 Electoral College victory. But, in an almost exact reversal of 2016, a swing of under 100,000 votes across three states would have provided Trump with an Electoral College victory.
The immediate aftermath of the 1960 election saw some of the same reactions on the right that we see today. Members of Nixon’s campaign claimed they had evidence of voter fraud in eleven states — Illinois, Texas, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Eventually, Republicans launched voter fraud suits in two states that would have given Nixon the presidency if they could have been flipped, Texas and Illinois. Like the current claims from the right wing that Pennsylvania went for Biden because loads of dead people voted in Philadelphia, Republicans in 1960 claimed that dead voters in Chicago had provided Kennedy with his victory in that state. Those suits failed in the courts. Recount efforts in New Jersey turned up no new votes for Nixon and were abandoned. In retaliation, Democrats asked for a recount in Hawaii which Nixon had won by a mere 144 votes. That recount ended up giving the state to Kennedy, another blow to the effort to overturn Kennedy’s victory. Nixon made a show of distancing himself from these efforts by stating publicly that he refused to participate in provoking what he described as “the agony of a constitutional crisis”. All the while, however, he was pushing his team to find ways to contest the election.
With the voter fraud effort flailing, attention turned to the Electoral College as a means for overturning Kennedy’s election. Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) had already started hedging their bets on the Democratic party as support for civil rights began to grow within the party. In order to protect their power and perhaps become kingmakers in a close election, Southern states had created a system where the voters could choose unpledged Electors in the presidential election. In 1956, four states, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina all had a slate of unpledged Electors, none of whom were elected to the Electoral College. In 1960, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama had a slate of unpledged electors, with all of Mississippi’s eight electors and six out the eleven in Alabama actually winning election, while Louisiana’s slate lost.
Almost immediately, all the unpledged Electors from Mississippi and Alabama declared they would not vote for Kennedy and they began pressuring their counterparts in Alabama and elsewhere, both Democrat and Republican, to do so as well. In Georgia, the Electors for the Kennedy/Johnson ticket were freed to vote as they pleased and similar efforts to free Electors were attempted in Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina.
The anti-Kennedy Dixiecrats came up with a three-pronged approach to unseating Kennedy in the Electoral College in a plan they entitled “Plan To Give the South a Partial Vote in the Affairs of the Nation”. The first prong was to try and unite the Electors from all eleven Southern states into forcing Kennedy to assert the primacy of “states’ rights” which would allow the status quo racial discrimination of “separate but equal” to continue in the South. If Kennedy refused, the plan was to try and force the Democratic ticket to flip, making Johnson the President and Kennedy his Vice President. The final prong was to try and make a deal with the Republicans by inviting all the Republican Electors to a meeting in Chicago where they would choose from a list of “outstanding Southern men” who would then be elected President by the Electoral College.
At least one Republican Elector from Oklahoma saw the possibility of combining with the Dixiecrats to at minimum deny Kennedy the 269 Electoral College votes he needed, leaving the election to be decided by the House of Representatives. That Elector tried to enlist all the other 218 Republican Electors in an attempt to get them to switch their vote to Harry Byrd, one of those “outstanding Southern men” the Dixiecrats had already proposed. Meanwhile, Nixon’s team was trying and failing to get the Illinois State Board of Elections to certify the Republican slate of Electors instead of the Democratic one.
As with our election today, a significant portion of Americans believed the Electoral College would overturn the results of the 1960 election. And as with our election today, the Electoral College challenge failed. Every single Elector, bar the unpledged ones from Mississippi and Alabama and the one Elector from Oklahoma, voted for the ticket to whom they were pledged. The renegade Electors all voted for Byrd for President, leaving Kennedy with 303 Electoral votes.
As today, all the efforts to overturn Kennedy’s election created an aura of illegitimacy to his presidency in certain quarters. And all same tropes that were used in 1960 were trotted out again by the Republicans this year. According to Barry Goldwater, Kennedy’s liberal platform was a “blueprint for socialism”. Anti-Catholic bias against Kennedy is mirrored in Trump’s anti-Muslim tirades. Kennedy’s Catholicism, combined with his liberal views, would deliver a tyrannical state and were a direct challenge to evangelical Protestant Christian nationalism.
As today, white Christian nationalists were funded by wealthy right-wing business magnates, littered with ex-military men, propagandized by right-wing publishers, and fomented by fundamentalist preachers. As today, various extreme right-wing groups coalesced around opposition to Kennedy and his election. Back then it was the KKK, the Nazis, the John Birch Society, and racists of all stripes. As today, their sense of grievance was displayed in the National Indignation Convention which was held in various cities where speakers accused Kennedy of treason and wanted to impeach the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The violence of the Jim Crow South only intensified after Kennedy’s election and his initially tepid support for civil rights. Martin Luther King was the target of two bombs in Birmingham in May, 1963. But the political violence also extended to national political figures, with UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson being assaulted while giving a speech in Dallas in October, 1963. A month later, Kennedy was assassinated in the same city. While there will always be questions about that assassination and Oswald’s motive, there is no doubt that the fallout from the 1960 election put Kennedy’s legitimacy in question and political violence in the air. And Kennedy’s death was met with pleasure in many right-wing circles around the country.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on January 17, 2021.