On August 15, 1971, President Nixon put the economic and financial world into a new era.
Pat Buchanan is largely credited with coining the term “silent majority,” but he made another prescient observation regarding the antics of the student radicals of the late 1960s and early 70s, calling it “the revolt of the overprivileged.” That’s how the hardhats working in Manhattan saw them too, resulting in a melee where hundreds of construction workers violently attacked anti-Vietnam War student protestors on May 8, 1970.
The anti-war protestors numbered at over 1,000, gathered in front of Federal Hall, making predictable demands for the end of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Tensions between construction and trade workers, mostly through the exchange of words, had been escalating downtown over the previous few weeks. A little before noon, many of the workers walked off their job sites to show their support for the country and against the excess of student radicalism that continually wreaked havoc on New York City and much of the nation. Many of the workers carried flags, chanting “USA-USA.” A student waving a Viet Cong flag from the top of the steps at Federal Hall helped to escalate an already tense scene. Soon, a bloody street brawl emerged, where anybody who appeared to be a young hippy was attacked with fists, tools, and steel-toe boots. The anti-American radicalism of the student protestors became so objectionable to many Americans that the violence of the hardhats was largely excused at the time, leaving with us the start of a massive political realignment that remains as relevant as ever. Working within the Nixon White House, Buchanan noted of the white working-class Democrats: “They were clearly coming unmoored from the great FDR coalition.”
David Paul Kuhn’s The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working – Class Revolution is mostly a play by play of the actual riot and clashes that turned New York City into a symbol of national division. The book shines in delving into the new bond between union workers and a Republican president, as well as reinforcing just how unpopular and loathed the protestors were by so many Americans. Radical students were seen as being steeped in privilege, so much so, that hundreds of workers from Wall Street and Manhattan office buildings filed out of their workspaces and joined the ranks of the Hardhats to literally break through a police gauntlet and barricades to assault the profanity spewing students waving communist flags. Kuhn himself notes the truth of how the anti-war students were always less popular than the Vietnam War itself. In fact, as Kuhn says, the student protestors were less popular than the Civil Rights protestors of the era amongst the white-working class. He offers a reminder that the common trope that political realignment solely boils down to race is so often flawed.
For New York, the tipping point for the hard hats occurred just four days after the infamous and deadly Kent State campus shootings in 1970. Propelled by the bloody protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in April, and Kent State, students flocked to Federal Hall to protest. One of the students at Kent State shot dead by the National Guard was from Long Island, helping to give a localized fervency to the events. Republican Mayor John Lindsay ordered the flags at City Hall to half-staff for the slain students, a contentious issue to the hard hats, who already felt estranged from Lindsay’s “wokeism,” to borrow a more contemporary phrase for the mayor’s emerging brand of politics. Most of the workers, many of them building the Twin Towers of the One World Trade Center at the time, blamed the student activists for the unrest at Kent State. One worker summarized the general sentiment: “They’re supposed to be our future leaders. If I had a chance to get an education, I wouldn’t be wasting my time on the streets.”
Clearly much of the resentment centered around the war, and while many hard hats opposed the war at this point, the anti-American attitudes that the students expressed and the destructiveness of these protests was too much in their view. A large segment of New York’s population was familiar with the violence. From January 1969 to April 1970, there were more than 4,300 bombings across the country, many of them in New York City. “I don’t care if somebody stands on the street corner and tells everybody ‘I don’t like the war,’ I don’t like it either,’ noted Twin Towers elevator constructor Lennie Lavoro. “But when they try to ruin the country and desecrate the flag, I can’t stand it.”
The waving of the communist Vietnamese flag was particularly difficult for the hardhats to stomach. Many were veterans, and it was no secret by this point that it was the lower educated and less wealthy that were shouldering so much of the sacrifice in Vietnam. As notable writer and Harvard alum David Halberstam said at the time, “Almost as many people from Harvard won Pulitzer’s in Vietnam as died there.”
Losing the Middle Class in New York
Writing for the Wall Street Journal in 2011, Fred Siegel called both New York City and New York State the “vanguard of middle-class decline.” Siegel notes how higher taxes to pay for big government and rising crime played a tremendous role in the mass exodus of manufacturing and middle-class work. At one point in his book, Kuhn even notes that at least some involved in the Hard Hat Riot were auto workers, yes, the Northeast once boasted auto manufacturing as an industry. The decline of manufacturing and trade work in New York and the shrinking middle class in the city is a story that accelerated under Mayor Lindsay’s tenure in the late 60s and early 70s. Lindsay’s politics—he would eventually unsuccessfully seek the Democratic nomination in 1972—echoed many of the more radicalized themes present today. Lindsay was often quick to use similar terminology like “mostly peaceful protests” for some of the urban unrest and rising crime in the city during his tenure.
Violence, mass looting, and mayhem enveloped Spanish Harlem in 1967 after a Puerto Rican was killed by a white policeman when the cop was allegedly threatened with a knife. Lindsay told New Yorkers, “this was not a riot, this was a demonstration.” Kuhn notes that “the average cop loathed Lindsay when he downplayed the worst of their work.”
Overall, the New Left was incessantly defending and working to normalize riots. Tom Hayden called the riots of the time, “people making history” and “fundamental change.” For many instigating and involved in the riots, the end simply justified the means.
Lindsay increasingly would cast his political lot with the New Left such as the student protestors or aggrieved non-white ethnic groups and his unpopularity with police played some role in the hands-off approach to the hard hats in Manhattan by the New York City Police. Once the hard hats turned their fury on the student protestors many cops looked the other way or tepidly tried to restore order. After all, the hard hats were living in the same working-class neighborhoods with the cops. They frequented the same bars and social circles. Kuhn offers a number of instances where the police stood aside during the violence. “One of those cops, big and clean-shaven and about 30, left the police line and requested a bandage from a medic,” writes Kuhn. “Someone asked the cop, ‘How come you let the construction workers through the line and stopped the students and the press? We’re with them,’ the cop replied.” When a city housing administrator told the police that the hard hats were now attacking students over at Pace College and needed to act, the cop scoffed at him, telling him “we don’t have any orders to cross the street.”
The workers demanded the flag at half-staff to be raised—and it was—it became a unifying event for many in law enforcement in the city. Still, the decline of working-class whites in New York would only accelerate in the years to come. They had won a pitched battle but were being displaced from the city.
A Major Political Realignment
Undoubtedly, Kuhn is correct that many of the divisions today are magnified through the lens of the Hard Hat Riot. Donald Trump’s transformation of the GOP, morphing it into a party heavily representative of white-working class Americans, is more solidified than ever before. A mogul of New York City real estate, Trump undoubtedly knew the individuals who participated in and were proud of their stance against a boiling over of anti-American excess in 1970. He tapped into the loss of manufacturing and overall frustration with American decline to sweep aside skilled Republican politicians for the party’s nomination and then captured the presidency itself in 2016.
Nixon and Trump’s friendly relationship after Nixon’s presidency when he moved to New York City may have played some role in Trump’s political thinking going forward. After the riot, Nixon heavily sympathized with blue collar whites. After all, their experience was a substantial part of Nixon’s background growing up in California. Speaking of the events in Manhattan he noted that they “were with us when some of the elitist crowd were running away from us. Thank God for the hardhats!” Nixon invited labor leaders to the White House, and he was given his own hard hat with his name emblazoned on it. For many conservative Republicans there was a visceral reaction to Nixon’s new friendship with and courting of labor. “Mr. Nixon’s embrace included not only those who attended the rally but those who bashed heads as well,” wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial. “We think it’s no time for ambiguity.”
Yet, before his political downfall a few years later, Nixon’s courting of labor paid huge dividends for his reelection strategy in 1972. His historic victory created a new political majority for the GOP that only improved under President Ronald Reagan and allowed Trump to launch his anti-establishment upset and “Make America Great Again” agenda. There was a political calculation to all of this for Nixon but because of his own humble background, those close to him “recall an authentic desire to represent ordinary Americans,” writes Kuhn.
Hard Hat Riot draws some sympathetic parallels to the forgotten men of the late 1960s and early 1970s and those too often forgotten today. On top of the decline of higher paying American manufacturing jobs, the Coronavirus lockdowns have undoubtedly had a disproportionate impact on blue collar Americans. For many, President Donald Trump became a powerful advocate against an America that is becoming less patriotic or even recognizable. At its most favorable, they see many of Trump’s detractors in the political establishment as the type of leaders more than willing to manage America’s slow decline. Still, in Trump’s downfall, the constituency remains, yet they remain more disconnected from the political system and Washington than ever before. “Government to be safe and to be free must consist of representatives having a common interest and common feeling with the represented,” warned John Randolph of Roanoke. Who represents them going forward? It’s their America too. Contempt alone generates blindness to legitimate grievances.
There aren’t vast differences between the alienation of hard hats who attacked student-protestors and those so disconnected from their government that they swarmed the Capitol building. One reading Hard Had Riot may wonder why somebody could ever feel that the working class is voting against their own economic interests by supporting a conservative agenda or candidates, arguments once put forward in books like What’s the Matter with Kansas? The author, Thomas Frank, followed up that book with Listen Liberal, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Frank now bemoans that Democrats have intentionally abandoned the working class for the wealthy elite and professional class. He now blames many of the party’s policies for directly expanding inequality. Those actions have helped to magnify not just America’s economic divisions, but deeper cultural divisions as well, particularly given that Democrats have almost fully exorcised the white working class in favor of the more socially preferred and educated aggrieved persons and groups allied with the left’s political leaders. The political strife our nation has experienced from that type of politics is far from over. The biggest mistake of all would be to think the conflict will subside in the absence of Trump.