Imagine how future historians might try to summarize 2017: A U.S. president, his family and his political aides came under investigation by a special counsel for possibly helping a foreign government meddle in the election. Talk of impeachment swirled through Congress, where the fracturing Republican Party was in the midst of an identity crisis—and the Democrats were, too. Twitter became a source of official U.S. policy. A wave of sexual harassment allegations took down U.S. senators and congressmen, top judges and reporters, and high-profile political candidates—but not the president, who had been caught on tape admitting to grabbing women “by the pussy.” We learned that the Pentagon has secretly been studying UFOs. All while the leaders of North Korea and the United States exchanged threats to rain down nuclear “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
But as unbelievable and unprecedented as this year seemed, how wild was it really? Does it come in No. 1 in the pantheon of American political chaos? Or, alongside the Civil Wars, assassinations, race riots and Watergates, does it not even rank? We asked some of the nation’s smartest historians to tell us whether 2017 was indeed the craziest year in U.S. political history, and, if not, what year’s got it beat. Here’s what they had to say. —Elizabeth F. Ralph
‘2017 has its own unmatched attributes’
Robert Dallek is the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life.
Twenty-seventeen is certainly one of the most distressing years in American presidential history. Of course, it cannot match 1861, when the United States was tumbling into a civil war and Abraham Lincoln found himself helpless to prevent a conflict that would take more American lives than in any other bloodletting in U.S. history.
But 2017 has its own unmatched attributes. No president since opinion polling began in 1935 has had such poor numbers in his first year in office. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who never fell below 50 percent approval in the Gallup Poll during his 12-year presidency, Donald Trump has been stuck at between 36 and 42 percent. Nor have we seen so unproductive an administration, with more unfilled campaign promises, than Trump’s. Trump also has the unenviable distinction of being the only first-year president to have his administration under scrutiny by a special prosecutor. This has been a year to remember in presidential history.
1865: An assassination, a racist, a political fracture
Ron Chernow is the author of GRANT.
On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. After four years of gruesome warfare, Grant laid down generous terms, issuing rations to famished Confederate soldiers and allowing them to take home their horses and mules to plant crops. For a fleeting and improbable instant, it seemed as if the war might conclude in fairytale fashion, with the Confederacy chastened and even repentant after the rebellion. Violence would give way to sanity.
Then, five days later, came the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. “Here was the rebellion put down in the field,” Grant later observed, “and starting up in the gutters.” The Great Emancipator and head of the Republican Party was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, a Democrat and an unapologetic racist, throwing American politics into turmoil. The Ku Klux Klan loomed just over the horizon. The events at Appomattox Court House had briefly promised regional harmony, but the radical change in leadership at the White House hinted that the deep fracture between North and South would harden into a permanent feature of our national life, a source of lunacy that bedevils us to the present day.
1919: Riots, racial violence, an absent president
Adriane Lentz-Smith is a professor of history at Duke University.
Nineteen-nineteen should have been a good year. The armistice ending World War I promised a return to calm, a restoration of civil liberties, and an ebb to the nativist hysteria that had made targets of German Americans. But the war’s end brought violence, not peace, to the American home front. Riots roiled across the nation, in towns from Charleston to Washington, D.C., to Chicago. Not contemporary riots but Old-World-style pogroms in which white mobs targeted black bodies, businesses and homes as a reminder that the “War for Democracy” abroad would not bring democracy back home. Although poet and former diplomat James Weldon Johnson labeled it the “Red Summer,” the firestorm lasted the entire year, with large-scale riots in 10 cities, smaller conflicts in scores more, and nearly 100 lynchings of African Americans (at least 13 of whom were veterans of the war). In September in Elaine, Arkansas, the revanchism of the Red Summer met the anti-radicalism of the Red Scare as white landowners led a mob of nearly 1,000 men in a massacre of black sharecroppers who had met to form a union.
All of this happened in the absence of presidential leadership. President Woodrow Wilson did little as white sailors beat black folks in the Washington streets, and he did even less to protect African Americans in Elaine and elsewhere. Amplifying his general indifference to African-American citizenship was his focus on Paris. Wilson had spent much of the spring negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and much of the summer trying to sell the nation on it. By fall he had done himself in. Brought down by a series of strokes in late September, he sat paralyzed, effectively, as the nation burned around him. In his name, his administration went after radicals and so-called black insurgents, rather than the white supremacists who had launched the wave of terror.
This past year, 2017, has looked more like 1919 than most Americans would like. White supremacy is again in fashion in the Executive Branch, and the president shows little interest in protecting the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. This is disheartening but not unprecedented. Yet, when we tell ourselves that things have been worse, we must also remind ourselves that we once made them better. We can—we must—do so again.
2017 ‘is a yawner by comparison’
H.W. Brands is a professor of history and government at the University of Texas and author of The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War.
So far, the Trump presidency has been noisy but unproductive. A young conservative justice added to the Supreme Court, yes. And now a tax bill, probably. But either of these would have happened under any Republican president with the current Congress. For Trump the campaign circus continues; the presidency has hardly begun.
Several other first years have been crazier, if that means surprisingly eventful. In Lincoln’s first year the Union fell apart and the North and South went to war. In FDR’s first year the welfare state was born. In George H. W. Bush’s first year the Soviet empire started to crumble. In George W. Bush’s first year, the 9/11 attacks introduced America to global terrorism.
Trump’s first year is a yawner by comparison, except that he won’t shut up and let us snooze.
1860: ‘Crazy in a terrifying way’
Jacqueline Jones is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
The year 1860 was crazy in a terrifying way. In the mid-19th century, partisan politics was akin to a blood sport, pursued by a small, privileged electorate consisting almost exclusively of white men. Yet in 1860, virtually all Americans understood that the results of the presidential election that November would affect every single person regardless of who they were or where they lived. At stake was a fundamental question that was roiling the nation: Should trafficking in human flesh remain legal?
The fast-moving events of 1860 upended the two-party system, threw into disarray traditional political alignments, and triggered the secession of South Carolina from the Union. In the summer of 1860, the Democratic Party cracked up, splitting into two factions. The southern wing promoted the extension of slavery, while the northern wing wanted to leave the issue up to the individual states. The new Constitutional Union Party promoted the thoroughly discredited idea that compromise on the slavery issue was possible. The Republican Party, which represented northern anti-slavery interests, had been in existence for only six years; it nominated Abraham Lincoln. By mid-summer most Americans understood that the fractured Democratic Party guaranteed a Republican win at the polls in November. Election Day saw a turnout of 81.2 percent of the eligible voting age population (in contrast, the figure for the election of 2016 was 55.5 percent). Responding to Lincoln’s victory, the South Carolina General Assembly approved an ordinance of secession on December 20, a move that would be replicated by 10 other southern states determined to protect the institution of slavery from Lincoln and a Republican Congress. The seceded states provoked a war that claimed 700,000 lives. More Americans died in the Civil War than in all other wars in the nation’s history combined. The end of the war proved that it was not the year 1860 that was crazy, but the self-deluded secessionists who assumed any conflict with the Union would be but a brief romp.
1968: ‘The most tumultuous year we should remember’
Leo Ribuffo is a professor of history at George Washington University.
I could choose any year of the Civil War, for reasons that should be obvious. Or I could pick 1877 or 1919, for reasons that are slightly less so. In March 1877, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became president as part of a sordid but sensible deal to resolve a corrupt and violent election. Hayes took office amid a recession that, during the summer, precipitated a bloody national railroad strike eventually broken by state militia and federal troops. In 2017 terms, damage was comparable to the destruction of major airport terminals and hundreds of planes. Nineteen-nineteen was marked by the start of post-World War I “stagflation,” murderous anti-black riots in many cities, defeat of the Versailles Treaty after a bitter congressional debate, and a Red Scare with ideological legacies lasting at least through McCarthyism. President Woodrow Wilson hunkered down in the White House almost totally disabled by a stroke.
But 1861-65, 1877 and 1919 probably seem so 19th- or early-20th century to readers of POLITICO Magazine. Therefore, the award for the most tumultuous year we should remember goes to 1968. It wasn’t all sex, drugs, and rock and roll. American deaths in Vietnam peaked at nearly 17,000. Assassins killed Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Amid the urban uprisings following King’s murder, the fires in Washington, D.C., were the worst since the British attacked the city and burned the White House in 1814. Richard Nixon was elected president after campaigning as a moderate, which in a way he was because segregationist George Wallace on his right got 9.9 million votes. Nineteen sixty-eight also merits the prize because many of today’s officials and pundits were already adults. President Donald Trump turned 22, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi 28, and CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer 20. With minimal effort, they could remember what an extraordinary national crisis looks like instead of promoting the apocalyptic self-absorption of the present.
1973-1974: A political scandal, a resignation, a market crash
Vanessa Walker is Morgan assistant professor of Diplomatic History at Amherst College.
This past year has made a strong case for the “craziest year” in American politics. While most presidents have preferred at least the veneer of respectability, the current administration seems to delight in the specter of open dysfunction and provocation. Still, in our never-ending whirl of scandals and crises, let’s not forget the final year in office of Richard Milhous “When-the-president-does-it-that-means-it’s-not-illegal” Nixon. Nixon started the last year of his presidency with covert support for the coup in Chile that toppled one of the strongest democracies in the hemisphere in September of 1973. This was followed quickly by the Yom Kippur War in October, resulting in the OPEC embargo and oil crisis. And humming away in the background was the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, the country’s (then) longest conflict. And then there was the Watergate scandal: gross abuses of executive power to intimidate domestic political opponents, obstruct justice and undermine the constitutional separation of powers. Facing impending impeachment, in August 1974 Nixon became the first and only president to resign the office. Gerald Ford, a fundamentally decent man, took over the presidency only because the former vice president, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign less than a year earlier under charges of conspiracy, fraud and bribery. The same day Ford sought to heal the country by pardoning Nixon in September 1974, he was greeted with headlines about U.S. covert operations that had led to the military coup in Chile. Ford thus had the dubious distinction of being the first president to publically acknowledge U.S. covert operations.
By the time Nixon gave his final iconic and unrepentant wave as he boarded the helicopter to leave the White House, he had championed the benefits of dividing the American public through “positive polarization,” attacked the press for its “unfair” and “biased” coverage of his administration, dismissed anti-war protestors as “bums,” and promoted the image of himself as a “madman” with his finger on the nuclear launch button to scare the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table.
Even with all of this, 2017 could go toe-to-toe with the last year of the Nixon White House in terms of political sensationalism. So, what gives 1973-1974 the edge? Amid our very real political turmoil this year, we have been spared the miseries of that unfortunate 1970s malaise of stagflation. Just imagine this past year with the addition of a serious stock market crash, double digit inflation, and cars lined up around the block waiting for gas. The current booming economy has clearly tempered public impatience with the political shenanigans that have marked this year—and puts Nixon’s last year in office in the lead for crazy. Of course, there are still two weeks left in the year, and 2017 has been nothing if not unpredictable.
1968: ‘It’s hard to think of a more chaotic year’
David Greenberg is professor of history and media studies at Rutgers.
It’s hard to think of a more chaotic year in contemporary American history than 1968. After years of mounting social discord over civil rights, civil liberties, changing codes of behavior and the war in Vietnam, many citizens now firmly believed—be it with hope or dread—that a revolution was nigh. The year began with the Tet Offensive, which convinced many Americans the war was unwinnable, and ended with the presidential election victory of Richard Nixon, a man whose political career had been said to be over just six years before. In between, turbulence reigned.
Six weeks after Tet, a second-tier Minnesota senator, Eugene McCarthy, nearly upset President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, leading Johnson to forsake a second full term. Three weeks after that, the era’s greatest civil rights hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. And later that spring, the Democrats’ best hope for retaining the White House, Robert F. Kennedy, was also murdered—on the night he won the final presidential primary, in California—by a Palestinian terrorist, Sirhan Sirhan. On campuses like Columbia University’s, student strikes halted normal operations. In cities like Washington, D.C., riots leveled black neighborhoods. Antiwar protesters clashed with Chicago police in August at the Democratic convention; in September feminists protested the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. To look abroad brought Americans no relief either, as violent protests rocked cities from Mexico City to Paris, and Rome to Prague—where Soviet troops crushed the so-called Prague Spring. In December, one bright spot gave Americans some reason to look to the future: As part of the Apollo 8 mission, the first men orbited the moon—suggesting perhaps that if life on earth seemed irredeemably conflict-ridden, new frontiers of hope lay ahead.
1920: ‘The world was in chaos’
Nicole Hemmer is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
No year can compete with 2017 in terms of the volume and pace of news. But in terms of chaos, 1920 would be a solid competitor.
The world was in chaos. The Great War had ended just weeks before, and it was still uncertain what, if anything, would emerge from the rubble. In the first few months of the year, Congress voted first against joining the League of Nations, then against ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, leaving the state of world affairs, and America’s role in them, an open question.
At home, social and economic chaos reigned. The U.S. military rapidly demobilized, bringing four million troops home without any plans for their reintegration. Agricultural markets, buoyed by the war, collapsed, triggering a farming depression that would last for two decades. Massive strikes, which had started a year earlier, continued to roil American industry. This mass unrest triggered fears of anarchy and communism that led to America’s first Red Scare. The Justice Department organized raids of questionable constitutionality, rounding up thousands of leftists.
You want political chaos? In early 1920, the public became aware of the extent of President Woodrow Wilson’s debilitating strokes, which left him largely incapacitated for the remainder of his term. The impending presidential election saw the electorate doubled by the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. And what an election it was: Warren G. Harding, the dark horse Republican nominee, was a newspaper man who had newly minted Hollywood celebs campaigning for him while the RNC sent his mistress—and her husband—on a cruise to Asia to keep them away from the press. He ran against another newspaper man, James Cox, and the socialist Eugene Debs, who in 1920 conducted his presidential campaign from federal prison, where he was being jailed for speaking out against the draft.
Oh, and in September, the U.S. experienced its deadliest terror attack to date, when a horse-drawn carriage exploded on Wall Street, killing 38 people and wounding hundreds more. No wonder that by November, Americans were ready to vote for the “return to normalcy” Harding had promised: 1920 had left them reeling.
1861: ‘Democratic politics … came very close to a breaking point’
Joshua Zeitz is the author of Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House.
“The people are impatient,” Abraham Lincoln confided to Montgomery Meigs, the Union Army’s Quartermaster General shortly after the close of his first year in office. “[Secretary of Treasury Salmon] Chase has no money and he tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?”
Americans today are living through turbulent and unsetting times that will test the elasticity of our political traditions and institutions. But we’ve endured worse. No one knew it better than Lincoln.
In 1861, democratic politics in the United States came very close to a breaking point. Eleven states seceded from the Union, leading the Senate to expel 11 members, including former Vice President John C. Breckenridge. Thousands of Army and Naval officers renounced allegiance to their country. In response, the president summarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus (something he most likely did not have the constitutional authority to do), not just in the rebellious states, but also in Maryland, which remained in the Union only after he placed roughly one-third of the state legislature behind bars.
We’re not currently on course for a second civil war, and on the whole, America’s public institutions—the courts, law enforcement, state governments—have held their own against the threat posed by Trumpism (and by its congressional enablers). But there’s some lesson in that earlier era.
As unmoored as it was from past experience, 1861 merely presaged five years of greater revolutionary activity that followed. Southern Democrats had formally repudiated democratic process, and in response, Northern Republicans felt emboldened to undertake counter-measures that in very recent memory would have been unthinkable. They confiscated rebel property, created a new paper currency, borrowed vast sums of money, funded the construction of land grant colleges and transcontinental railroad construction—the education and infrastructure bills of their day. They emancipated and granted citizenship to four million slaves.
Writing later that decade, the historian George Ticknor observed a “great gulf between what happened before in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter. It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.”
For every political action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As was true in 1861, we’ve only seen the start of it.
1890: An unpopular tax bill, voter suppression, an impending revolt
Heather Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College.
Every time the U.S. government swings too far toward oligarchy we have a political crisis as a small minority tries to retain power in the face of an angry and growing opposition. This tension gave us 1860, as well as 1932. It also gave us 1890.
In May of that year, Republican congressmen yelled and cheered as they passed a major revenue bill that gave rich businessmen everything they wanted. They had forced the bill through, ignoring regular order, Democratic amendments, and the voters to whom they had promised financial “reform.” As congressmen celebrated, a Democrat yelled across the aisle: “You may rejoice now … but next November you’ll mourn.”
Republicans just laughed. They felt utterly secure. Sure, Republican policies were hideously unpopular, but people would like them once they understood that government protection of workers was socialism and would undermine American greatness, while giving money to capitalists meant investment in the economy that would trickle down to poorer Americans. In any case, Republicans couldn’t lose. They had gamed the system to control the government no matter how unpopular they were. Their president had lost the popular vote but they had won the White House through the Electoral College anyway. They had quietly taken over a popular media outlet to trumpet the administration’s talking points. They suppressed the Democratic vote. And they had monkeyed with the system by adding six new states to the Union: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and Idaho. With these new Republican states, they expected that they would never again lose the Senate or the presidency. Big-business Republicans celebrated their permanent remaking of the American government.
But the Democrat who told them they would mourn was right. The extremists controlling the government had alienated not just Democrats, but also most Republicans, who lamented that their party had been replaced by a corrupt organization only interested in making the rich richer. Over the next two years, Republican leaders watched aghast as voters did the unthinkable, tossing them out of power in Congress and the White House, and beginning the political revolution that led to the Progressive Era.
‘In the realm of craziness, 2017 has no contenders’
Jack Rackove is professor of history and political science at Stanford University.
In ordinary times, crazy is not a useful variable of social science or a helpful framework for historical analysis. But of course, ordinary historical time ended 13 months ago (and counting, day by day, hour by hour, tweet by tweet), and the question arises: Is this the craziest year in our nation’s political history? The working historian can readily identify other years that were patently more momentous, and we can justify their importance by invoking all those factors that we spend our scholarly years studying. But in the realm of craziness, 2017 has no contenders.
Why is that the case? One could argue, for example, that the new Republican mode of lawmaking, which involves drafting legislation behind closed doors, with no serious discussion, to fuel some madcap rush to get a vote, represents a crazed alternative to the Madisonian model of serious prolonged deliberation. Or one could hold that it is a crazed model of governance to experience one traumatic weather emergency after another, yet turn our institutions of environmental regulation over to a crowd of climate change deniers and big business chumps.
But the best case for craziness inheres in our prolonged uncertainty over the mental state of our chief executive. There are already countless ways to measure the ever-oscillating mood swings in the White House. Just consider the two long newspaper pieces that have run in the last fortnight, with the New York Times describing Trump’s working day—or is it better called viewing day?—while the Washington Post details his persistent preference for the word of Vladimir Putin over the reports of his own intelligence agencies.
In my view, however, the real craziness of 2017 is best expressed in terms of constitutional theory. Our Constitution vests the entire executive power in a single individual. No worse joke has been played on the American people than the very fact that tens of thousands of eighth graders have a far better grasp of the Constitution than Donald Trump, even though he swore a sacred oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” it on January 20, before the record crowds he deluded himself to see assembled before him. That’s not just political craziness; it’s truly meshugah in every sense of the term. Just try to imagine a conversation with Jefferson, Madison, either Adams, or Abraham Lincoln—strong constitutionalists all—on one side of the table, and the current chief executive on the other. That would be crazy, too!
Original article on Politico.