Most everyone agrees 2017 has been a crazy year, but historians say it doesn’t quite compare to some of the most tumultuous years in American history.
Politico asked some of the top U.S. historians to put this past year into context, and they generally agreed it didn’t match the horrors of the Civil War and years scarred by assassinations, widespread race riots and lynchings, or titanic terror attacks.
“Several other first years have been crazier, if that means surprisingly eventful,” said H.W. Brands, a professor of history and government at the University of Texas. “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.”
“(President Donald) Trump’s first year is a yawner by comparison,” Brands added, “except that he won’t shut up and let us snooze.”
The Civil War years rated highly among historians, but one cited 1919 — when white mobs attacked black Americans in “Old-World-style pogroms” across the nation as President Woodrow Wilson faded away after a series of strokes.
“This past year, 2017, has looked more like 1919 than most Americans would like,” Adriane Lentz-Smith, a professor of history at Duke University. “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.”
One historian conceded other years had been far more momentous in U.S. history, but he said 2017 had no contenders “in the realm of craziness.”
“Why is that the case?” said Jack Rackove, professor of history and political science at Stanford University. “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.”
Rackove said the uncertainty about Trump’s mental state, his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apparent preference for watching TV instead of executing government responsibilities were also highly unusual.
“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 Jan. 20, before the record crowds he deluded himself to see assembled before him,” Rackove said. “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!”