Was 2017 the Craziest Year in U.S. Political History?Historians in the News
tags: politics, Trump
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 at 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
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.
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