The news that the president himself had contracted the coronavirus, just days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg triggered a high-stakes Supreme Court battle in the middle of a global pandemic that has upended nearly every aspect of modern life, raised a number of questions for the American people. Among them, “Do we have the strength to survive this?" “How have we so angered the gods?” and, of course, “Is this the most deranged year ever to occur in American history because it certainly feels that way?”
Without the therapeutic or spiritual skills to answer the first two questions, I set off to answer the third, conducting a rigorously unscientific survey of historians to provide you with the four years in American history that rival 2020.
A group of scholars graciously offered their assistance, even though, as Stanford professor emeritus Jack Rakove gently explained, “Craziest year is not exactly a category that historians ordinarily deal in.”
The year 2020 is looking like a strong contender, having so far clobbered us with President Trump’s impeachment, a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans and collapsed large swaths of the economy, massive protests that broke out in dozens of cities after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police, wildfires that devastated millions of acres across the West Coast, and an increasingly bitter election that may threaten the stability of democracy. (In fact, things have been so nuts in 2020 that giant hornets with shark fin-like spikes that can puncture beekeeping suits and kill humans — aptly named murder hornets — barely registered in the national consciousness.)
But history is long, with plenty to teach us and perhaps even some hope to offer.
“This isn’t the only terrible year,” said Adriane Lentz-Smith, a professor of history at Duke University. “It’s not even the only year when people couldn’t imagine an end to terribleness.”
Not exactly a rallying cry, but it’s something.
The year that the country fractured into the bloody Civil War came up with some frequency during this exercise.
“1861 is on any short list," said Timothy Hacsi, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Boston, describing it as “obviously one of the most traumatic years in American history.”
As the argument over slavery grew, Southern Democrats increasingly viewed the other party as illegitimate, out to destroy the Southern way of life.
The beginning of war in 1861 was partly the result of the tumultuous 1860 election, in which Lincoln won on a platform of not interfering with slavery in the South, but opposing its expansion in the West.
Of course it’s not particularly encouraging that 1861 was followed by four years of horrific warfare that killed roughly 750,000 people and an additional 100+ years of struggle to achieve basic rights for Black Americans.
But it is encouraging that this year the United States has not plunged into literal war with itself — yet.
The country had just emerged from a gruesome global war, and a deadly flu pandemic was killing millions of people around the world. President Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke and became incapacitated. (His wife effectively ran the country in secret).
In the same year, white citizens led a series of racial pogroms that decimated Black communities, partly in response to Black soldiers' demands for equality after fighting for American democracy abroad, said Lentz-Smith.
“This big ball of everything — antiradicalism, antilabor, anti-Black — all comes together [to result in] casualties upon casualties of African-American people," Lentz-Smith said. "Coming at the end of a war, when the whole world is exhausted.”
Indeed, the poet William Butler Yeats summarized that global feeling of despair in his poem “The Second Coming," which he wrote in 1919.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” he wrote.
Perhaps that sounds a bit too familiar.
“It’s actually kind of reassuring. Maybe it’s not the end of the world," said Robert Allison, a professor of history at Suffolk University. "It seemed like it in 1919, but here we are.”
The Great Depression had reached its peak, with about a quarter of Americans out of work and virtually no federal aid. Families were losing their homes and desperate for food. It was an election year, with Franklin D. Roosevelt running against Herbert Hoover.
“There was also climate disaster happening in our Midwest,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. In the Dust Bowl, severe drought caused farmlands to literally blow away, killing people and crops and leading to massive migrations.
Against that backdrop, extremism was on the rise worldwide. The Nazi Party became the strongest party in the German government in July elections.
Things did not exactly get better on that front after 1932.
As the Vietnam War raged, student protests erupted across the country. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. Robert Kennedy, a hope for the Democratic Party, was also assassinated. US troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre. Armed police greeted tens of thousands of antiwar protesters at the Democratic convention in Chicago, beating participants while national TV cameras rolled.
“This feeling of the relentlessness of the crises — I think that was a year when people felt that the world was coming apart," said Lizabeth Cohen, a historian at Harvard University. “That feeling of ‘Oh my God, have we not hit bottom yet?’ ”
Perhaps you think 2020 pales in comparison to those past catastrophes; perhaps you think the troubles we face far exceed the ones that came before.
In either case, don’t forget that it’s only October.
“I do think it’s going to get even worse, the next three months,” said Hacsi. “We are almost just getting started.”