As we lurch toward an Election Day that feels like a pivotal point in American history, the narrative playing out on the social media feeds of a weary, stressed-out electorate veers toward extremes: If Joe Biden wins, communism reigns. If Donald Trump is reelected, democracy will fall to an authoritarian bully.
Everyone seems divided on issues like race, identity, economics, law and order and public health, and it feels like we’re fractured beyond repair. But take heed, worried nation, we’ve been here before. Sort of.
To lend a sense of perspective in a very fraught time, The Seattle Times assembled a panel of seven historians to gauge how this chaotic year compares to other tumultuous eras in American history, and to look at what the future might hold after Nov. 3.
“Especially in times like this, it’s important for ordinary Americans to have some historical perspective, and I think that’s what we lack the most,” said Cornell W. Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. “We’re much more interested in the latest tweet than we are about understanding our history and what it can tell us about the divisions we feel we have, and whether they’re as momentous as they feel like they are.”
So what can history teach us about these doomy, gloomy times? Well, for one thing, they’re not that unusual. There have been several other politically and culturally divided periods in American history where the average person might have felt as if the world was falling into ruin.
This time around, the weight of the impending election is exacerbated by a global pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans and counting, the renewed social justice movement around police brutality, apocalyptic West Coast wildfires, a fear that climate change is worsening, and the sense of foreboding that comes with a looming economic crash as we head into a predicted third wave of the pandemic.
Of course, in the 1800s, decades of violent division led to the Civil War, with politicians brawling in the aisles of Congress and citizens killing each other in city streets and remote rural outposts as abolitionists pushed for a change that would rewrite America’s economic and social institutions. There was also a period of unrest in the 1890s, spurred by the change from an agrarian economy to an industrial one while whites reconsolidated power in the South during Reconstruction.
Some historians on our panel pointed to the 1920s and ’30s, when workers’ rights and the need for economic aid during The Great Depression were the focus of riots and killings in the streets. The mass emigration of Black people from the South to places like Detroit and Los Angeles during this time resulted in a significant, permanent demographic shift that would reshape the country and its political and social rhythms.
“In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan basically had its biggest membership ever, and it was everywhere,” said Margaret O’Mara, the Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington. “It was here in the Pacific Northwest. They had rallies in downtown Seattle. It became this kind of mainstream movement, even though its whole basis was racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. It was super palatable to a lot of people who would publicly admit to being in the Ku Klux Klan.”
And, most recently, as Clayton reminds us, there were the tumultuous 1960s. President John F. Kennedy, his front-running presidential candidate brother, Robert, and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were all assassinated, and the Vietnam War began to spiral out of control as the nation erupted in protests. Things seemed to reach a fever pitch in 1968, an election year that culminated with former vice president and conservative Republican Richard Nixon becoming the nation’s 37th president.
“You had violence break out at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where people were shot and killed,” Clayton said. “You had riots on campuses across the country where students were shot and killed. You had, of course, the violent response to the peaceful, civil rights protests throughout the South in the early part of that decade. You had tremendous social turmoil in terms of the disruption of lots of social and cultural norms involving religion and the role of women.”
Rather than bringing peace or change, Nixon’s election on a law-and-order platform only seemed to make things worse. Save a few notable achievements — the moon landing and the advent of the internet — 1969 was a very chaotic year. Civil unrest spread to America’s midsize cities, and places like Cairo, Illinois, Greensboro, North Carolina, and York, Pennsylvania, saw firebombings and shootouts between protesters and police. Protesters continued to hammer Nixon on the war, and the deadly Battle of Hamburger Hill in Vietnam divided military leaders and civilians alike.
In New York City, the Stonewall riots broke out in response to police harassment, sparking the gay rights movement. Also that year, the first Woodstock happened, the Chicago Eight pleaded not guilty and went on trial and the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in Ohio, adding more urgency to the environmental movement.
A lot of that sounds familiar, right?
“The only difference is they didn’t map neatly onto our partisan identities,” Clayton said. “So you had conservative and liberal Democrats and conservative and liberal Republicans. The difference today is that we are deeply divided on a number of social, cultural, economic issues.”
Still, historians say real change often emerges from periods like these.
“Taking a very honest, unvarnished look at history and realizing where the failures have been before is actually pretty critical to figuring out how to build something that’s improved and more equitable and fairer and more democratic or whatever you’re looking toward,” O’Mara said. “There is an arc and the arc is bending toward progress, justice.”
The 2020 wild card
There’s one salient difference in our latest period of chaos. Historians say we’ve never seen a wild card quite like President Trump.
According to the History News Network, a George Washington University-based nonprofit that gives historians a platform from which to comment on current events, only eight out of about 15,000 working U.S. historians in 2016 publicly supported Trump and planned to vote for him.
The site has not done a follow-up survey in the lead-up to the 2020 election, but HNN founder and Seattle native Richard Shenkman says it’s significant that there’s such little disagreement within the ranks.
“I don’t think it merely reflects the well-known liberal bias of historians. It goes much deeper,” Shenkman says. “Trump is cut from a different cloth.”
The way the Trump presidency has unfolded, Shenkman said, has validated the concerns historians had about Trump in 2016 — his unconventional background, lack of political or military leadership experience — and raised more red flags.
For one, the president has stoked enough fires that long-simmering societal tensions have bubbled to the surface and boiled over.
“I think it’s a good thing on balance that Trump was elected because it just rips the Band-Aid off all the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia that’s always been here,” said Christopher Sebastian Parker, a UW political scientist who’s written extensively about race and the rise of the Tea Party. “People of color and women and immigrants and same-sex couples have always been gaslighted on all this stuff, right? Are you sure it’s racism or sexism or are you sure this is homophobia, are you sure it’s nativism? [Expletive deleted] yeah, it is. Right now, everybody sees it.”
To be fair, “most of these divisions we have today were in place well before Donald Trump came along,” Clayton said. “He’s just taken advantage of some of them and plays on them and traumatizes them in a way that I think no other political leader could or would.”
The historians we interviewed are alarmed that Trump is already contesting the outcome of the election, has repeatedly attempted to discredit mail-in voting and continues to show reluctance to condemn extremist groups.
These historians say those events are so rare in American history, they’re almost nonexistent.
“We know that the things that are happening now have never happened before because we are historians,” says James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. “We study it and we can look at 44 previous presidents and say, ‘Has anybody done these things?’ The answer is no.”
Members of the George W. Bush administration floated the idea of delaying the 2004 election because of terrorist threats, then quickly withdrew it. Elections even happened during the Civil War and both World Wars.
The most recent example of election conflict came in 2000, when Bush beat Al Gore in a contested race that hinged on a mechanical failure of voting equipment in Florida, where about 500 votes decided the outcome. Even then, the former vice president accepted the then-conservative-leaning Supreme Court’s decision to grant Bush the election, although he disagreed with it.
“That we have a threat of the sitting president who openly talks about not accepting the results of an election and floated the idea of postponing the election, this leads to a general unease among a lot of people, in both parties,” said Stuart Streichler, affiliate associate professor in UW’s Law, Societies and Justice Program. “This is the fundamental norm of democracy: that the people rule, that elections are held and that when we have an election, we accept the result even though roughly half the population is opposed to what happened.”
What may the future hold?
So what will Nov. 4 and beyond look like? Obviously, much depends on who wins. But one thing is for sure: “There’s a certain drama with this particular president that is unlike anything we’ve experienced in high office. And I think that exacerbates some of the feeling like we’re on the edge of the cliff,” Clayton said.
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and one of the country’s preeminent experts on fascism and the study of how dictators like Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler rose to power.
He believes we should be prepared to do more than raise our eyebrows and hit retweet if Biden wins and Trump attempts to stall or block a transfer of power.
“Mr. Trump has basically broadcast to us that he’s going to make a mess in November,” Snyder said. “So I think the most likely scenario is that he clearly loses the election, but he tries to get states with Republican majorities in the legislature, he tries to get the Supreme Court, he tries to get his own people to make violence in the streets and claim somehow that this is an emergency and that he has to stay in power.
“If you’re asking what are the chances that something unusual is going to happen in November, I think the chances are very high. I think it’d be foolish for Americans not to be prepared for that.”
Snyder also cautions that citizens in a threatened democracy tend to fall into the trap of believing their institutions will bail them out.
“That’s how democracy dies,” he said. “If you just put your faith in institutions and you become a spectator, the spectator sport is watching the authoritarians co-opt, corrupt and destroy the institutions. And that’s kind of been our spectator sport the last four years.”
Those who study elections emphasize that we shouldn’t think of Nov. 3 as a wall that will shield us from all this stress. History rolls on, and as Snyder predicted, there will be many surprises to come. O’Mara says historians know nothing is inevitable, but she fears post-election violence. Shenkman predicts “an explosion” unlike anything we’ve seen in U.S. history if Trump wins the electoral college but fails to win the popular vote. Streichler sees partisan intractability and hollowed-out conservative principles as decision drivers going forward, and a Supreme Court that will increasingly be out of step with popular opinion.
“I think that given where the country is right now, that we’re in for a rough road,” Parker said, noting how deeply entrenched the nation currently is on both sides of the political divide. “It doesn’t really matter who wins from that perspective. And there’s just no brooking that divide right now.”