(CNN) — On the night of January 6, 2021, it seemed undeniable that the country had passed through an epic watershed. The US Capitol had just been cleared of then-President Donald Trump’s ragtag army of supporters who had attempted to prevent the certification of an election fairly won by his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
The traumatic events of January 6 capped a year of three major national traumas. The insurrection was the culmination of a long and turbulent election cycle that had ended in a two-month, baseless “Stop the Steal” campaign led by Donald Trump, poisoning minds with misinformation about an election that was not “rigged.”
The 2020 election, which nevertheless saw the largest turnout in percentage terms since 1960, occurred during a once-in-a-century global pandemic that, by the end of that year, would cause more than 350,000 Americans to die from Covid-19, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, in the first months of that pandemic, the unrelated murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis provoked the largest civil rights demonstrations in at least two generations across the country, leading to the most powerful discussion of race, racism and who we are as Americans since the era of Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Any one of these traumas could have been expected to nudge our country in a new direction.
And, as with any pivotal moment in history, there was no way to know what direction the country was about to take. But who could doubt that due to this terrible trifecta 2020 was a year destined to join the ranks of 1941, 1945, 1968 and 2001 in US history?
And yet, three years later, the significance and meaning of 2020 remains as contested as its long-term consequences are unclear. A CNN poll in 2022 found that over time, Republicans viewed January 6 less seriously. In February 2022, 43% said it was a major problem or crisis. By July 2022, that number dropped to 36%. Democrats, on the other hand, moved in the opposite direction, with 91% characterizing the events of January 6 that way, growing to 96% over the same time period.
In one sense, this divide isn’t surprising. We are a deeply divided people, enthralled with new technologies that divide up the public square into echo alleys. But national reconciliation after January 6 is also complicated by the fact that Trump and many of his allies refused to retire from the stage and have energetically tried to control the narrative, framing the events of that day as a form of legitimate dissent in the face of elite “corruption.”
For those of us who are teachers, the success of this counter narrative has been especially painful. Last year, the House of Representatives, in as bipartisan a manner as our current political culture could allow, undertook one of the most thoughtful and dramatic efforts at public education to challenge that framing.
Using video footage and first-person accounts, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol laid out the evidence, showing not only the violence of the day but also the connection between those events and Trump’s unprecedented effort to overturn a free and fair American election.
While there is evidence that Americans who consider themselves political independents may have been influenced by this tsunami of evidence following the hearings, 83% of independents said that Trump had acted unethically or even illegally in trying to stay in office–Donald Trump is the Republican front runner.
A similar partisan divide can be seen in how Democrats and Republicans view elements of the other epochal events of 2020. The emergence of Covid-19 spawned fierce debates about the right course of government action in response to the global pandemic and the value of vaccines. According to a Pew Research poll conducted in March, Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to say the benefits of coronavirus vaccines outweigh the risks.
Current views of the Black Lives Matter movement also show telltale signs of a stark partisan divide. This month, a Pew survey found that 84% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters support the movement, whereas 82% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters oppose it. In addition, 42% of Democrats say the movement can be described as “empowering,” while 59% of Republicans said it was “dangerous.”
It’s clear we are having a very hard time agreeing on much of anything.
Of course, there have always been disagreements about the direction the country is moving when the first draft of history is being written. In 1971, for example, three years after the dramatic events of 1968 — which included the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago that summer, and the magnificent achievement of Apollo 8 — Americans were still making sense of where the country was headed.
Despite promising to get the country out of Vietnam, President Richard Nixon had escalated the US war, started cracking down on the anti-war movement and ordered the creation of an enemies list of those who dared stand in his way. While he would be re-elected in a landslide in 1972, the US involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973 and Nixon would resign in disgrace due to the Watergate scandal a year and a half later.
Perhaps the ultimate fate of Trump’s candidacy for 2024 will settle some of the uncertainties of the significance of 2020 for our generation of Americans. Should he capture the Republican nomination for a third time, that will say a lot about the GOP, with longstanding ramifications for US politics.
And should Trump become president once again, that might be a sign that the country could descend into the toxic political amnesia not seen since the 1920s, when aging Civil War veterans doubled down on denying Black Americans their civil liberties and then put up statues throughout the South to signal their victory over history.
But that would be a very narrow test of the significance of 2020 — a year that was like few others in our national story. Last week was the second anniversary of our marking Juneteenth as a nation, a holiday that recognizes that we are a work in progress with historical wrongs still to be addressed. National reckonings take time but this one has started and though the Black Lives Matter movement predated 2020, that year gave it a powerful impetus.
Amidst the political ugliness of that year, we actually saw a lot of acts of courage and humanity. Who can forget the efforts of our frontline workers, who valiantly put themselves at risk to help others? Who can forget the miracle of science that produced the coronavirus vaccines in a relatively short time?
Who can forget the young and old who marched for a better America? Who can forget the men and women who put their health and safety on the line to protect the Capitol on January 6th? And, above all, who can forget the loved ones we lost and how much we missed the simplest forms of human contact in 2020? Which elements of 2020 we learn from and which ones will continue to shape our future selves remains up to us.
The CNN original series “The 2010s” looks back at a turbulent era marked by extraordinary political and social upheaval. Timothy Naftali is a clinical professor of public service at New York University and a CNN presidential historian. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author.