Let's be clear: 2016 wasn't the worst year ever, despite what your histrionic friends on Facebook are saying. There are plenty of reasons 2016 was weird, disturbing, maddening, disgusting, and heartbreaking, but it's not like it was 1348 (the Black Death), 1918 (Spanish Flu), or 1943 (peak Holocaust), as Jia Tolentino wryly notes in the New Yorker. Cheer up! Weird things that happened in 2016 might have you down, but the world wasn't eradicated by a plague or destroyed by nuclear war.
That said, much of 2016 did suck for a lot of people. Dozens of amazing, influential pop culture icons died. The Syrian Civil War raged on. Trump and Brexit took the world by surprise, potentially halting progressive causes worldwide in the years to come. But plenty of weird, transcendently awesome things happened in 2016, too, like a big win for the Cubs and the development of a 100% effective Ebola vaccine. Which historical events will future scholars deem the most noteworthy? Time to take a look at reasons we'll remember 2016 for years to come.
America Elected a President with No Government or Military Experience
There are plenty of unpresidented unprecedented things about the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016, perhaps the most striking of which is his complete and utter lack of government or military experience – a first for a US president. No other president in the 227-year history of the office is this inexperienced, and it’s not even close.
Zachary Crockett of Vox put together a few handy charts to illustrate just how unusual Trump’s situation is, and whoo boy, it’s a doozy. With three notable exceptions, every president from 1789 to 2016 held public office for an average of 13 years before being sworn in. Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower never held public office, but between the three of them served a combined 100 years in the military before becoming Commander-in-Chief. Trump is a lifelong businessman and reality TV star who received five draft deferments, including one for "bone spurs."
The CIA and FBI Say Russia Interfered in the US Presidential Election
The CIA and FBI agreed in 2016 that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee in an attempt to help elect Donald Trump. Not only that, they also say Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the operation himself. In case it isn’t clear how wildly unprecedented this is, Michael Morell, former acting CIA director, calls it the “political equivalent of 9/11.” Trump, in another unprecedented move, rejected the intelligence community's assessment, calling it “ridiculous” (the same intelligence community he is in charge of effective 01/21/17). All of this would feel ripped from an airport novel if it didn’t happen in 2016, the year of post-truth.
The Fall of Aleppo and Continued Tragedy of the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War escalated sharply in 2016, and even the fall of the eastern part of Aleppo (one of Syria's major cities) didn’t bring the conflict to an end. In a year chock-full of tragedy and global unrest, it’s hard to understate the utter horror and devastation happening in Syria. Around 500,000 people have been killed and more than 10 million have been displaced since the conflict began, making it the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. Meanwhile, in America, the most successful third party candidate for president, Gary Johnson, in a totally 2016 move, didn’t know what Aleppo even was when asked about it during an interview.
Brexit Took the World By Surprise
In a shocking foreshadowing of the uselessness of polls in 2016 starkly evident in the wake of the US presidential election, Britons voted 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union in June, despite the vast majority of polls indicating otherwise. Like Trump’s surprise victory, immigration, anti-elitism, and anti-globalization were some of the major issues motivating Leave voters. These aren’t the only parallels between Leavers and Trumpers: they’re also both older, less educated, and rural compared to the opposition. Two world-changing, out-of-left-field elections seemingly immune to accurate polling in the same year.
Record-Breaking Climate Trends
Climate change impacted the globe in a number of record-breaking ways in 2016, including an ominous milestone in September, when atmospheric carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) never dropped below 400 parts per million, considered a “point of no return” for the atmosphere. January to November was also the warmest period on record, breaking 2015’s record. This means 2016 is the year we learned the Earth is warmer than it’s been in a whopping 120,000 years. All that heat means shrinking Arctic sea ice, which is as diminutive as it has ever been since NOAA started keeping track, forcing many polar bears to seek homes elsewhere.
The Deadliest Mass Shooting in US History
The June 12 shooting by Omar Mir Seddique Mateen at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history – by quite a wide margin. A total of 49 people were killed and 53 injured, eclipsing the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (32 dead, 17 injured). There were so many injured, the nearest hospital exhausted its medical supply of blood, requiring more to be shipped in. Regardless of the unprecedented carnage, a Florida congressional candidate held a contest on Facebook following the shooting giving away an assault rifle – on July 4, to boot - and gun sales in Florida soared.
Scientists Developed a 100% Effective Ebola Vaccine
The year wasn’t all doom-and-gloom. In one of the most uplifting stories of 2016, scientists announced the development of an experimental vaccine against Ebola that’s reportedly 100% effective. The disease killed 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014, but researchers acted quickly and effectively to find a fix. The experimental vaccine was first given to patients in Guinea in 2015, and by December 2016, the awesome news about its efficacy was made public. In case of another outbreak, drug maker Merck promises to have 300,000 doses available.
Fake News Became a Real Problem
Only in 2016 could something dubbed Pizzagate be international news. Thanks to the explosive proliferation of fake news websites in the election year, a shocking amount of people actually believed conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton being involved in child sex rings and satanic ritual abuse centered in the basement of a DC pizza parlor. One of those people was Edgar Welch, an ex-firefighter from North Carolina, who wielded an assault rifle in that pizza parlor in an effort to rescue non-existent children from a non-existent basement.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just conspiracy theorists pushing this stuff: retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, tweeted a link a few days before the election to a fake news post alleging the NYPD had evidence Clinton was involved with “child exploitation” and “sex crimes with minors.” Flynn called the post a “must-read.”