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From Impeachment To Capitol Attack: 'Throughline' Shows How The Past Is Never Past

Illustration by Connie Jin

Since the attack on Capitol Hill, there have been a slew of think pieces about just how unprecedented it was. That is true. But it is also true that the past is full of precedent, full of stories and events that bring context to the present and an understanding of what might be ahead.

Since 2019, NPR's podcast and radio show Throughline has been going behind the headlines, putting events into historical context. Here are some episodes of the show we think might help us better understand this moment.


The Modern White Power Movement

In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has said that extreme right-wing groups make up the biggest domestic terror threats facing the United States. Among the rioters in the insurrection last week, there were people displaying flags and paraphernalia often associated with the white power movement. University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew talked with us about the history of the modern white power movement, from the wake of the Vietnam War to the Oklahoma City bombing. (Apple) (Spotify)


The impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in the Senate was held in March and April of 1868. The House approved 11 articles of impeachment. After a 74-day trial, the Senate acquitted Johnson on three of the articles by a one-vote margin each and decided not to vote on the remaining articles.
Library of Congress / Getty Images
The impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in the Senate was held in March and April of 1868. The House approved 11 articles of impeachment. After a 74-day trial, the Senate acquitted Johnson on three of the articles by a one-vote margin each and decided not to vote on the remaining articles.

The 1st Presidential Impeachment

President Andrew Johnson was impeached and nearly convicted within just a few years of the end of the Civil War. The impeachment further separated a nation just coming out of the most divisive moment in its history. And the lessons of that impeachment process may help us understand what to expect in American politics over the next several years. (Apple) (Spotify)


Puerto Rican nationalists Irvin Flores Rodriguez, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Lolita Lebron, and Andres Figueroa Cordero, standing in a police lineup following their arrest after a shooting attack on the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 1954.
/ AP
Puerto Rican nationalists Irvin Flores Rodriguez, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Lolita Lebron, and Andres Figueroa Cordero, standing in a police lineup following their arrest after a shooting attack on the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 1954.

When Puerto Rican Activists Stormed The Capitol

Surprisingly, many reports in the media have claimed that the attack on the Capitol was the first time Congress has been attacked since the British army burned the building in 1814 during the War of 1812. Actually, that's not true. In 1954, a group of armed activists from right here in the United States stormed Congress and wounded five representatives. The reasons for the attack were much different from what happened in 2021. And they're still alive in our politics today. (Apple) (Spotify)


Conspiracy theories are not just a feature of the Internet age. Some historians argue that conspiracies helped drive the American Revolution.
/ Hokyoung Kim for NPR
Conspiracy theories are not just a feature of the Internet age. Some historians argue that conspiracies helped drive the American Revolution.

How Conspiracies Have Played A Role In U.S. History

There is no doubt that conspiracy theories were a factor in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Social media has made the dissemination of conspiracies easy and allowed them to spread into every sector of society. But if you thought conspiracies were just a feature of the Internet age, you would be mistaken. Some historians argue that conspiracies helped drive the American Revolution. In this episode, we look at how conspiracy theories have shaped United States history. (Apple) (Spotify)


A migrant family says grace before their noonday meal by the side of the road east of Oklahoma in 1930.
Three Lions / Getty Images
A migrant family says grace before their noonday meal by the side of the road east of Oklahoma in 1930.

The Great Depression And Today

The economic situation in the United States is beginning to rival The Great Depression. The shaky economy and pandemic have combined to raise poverty levels to alarming rates. For many Americans, the Great Depression isn't a historical moment, it is their current reality. In this episode, we hear from people who survived that terrible chapter of United States history. From their experiences, we may be able to better understand both the suffering and resilience happening all across the nation. (Apple) (Spotify)


The Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupts in the spring of 2010, in Fimmvorduhals, Iceland. The resulting volcanic ash in the atmosphere over parts of Europe caused major air traffic disruptions for several days.
Signy Asta Gudmundsdottir/NordicPhotos / Getty Images
The Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupts in the spring of 2010, in Fimmvorduhals, Iceland. The resulting volcanic ash in the atmosphere over parts of Europe caused major air traffic disruptions for several days.

A Volcano That Shaped Human Civilization

Living through a moment can make it impossible to understand the long-term, massive events that shape human civilization. This is true for the environment. Will future historians look back to understand how subtle, and not so subtle, environmental calamities were in precipitating the upheavals of the early 21st century? In this episode, we look back at how an exploding volcano changed human civilization in surprising and lasting ways. (Apple) (Spotify)


Throughlineis NPR's history podcast. Listen each week as co-hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei go back in time to understand the present with stories that you can feel and sounds you can see from the moments that shaped our world.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 14, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said British troops attacked the U.S. Capitol in 1812. The attack took place in 1814 during the War of 1812.