The Habit America’s Historians Just Can’t Give Up

“In its attempt to explode particular myths, however, Myth America engages in its own mythmaking. The book fundamentally misunderstands the crises facing the U.S. and the world. By implying that misinformation is the principal cause of the partisan rancor, violence, and general dysfunction that mark our current political moment, the collection obscures our much bigger problems. And by localizing the threat of misinformation and disinformation almost exclusively within certain far-right segments of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, Myth America absolves not only other stripes of conservatism, but also the milquetoast technocratic liberalism that helped set the stage for this moment. It’s not a total wash. Many of the book’s essays—like those by Elizabeth Hinton, Daniel Immerwahr, and Eric Rauchway—are exemplary models of political and cultural history. But the political project that birthed Myth America is ultimately a dead end—one that will only reproduce and exacerbate our present crises. [..]

This emphasis on Trump and the GOP—which is sure to drive book sales and pump up online engagement among the MSNBC set—serves two interlocking political functions: First, it advances the idea of Trump as an aberration, thereby exonerating other conservatives (such as the Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes, who lent a blurb to Myth America). Second, it deflects criticism away from the politics in which Kruse and Zelizer are so deeply invested.

Myth America reinforces the idea that Trump is exceptional in ways both obvious and subtle, including, at times, through the exclusion of critical evidence. In their essay on the myth of the “free market,” for instance, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway claim that “conservative politicians and business executives” oppose the use of regulation and public investment to ameliorate social ills. While obviously true, this framing occludes the essential role played by liberals in the Democratic Party in our hard, decades-long turn toward market fetishism. Oreskes and Conway understandably focus on Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and their intellectual offspring. But as historian Lily Geismer compellingly argues, “Bill Clinton did more to sell neoliberalism than Milton Friedman.” [..]

Like most of the myths the volume tackles, the idea that Socialists are dangerous opponents of democracy is less a hallmark of the reactionary right than an expression of ruling-class interests—those of Republicans and Democrats alike—that’s perpetuated through popular discourse and mainstream politics. If Trump’s disregard for the truth helped shape his dreadful COVID-19 response, as Kruse and Zelizer suggest in their introduction, then why have liberals prematurely lifted mask mandates and other public-health measures and all but declared the pandemic over, even though 700,000 Americans have died of COVID during Joe Biden’s presidency? Similarly, Democratic and Republican leaders might diverge over their acceptance of basic climate science, as Oreskes and Conway show, but bipartisan fealty to fossil fuel interests and “market-based” solutions prevent both parties from taking meaningful action on the climate crisis. What good is the recognition of an urgent fact if it does not inform a path forward? What good is “the truth” if it brings you to the same unfortunate conclusions? [..]

If Americans can simply stick to the truth, Myth America implies, we might just defang the insurgent Trumpist right, suture our wounds, and start on the path toward national reconciliation. It’s a bit odd to read a group of historians make this claim, however, as others in the profession have spent the past half-century arguing that knowledge, truth, and expertise are constructed, contingent, and contested, and historical archives (and the study of history itself) often reflect processes of dispossession, extraction, and silencing. Who has the authority to narrate the past? Whose truths appear in dominant historical narratives, and whose get left out? “Facts” are hardly neutral, self-evident, or unassailable. Rather, they are often expressions of power.

[..] the desire to promote evidence-based analysis is an understandable response to birtherism, COVID denialism, QAnon, “America First” ethno-nationalism, the “great replacement theory,” rising antisemitism, “big lie” election claims, vicious attacks on LGBTQ people, and Jan. 6–style insurrectionism—all developments that thrive on easily disproven conspiracy theories. Yet the relentless focus on countering false claims reveals the centrist liberal tendency to see historical falsehoods more as causes than outcomes of political change. For Kruse and Zelizer, the current threat to U.S. democracy appears to center less on systems than on bad actors, whether they be conservative TV personalities, MAGA politicians, or Russian bots, who promote inaccurate and often uncritical historical narratives. There is an ineffectual particularism—not to mention a whiff of elitism—in their implication that historical literacy, informational authority, and the consumption of “better” information can “save our democracy.”

[..] Myth America ultimately suggests that misinformation must be exposed and corrected by experts, not drowned out or destroyed through mass struggle and a fundamental transformation of material relations. The result is a work that appeals far more to individual intellect than collective condition or action, meaning that while it works well at distinguishing historical fact from fiction, its political impact will likely be minimal. As we watch the historical profession die before our eyes, we ought to expect more from its crème de la crème.”

Full article, PM Renfro and ME Stanley, Slate 2023.1.9