New Anthology Mistakes the Roots of the Problem as "Misinformation" Rather than PowerHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, historiography, myths, political history, Donald Trump, MAGA
Paul M. Renfro is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University and the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State.
Matthew E. Stanley is an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas and the author of Grand Army of Labor: Workers, Veterans, and the Meaning of the Civil War (University of Illinois Press, 2021).
The historians are concerned. We now live in a post-truth world, one in which “alternative facts” hold freight while inconvenient truths can be dismissed as “fake news.” In this “age of disinformation,” as Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer characterize it, nefarious actors distort the historical record without compunction. The vanishingly thin line between fact and fiction, truth and untruth, Kruse and Zelizer insist, sits at the center of the interlocking political crises in which Americans now find themselves.
Now Kruse and Zelizer have assembled some of their most esteemed colleagues to set the record straight. Their new edited collection, Myth America, looks to debunk certain “legends and lies” about the American past—from the idea that “the framers believed in ‘republics’ but disdained ‘democracy’ ” (dismantled in an essay by Akhil Reed Amar) to the notion that activists used “good” (mild and inoffensive) protest tactics during the Black freedom struggle of the mid-20th century (handled in a piece by Glenda Gilmore). Only by grappling with the past as it actually happened, Kruse and Zelizer assert, can Americans “understand where we stand now and where we might go in the future.”
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.
It’s all Trump’s fault. While co-editors Kruse and Zelizer acknowledge the stubborn persistence of older, widely held, and bipartisan myths—like that of American exceptionalism—they locate the source of their “legends and lies” overwhelmingly on the Trumpist right. Most of the myths they tackle either stem from “a deliberate campaign of disinformation” waged by conservatives—often with “obvious partisan motives”—or “bolster ideological stances that reinforce the modern Right.” These include the Lost Cause myth (Karen L. Cox) and the myth of widespread, systematic voter fraud (Carol Anderson).
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.”