The Republican Party’s assault on truth, supercharged by Donald Trump—whose prolific lying and “fake news” catchphrase defined his presidency perhaps more than his policies—brought scores of historians to the fore of mainstream news media. But the task of correcting the record has proven to be a daunting challenge in the current information ecosystem. Few historians understand the country’s historical battleground better than Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, who, in their new book, Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, trace the origins of 20 age-old right-wing myths that continue to permeate American discourse today.
The book’s incisive essays poke holes in everything from American exceptionalism and white backlash to Confederate monuments and America First, taking us on a sobering tour through some of the nation’s deepest and darkest chapters. Kruse and Zelizer, two Princeton professors, argue that Republicans are no longer just revising those chapters; they’re trying to expunge them altogether. “It’s easy to say, ‘Just stick to the facts, and assume that will win out,’” Zelizer tells me. “But that’s not the era that we live in.”
This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Vanity Fair: A good place to start is where Myth America begins in its introduction, which centers on Trump’s use of alternative facts and the concept of fake news. What do you think it is about Trump in particular that’s allowed him to create an entire political movement around completely disregarding facts, and not just bending them and shaping them to his liking, as Republicans have done in the past?
Julian Zelizer: There are two factors that were important: One is the state of the party. The Republican Party had changed a lot in the last few decades to a point where they were more comfortable with a politics that wasn’t grounded in fact. Often, disinformation became a normal way of talking about policy issues like climate change. So part of it is the party, and part of it is the media ecosystem, which over the years has lost a lot of the filters that were important. And we've also seen the emergence of an openly conservative media ecosystem. So there was Trump, but there was this environment that allowed him to thrive.
I know both of you are particularly public-facing historians. You write for major outlets and make TV appearances. Do you feel like Trump and his deliberate historical amnesia has compelled more historians to venture out from the academy into the mainstream media?
Kevin Kruse: Yeah, I think so. A lot of us are catching up with the work he and others have done in the last few years, and Trump has been a big part of that. Trump and his enablers and the conservative media ecosystem have pushed a series of really bold and startling claims about the American past to make their standing or their accomplishments in the American present seem bigger, better, and bolder than they otherwise might have been. And that's, in turn, prompted a lot of us to get engaged. And I think, in this case, social media has been a two-way street. It has certainly helped Trump and his supporters spread a lot of falsehoods, but it's also given every historian on Twitter or Facebook or Substack an easy way to respond.
Zelizer: I think one other factor is that history has become a battleground. And it always has been, but the intensity has really accelerated. You’re seeing in different states efforts to legislate what can go on in the classroom. The former president made American history a central theme. He ended his term with [the 1776 Commission]—a response, in some ways, to the 1619 Project. So I think you've seen a broadening of interest among historians—even historians who don't just do modern US history, like the two of us—to get engaged and to jump in.