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Historians Are Calling Out Trump Online Whenever He Misreads the Past

Engaging with new media is no longer a dalliance for the history profession in the misinformation age.

Daniel Crown

Trump under a portrait of populist President Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, February 1, 2017. Image: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty 

A new wrinkle seems to have developed this year in the relentless news cycle. It usually plays out something like this:

To explain away a gaffe or to justify controversial policy, someone in Trump world, an administration notorious for its anti-academic tilt, plumbs the depths of history for precedent. In doing so, he or she often contrives or repeats something historically unsound. Talking heads then react on television, as print journalists tweet while firing up their laptops to meet evening deadlines. And, finally, in the days to follow, web editors commission articles from historians, in hopes of putting said comments into greater historical context.

A good example of this came in late October, after White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made controversial remarks regarding the origins of the Civil War. Repeating a talking point once commonly taught in southern classrooms, Kelly blamed the war on “the lack of the ability to compromise.” Within days, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, TIME, and several other institutions responded with articles from working historians, which broached such fraught topics as the Fugitive Slave Act, the racism of Robert E. Lee, and the fallacy of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” myth.

Editors similarly sought insight from historians in May after Trump claimed former US President Andrew Jackson, the man behind the forced removal of Indigenous people from the American Southeast in the mid 19th century, “had a big heart”; after he fired FBI director James Comey in June; and again in August, after Trump doubled down on his claim that people on “both sides” were to blame for violence in Charlottesville, where a woman was killed protesting a rally of neo-Nazis and white nationalists.

Historians, in other words, find themselves amid an unprecedented coming-out party.

“Historians of the future are going to need to be charismatic personalities. They are going to have to be fluent with different forms of technology.“

Brian Rosenwald, a history instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, is not surprised that so many of his peers are answering this call to arms. As co-editor of the Washington Post’s Made by History blog, he regularly publishes op-ed articles written by academics. While helping these historians adapt their work, Rosenwald has noticed a swelling sentiment. “There has been a realization among historians that we cannot continue to cede the public arena to political commentators and politicians who are reaching larger audiences,” he tells me. “If we don’t start shaping the public’s understanding of history to a greater degree, we risk a historically illiterate polity, which will have massive political and cultural ramifications.”

This newfound responsibility is causing historians like Rosenwald to rethink the boundaries of 21st century history. Engagement with new media is no longer a dalliance, but rather part and parcel of a job that has taken on added significance in an era defined by “alternative facts.”

Brian Balogh, a historian at the University of Virginia, cohosts Backstory, the popular weekly history podcast. He agrees that the history profession is evolving to accommodate concerns about misinformation, though he also cautions that those who choose to sit out this battle are not somehow derelict of duty. “Not all of us are good at this kind of thing, just like not all of us are good at organizing archival collections, and not all of us are good at historiography,” he says. “Collectively, we need to try to distribute our strengths to ensure that we have all the bases covered.”

According to Balogh, one of these bases is podcasting—an enterprise he says appeals “disproportionately to a more diverse and younger audience.” It’s a medium that “allows a bit more of our personalities to come through,” he adds. “It’s flexible time-wise, allowing us to take a little more time to explain complicated topics. But it still requires the kind of self-discipline when it comes to length, that engaging the public requires.”

One of historian Louis Moore's tweets in response to the Confederate monument debate in August post-Charlottesville. “For the most part, I try to let Twitter work as an extended classroom. I’m always posting primary sources on here (usually from the Black press) to provide historical context,” Moore tells me. Image: Twitter

Rebecca Onion, a staff writer at Slate with a PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas, believes this balance between thoroughness and accessibility is crucial for historians looking to broaden their appeal. Online audiences are willing to devote significant time to in-depth scholarship, she says, so long as it is well-conceived. Alongside journalist Jamelle Bouie, Onion currently hosts an online audio series on Reconstruction, which uses complex historiography to contextualize the legacy of the post-war South. “This is the third [one] I’ve done,” she says, referring to previous series on slavery and fascism. “In each case, I’ve been happy to see that people have been willing to get invested.”

A common thread runs through the work of Onion, Balogh, and Rosenwald, as Jason Steinhauer, director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University, sees it. They all have journalistic skill sets, he says, which largely go untaught in collegiate history programs. While useful to seasoned historians, Steinhauer believes these skills are especially crucial for younger ones, who face audiences that may be distrustful of journalists and academics alike. “Historians of the future are going to need to be charismatic personalities,” he says. “They are going to have to be fluent with different forms of technology, and they must be able to communicate their scholarship through non-traditional platforms.”

To this end, Steinhauer and colleagues across the country have developed what they call “history communication,” a new sub-field in history that teaches students how to create podcasts, write video scripts, and compose articles for general audiences, in addition to traditional methodology like historiography, archival research, and writing for peer-reviewed journals. The University of Massachusetts Amherst has already run a successful pilot course, and another is in the works at Purdue University. Through these courses, Steinhauer hopes to create a new class of history communicators that is trained from the ground up to combat the exact sort of bad history now dominating governmental discourse and being amplified online.

“We can hopefully create a community that has the intellectual self-confidence to step out of that tweed and blazer persona,” he says, “and become communicative personalities willing to take part in important debates and hopefully have some influence.”

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