“Myth America”: New Book Dismantles 20 Legends About Our Past

Historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer discuss their new book, “Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.”

Recently, peculiar skirmishes have broken out in the U.S. over our history. In LouisianaFloridaNorth Carolina, and many other places, conservatives have made efforts to sanitize the teaching of what exactly happened in America’s past. But it’s important to keep in mind this is just part of a much longer war — and, in fact, those who want to misrepresent history have won many victories. This is evidenced by the fact that the conventional wisdom about the past in the U.S., what everyone “knows,” is often wrong or far too simplistic.

This week on Deconstructed, senior writer Jon Schwarz speaks to historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer about their new book, “Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.” With 20 chapters by 20 different historians, the new book takes a look at key fairy tales and replaces the standard bland hokum with the far more interesting reality.

[Deconstructed theme music.]

Jon Schwarz: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Jon Schwarz, a writer at the Intercept, and I’m substituting for Ryan Grim this week because he’s decided he doesn’t care about the show or politics anymore. That’s a joke, Ryan cares a lot about Deconstructed and politics, and he’ll be back next week.

But this week, we’re going to talk about my favorite subject in the world: what societies remember about the past, or what they think they remember, and why that maybe the most important thing there is about politics.

If you’re like me, you grew up with a bunch of vague ideas about America’s past in your head, and what this vague past meant about what was possible for America in the future.

The War Department: Here, XXI Bomber Command concentrated its massive air power, and planned the ultimate crushing defeat of Japan — down to the last bomb. Here was the beginning of the end of the road to Tokyo.

JS:  Vague ideas like there was such a thing as American Exceptionalism from the start of the United States, and one of those things was that America was super duper powerful, yet not an empire somehow, and Reconstruction after the Civil War was a big failure, and there’s never been such a thing as American Socialism because it’s just not part of our DNA. And a million other things that got into my head not because I studied and thought about them but just because of a weird osmosis.

People like me truly need the new bestselling book “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.” It dismantles those specific weird squishy ideas that I had in my head and many more, in 20 chapters by 20 different historians. It’s edited by Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse. They’re both professors at Princeton. And in their introduction, they say they put the book together because: “We live in an age of disinformation. The line between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurred if not completely erased.”

And of course, they’re right about this, but I’d say we also live in a golden age of good information. People who listen to Deconstructed may well know Zelizer and Kruse already because they’re a big deal on Twitter, and they are part of a whole group of historians who’ve decided to kind of eject themselves from the cloistered academic tower and communicate with everybody about the freaky complicated gross terrifying thrilling real history of America.

There’s a famous aphorism by the Czech writer Milan Kundera, which is: “The struggle of human beings against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” That sounds a little highfalutin and pretentious, but it is also 100 percent true, and Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse are both definitely on the side of memory and regular people.

So, let’s get started. 

Julian and Kevin, thank you very much for making the time to be here on Deconstructed.

Julian Zelizer: Thanks for having us.

Kevin Kruse:  A pleasure.

JS: And so I would like to start by talking about “Lord of the Rings,” something which does not appear in your book even once. But I think the books and the movies of “Lord of the Rings” are maybe the greatest fictional depiction of why history matters, even why librarians matter. 

You know, you’re probably the kind of nerds who remember in the first movie, the “Fellowship of the Ring,” Gandalf has begun to become suspicious about this ring that Bilbo, the Hobbit, has found that it might be the great evil one ring of power, and he’s noticed that every creature who’s possessed it has started to call it precious.

So he goes to Gondor to do some archival research and the underpaid archivist there takes him to the memoir section of the library where he finds the account of Isildur, the first person to possess the ring of power, and Gandalf is reading along, and he sees Isildur has written: “I shall risk no hurt to the ring, it is precious to me,” you know, which obviously demonstrates that this ring that Bilbo has is in fact the terrifying one ring.

Gandalf (Lord of the Rings character): It has come to me, the one ring. It shall be an heirloom of my kingdom. All those who follow in my bloodline shall be bound to its fate for I will risk no hurt to the ring. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.

JS: And I like to think that if Gandalf were a historian right then surrounded by, you know, all this paper, he’d be thinking like, well, I could get a great journal article out of this.

KK: [Laughs.]

JS: Like, this is gonna look fantastic in my Guggenheim Fellowship application. I really do think this is a heightened version of what knowing history can do for you.

Without knowing history, the world seems like just a random jumble of stuff happening all the time, and you’ll always be confused about power and where it lies and how it works. I think it also demonstrates history always kind of naturally decays and that remembering the past takes effort and the most important things drop out of human memory without that effort, especially things that powerful people want forgotten.

Like you know, Sauron is against public schools and middle earth teaching kids how to identify rings of power. But if you do know history, you can see the patterns about how the world functions and beyond that you learn it’s just a fascinating, thrilling saga. And the more you know about it, the more fascinating and thrilling it is

And so, you have this made up fairytale and in this made up fairytale knowing history truly is a matter of life and death. And those who forget history are doomed to have repeated wars over the one ring. But I think in a more complicated way, the same thing is true here. History actually is a matter of life and death in the world we live in.

And that’s my weird theory about this and, and why what you guys do really does matter. So now you can tell me as professional historians if I am out of my mind.

JZ: No, you’re not. I mean, obviously we believe in that. That’s what we do. I think history matters in many ways. It matters just [on a] broader intellectual level.

I think we are better off if we understand where we come from, if we have some contextual sense of what’s going on today. And the more we know about other people, the more we know about other cultures, just the better off we are collectively. But then, and this comes through in some of the essays of the book, history’s used in very pointed ways on specific issues.

And the way we understand the history sometimes plays into political decision making. So you can take an issue like immigration — assumptions that we have about what immigration is, how it works, what drives it, what the effects are historically — what it’s look like can directly impact decisions in Washington D.C. or at the state level, on how the border is treated, or how people who are detained are treated and public support could rise or fall in part based on these ideas of history that we have.

So the stakes are incredibly high and when you’re not talking about debates over issues, legitimate intellectual debates over how to interpret things where you’re just seeing partisan spin that’s building support for policies, that’s a whole other realm. And that’s why it’s important historians push back with their knowledge.

KK: I would agree completely with that, and the only thing I would like to add is that that’s the first time I’ve ever been compared to Gandalf, and I hope it’s not the last.

JS: Yes. Well, we’ll have you back as a guest on this show specifically, so we could extend this metaphor.

KK: Excellent

JS: I encourage other people to use this, this Gandalf analogy, because I really do think it’s true, and it makes me wonder: Are there any other fiction, I hate to put you on the spot with this peculiar question, but are there any fictional depictions of historians that you think demonstrate the thrills and the significance of what you do?

JZ: That’s a good question and that is putting me on the spot. And Kevin is, I think he’s walking his dog as, as the question comes up.

Kevin, do you have any historians in fictional depiction of history?

KK: Look, this is the problem. You know, archeologists have Indiana Jones. 

JZ: Right, that’s who comes to mind. 

KK: We’re fighting Nazis, but we don’t have that. We’ve got the Nicholas Cage character. He’s not really a historian. He deals with a lot of primary documents. I think it’s high time we get a movie. I mean, maybe we’ll get the Julian Zelizer life story, it will be the way we’ll do it. We can fan-cast it.

JS The four hour biopic. 

JZ: Right. 

KK: Yeah, well, maybe Robert Caro could be our superhero. That man is gonna outlive us all, I think.

JZ: Just to jump in there, there’s a documentary out now about Robert Caro, “Turn Every Page.” It’s about his relationship with his editor. It’s not fictional obviously, but it’s doing well and it’s really interesting not just about the writing and editorial process, but how he approaches finding out the truth, and the strategies he uses with interviews and rigorous archival research. 

So, there’s ways I think, in which this actually can be interesting. Obviously fictional depiction is different, but I think at some level, I guess the bigger point is a lot of people are interested in the past.

You hear it all the time — I mean, and not just in politics, in sports, I mean, talk to any baseball fan, they’re obsessed with history. It’s how we understand even what’s going on the playing field. So I do think there’s a lot there that goes beyond just the classroom.

JS: Yeah. I will admit that for my childhood, I still have a section of my brain devoted to the statistics of Honus Wagner.

There’s a book that I love. I know you guys must be familiar with it, called “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” by the historian James Loewen, who died fairly recently. And in it he talks about how American students hate history. That it’s always their least favorite subject. But obviously that wasn’t true for you guys. Like, what was it that caught you guys about history when you were kids?

KK: Well, I think for people for whom it’s their least favorite subject, it’s because they’re being taught it wrong. They’re stressing kind of a precision of names and dates and not thinking about the connecting pieces between those.

For me, I mean, people and dates are important, but it was always about the stories. I really just from an early age, was fascinated by these stories about the past. The civil rights movement in particular was something that was compelling for me at a young age. I kind of never let go of it.

I find the past to just be interesting in infinite ways. I’m constantly surprised by the things I find in the past and on its own terms I think it’s just a wonderful place to get lost in another time, another place. But at another level there’s a deep connection to the present as Julian noted, and I find that history is the key to unlocking so many things, at least, I don’t understand about the present. It’s how I begin any project I start in, is: I don’t understand this. I better dig into it and start to learn more about it. 

And so for me, that’s been a process of discovery. And so rather than being forced to memorize dates, I think if we teach students that history is: you gotta be part detective digging out the story from the past and part storyteller — repackaging in a way that lets you express yourself. And so it’s two great roles combined together.

JZ: For me, I’m trying to think back. It’s unfortunately too long ago when I was a teenager, but it does help you make sense of things. The world is so chaotic and disjointed. One of the great things of what historians do or teachers of history do is that at some level they try to connect the dots. You might not agree with how they’re doing it, but it pushes you to start to make sense of how things fit together. 

So on an issue like civil rights, I remember reading Taylor Branch’s work on that, and it had a big impact on me. I really liked it. It was very riveting and it kind of wove together all these interrelated but often seemingly disparate elements of struggle over race relations into a really compelling and coherent story. And I was impressed with that.

I also like the argument element of history. Meaning Kevin and I are believers in the importance of pushing back against things that are not true, but we are also very committed to good robust arguments about how do you interpret the research and the facts that you find. 

We do this with our students. We do this professionally. And I grew up as a rabbi son, so I literally grew up constantly hearing debates about everything. I mean, that is the Jewish tradition. And I think in some ways I found how history is practiced very compelling. You take a set of facts and then you have a really good debate about what do they mean. And you try to connect it to other pieces of evidence.

And, finally for me, it’s how I make sense of politics. I was either gonna be a journalist or a historian. I remember my senior year of college I was trying to decide, and in the end I realized this is really how I enjoy interpreting what’s happening in Washington, what’s happening on Main Street to root it in something, not to look at it as something that’s totally novel and starting from day one whenever you’re thinking about it, but something that has real roots like a tree. And then it opens up, I think, your vision and analysis in very important ways. So all of that for me was really how I ended up doing this stuff.

JS: That makes me wonder if you guys have noticed a shift in journalism in the last couple of years because one of the most peculiar aspects of the professionalized rules of journalism up until fairly recently was that it was essentially illegal to remember the past and to point out to people that things that are happening now have often happened in similar ways before. And that has changed, I think, to a significant degree, and not in all the stories, not all the time. But have you guys noticed that there does seem to be more of a mention that things have happened before right now in modern day American journalism?

KK: Yeah, I think so. And I think it’s come from a new generation of journalists who not only appreciate history but really understand it.

I mean, if you read the work of someone like Adam Serwer or Jamelle Bouie, they are deeply versed in the historical traditions that they’re writing about and they bring them to bear on the present day. And so making comparisons between the Antebellum period or Reconstruction with modern day politics, the New Deal, great society, they really do a great job of putting it in the proper context because they read actual historians.

I think either of them could probably pass a general’s exam today if we sprung it on them. They’re pretty well versed. And I think they’re increasingly becoming more of a model. I don’t think — Not everyone’s as, I think, deeply read as them, but the interest is certainly out there.

And I’m not sure if this is something that has been facilitated by Twitter. I mean, it has been facilitated by Twitter in which journalists and scholars are on there, and we’re easy contact. I get, you know, DMs from — I just got off email with one from the New York Times — reporters who are looking for historians to help them explain X, Y, and Z.

And so they’re eagerly looking for these voices out there. And I think Twitter has drawn those worlds closer together and made it a little easier to do. But I think it’s not just simply a technological thing. I think there really is an interest and awareness on the part of a new generation of journalists that they need to put things in historical context.

And it may be simply the kind of uprooted feeling of the Trump era in which it seemed like everything was deeply unprecedented and they were questioning: Well, was it, was it not? And so that brought a lot of us into the conversation.

JZ: Yeah, I think it’s true. I mean, I think some of it is technological. It’s both, social media also just gave room for more people to get out there. There’s less centralization of how you can get your points. And that’s important for historians who might not have that platform than they do. The fragmentation we see in other forms of media, there’s just more places to publish. You know, there’s lots of online journals now or magazines or newspapers, lots of different radio or radio style outlets, and even television. There’s just a lot more content and there’s just platforms. And I think historians have found their way there. Then, that leads to interaction with reporters who hear bits and pieces of this and are curious.

I also think, objective journalism, meaning journalism is really focused just on providing the facts, which had virtues. There were great reporters in earlier eras, but that’s changed. In younger generation — the early two thousands became critical of that. They wanted journalism more with a point of view.

They didn’t kind of hide their own predispositions, and then it became a question: So what do you do? Like, how far do you go and what does that mean for the practice of the reporter? Part of what I think has happened is you have reporters like the two Kevin mentioned and others who look also to more contextual long-term ways to analyze things to also provide something fresh than just this happened, this happened, and then this happened.

And so I think a lot of things are at work, but I definitely believe there is a lot of interest in there from the media at least to make this part of the story. Some do it a lot like Jamelle or Adam, but others, they put bits and pieces and that’s good too. But there is an interest out there.

JS: I noticed, of course, that in the introduction of your book, you quote the famous part from 1984 about “who controls the present, controls the past, who controls the past, controls the future.” Lots of people know about that. 

I think fewer people remember talking about the past is also a big part of “Brave New World,” the dystopia about where people are controlled by pleasure instead of being controlled by pain. And there’s the section, you guys are exactly, of course, the kind of weirdos who would remember this, where the controller — the guy who’s in charge of everything — is giving a lecture to some of the students. “You all remember,” said the controller, “you all remember I suppose that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford’s: History is bunk.” And so all sorts of systems of authoritarianism intuitively understand that they need to tell a story, but it can’t be the real story. Obviously you guys are part of a fight against all kinds of people who do not seem to be very interested in the real story. What is your understanding of how they see history?

KK: Well, I think the right sees history as they want to remember the past, but a particular version of the past. And this isn’t true of all people on the right, but the partisans on the right. They’re conservative scholars that do a great job.

But there are partisans on the right who have gotten involved in politics, got involved in history for purely political reasons. And what they want is a version of the past that props up a fantasy world, a version of the past in which only the triumphs are discussed — none of the failures — or only the good traits are stressed — none of the weaknesses. It’s one that downplays conflict and presents a kind of past of a consensus in which everyone was happy. I mean, that’s the essence of Make America Great Again. But things once were working well, they’re not now. Let’s go back to that misremembered past. 

A version of history that only celebrates the good without the bad that’s not history, that’s propaganda. And it’s not the job of an historian, of an historian of the United States to tell only the good parts of the United States any more than a historian of France here in the United States would be expected to tell only the good parts about France or the Middle East or the Soviet Union or whatever, right?

We’re supposed to provide the warts and all picture and give the full truth however uncomfortable it might be. That’s our job. And so what they’re arguing for is not history. It’s antithetical history.

JZ: Right, and Kevin is correct. There’s conservative liberals left, right. There’s lots all over the place that are seriously interested in history and wrestle with it.

But what we’ve seen in conservative circles is: it’s both this nationalistic particular version of history that wipes away conflict and wipes away certain issues that they don’t want to even discuss. But it’s also weaponizing history itself. That’s what’s been pretty remarkable to watch in the last few years where this becomes like any other issue: reproductive rights, or voting, or foreign policy. We’re seeing them use this as a way to rally supporters to send out, you can call it propaganda messaging, whatever you want based on things that just are not true. And it’s not subtle interpretations of the past as you see in a state like Florida. It’s the argument that we are gonna say this entire field can’t be studied. It’s illegitimate. And using that for political advantage, and that’s a troubling trend.

We argue you see that much more in conservative circles than liberal circles. There is an asymmetry. It’s clearly most pronounced in part because of the conservative kind of media ecosystem, which gives an unbelievable platform for different persons to do this. But it is troubling, and I think it’s extraordinarily damaging and it’s anti-historical.

That’s the one thing people should realize. This is not about defending history. It’s about being anti-historical — opposed to the study of history. That’s a more accurate way to characterize what’s going on right now.

JS: Yeah. And something that I always find true about this kind of nationalistic version of history in any country is that it’s just inherently boring. And I think that is one of the reasons why kids hate the standard version of history. It has no human beings in it. It’s just, you know, in the United States version it’s like almost 250 years now of interchangeable robots singing “America the Beautiful.” Kids don’t get into that because they don’t recognize themselves. They don’t recognize any humans in that, whereas, the real history of what actually happened is something that I think kids would be fascinated by. 

I’ve always wanted to teach kids who learn about the two presidents, and almost a third, who died because of the giant pond of shit north of the White House in the mid-1800s.

KK: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, back when I was in school I think we were told Zachary Taylor had died from a bad ice cream sundae or there was some weird story. This one is much more exciting.

Yeah, I think that that’s the problem [with] that version of the past in which you’ve got an idea of the 1950s, it’s kind of: “Leave it to Beaver,” Make America Great Again.

That’s boring. And students don’t want that because it’s not an interesting story. Again, I said the stories of struggle are what drew me into history. And if you take those stories out, it just becomes bland and it’s a bunch of cartoonish boy scouts. You’ve got George Washington who chops down a cherry tree, and honest Abe Lincoln, and all these squeaky clean role models, which is not relatable, right?

I think what I find — and I’ve really found this in the last six, seven years, it’s always been true to some level, but it really became pronounced here — students have kind of embraced the study of the past by realizing: Oh, things seem crappy now, but they’ve seemed really crappy, even worse than this in previous eras, right?

You know, we had a literal Civil War. I talk about 1919 is where I start the lecture course I do, in which you’ve got the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu, right? There’s all kinds of chaos and race riots and labor strikes and things going on.

1968, a chaotic year, right? Students really get into that. They like to understand that this age that they’re currently living in is not uniquely awful. It’s not hopeless, right? We have been through bad times before in this country and sometimes we’ve risen to a challenge beautifully so, and sometimes we haven’t.

But dealing with those conflicts, dealing with those struggles, the exact kind of things that these people wanna sanitize and sterilize American history for their political purposes, that takes all the fun, all the interesting fights out of the history of the things that I think students would find the most relatable.

JZ: Yeah, I mean, anyone who teaches and teaches well, learns this pretty quickly. Students want an engaged and interesting and complex classroom. That’s what makes history pedagogy much better. And that tends to draw students in. And again, this isn’t a particular perspective. It’s about the style of learning and college students for sure.

I mean, anyone who’s had a teenager who knows debate is part of what that age spends a lot of time doing with you, with their friends, with others. And thinking critically is the skill that makes the classroom most interesting. And students are not unintelligent. They understand if you’re just teaching him something that isn’t true, that’s why they get bored.

It’s like, come on. To borrow the president’s phrase, “come on man.” And I think that just doesn’t work very well. And so in both respects, when this kind of shift takes place, it also undermines, I’m sure, interesting work. It doesn’t even make sense in the world they all live in. I mean, it doesn’t even matter where you live. You can live in the reddest part of the country, the bluest part. You know life isn’t neat. It’s not all good. You see it in your family. You see it in your friends and in your community. So if you teach a history that has none of the problems you see all around you all the time, that BS flag is gonna go up very quickly for a lot of younger people. So it’s important to take them seriously and respect them by actually teaching a complex understanding and version of this country’s past.

JS: Yeah. Speaking of George Washington not being able to tell a lie. I’ve always remembered the first time, and it was fairly recently that I heard the story of, I think, [Ona] Oney Judge.

KK: Yeah. 

JS: She was a woman that Martha Washington owned, and George Washington and Martha Washington wanted to make sure that she wasn’t automatically freed, I believe, by spending time in a free state in Pennsylvania when he was president. There are letters from George Washington telling his various people who did stuff for him, like, OK, I wanna lie about this. Here’s how we’re gonna lie. And that to me was a million times more interesting than hearing about some imaginary version of George Washington, who was a little boy who said he could never tell a lie. And I really wanted to learn more about George Washington and all of that story and who he was from that.

I wonder if there are any particular examples in your life where you’re like, wow, I had no idea that that was true and I’ve gotta find out more.

JZ: Every class I took in college on foreign policy was like that for me. Really eye-opening in terms of the disconnect between what you heard about why we entered into certain wars or what the interests were of policymakers, and then really learning what was going on and what policymakers were actually thinking of or what they did to achieve victory.

Someone just has to study foreign policy in the Nixon years and look at a figure like Henry Kissinger. And I think it’s incredibly powerful to really understand where an administration would go to achieve the principles they were talking about, but doing things you really didn’t hear about in the public.

So for me, a lot of those classes that were either about that or touched on that, or just reading about it alerted me or made me more cognizant of the need to probe a lot deeper into what was actually happening.

JS: I remember the fact that in the first presidential election that I was aware of was Reagan and Carter in 1980. And of course in the fall, there were constant rumors that the hostages being held by Iran were going to be released. And this was a big deal, obviously, for America. But it was also a big deal for me because I was on a peewee football team just outside of Washington, D.C. and our coach worked for the Pentagon, and one of his jobs involved if these hostages are released and flown to Germany then he’s gonna be one of the people debriefing them. And so whenever we heard the rumors like the hostages may be released, that meant that we were gonna need a substitute football coach. And my father volunteered to do that.

So while I was paying attention to all this throughout that. I would watch what became “Nightline.” I don’t think it was called “Nightline” then, but people may know that.

KK: No, it comes out of that crisis.

JS: You know, like America Held Hostage and then they just kept on doing it after they were released. But anyway, the reason I tell this story is, I absolutely learned nothing about U.S. foreign policy towards Iran during that period because it was never ever mentioned. And when I got older, like I think I was in my twenties when I found out the U.S., you know, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953. And it just made me feel like, hey, wait a second: Like somebody should have mentioned this to me.

JZ: Look, I had that a lot in college, even after college and when I was already a historian writing about Lyndon Johnson. I always remember hearing when they released a batch of tapes. This is a great way to learn something new no matter what you have learned. And there’s a great tape that came out. It’s a while now, but it’s between Richard Russell, who is the senator from Georgia. He was the mentor really for Johnson, and he was the key power broker in the Senate of the Dixiecrats and Johnson. And Johnson and he are having a conversation in ‘64, I believe, about Vietnam. And Russell’s a real conservative. He’s not someone you’d think would be critical at all. And it’s a mind blowing conversation because he’s basically laying out the arguments to Lyndon Johnson about what’s going to go wrong and why this is not even a war that’s essential to the Cold War.

And Johnson’s talking about knowing this, and not knowing how he’s gonna get out, and worried they’re gonna impeach him if he does — basically the politics too strong. But you hear these two people — early in the conflict, before it’s really started — who are fully aware of all the problems that later on in a few years will be front and center.

And for me — and I had studied this, I’d written about it — it was just eye-opening to see how early these doubts existed, and were being discussed behind the scenes all the time.

There’s a great book that came out of those tapes by Fred Logevall, “Choosing War,” which emphasizes the contingency of that moment, and it’s all premise on these kinds of tapes where we learned how much doubt existed before the disaster and before the quagmire really happened. There was that moment when they were all talking about it. So that’s just another recent example where a piece of evidence — real evidence, real archival material — kind of has the potential to transform how you think about it.

You can’t think about this idea of a domino theory where everyone agreed they had to do this, and if they didn’t do it, the whole region was gonna fall to Communism. Then you hear these two Cold War hawks saying, not really. And I’m not sure this is a great idea. It changes the way you think and those are exciting moments, disturbing moments for sure, but also exciting because they open up the questions you’re gonna ask about material you’re often familiar with yet.

JS: I would, I would encourage anybody young listening to this who is not yet super devoted to history to understand from that story that history is something that really absolutely gets better as you get older. You’ve lived more history, you’ve seen more history. The more you know about history the more context you have for everything, the more interesting everything else becomes. So, if you’re not completely devoted yet, as I say, just like keep on trucking, and you will get there.

And so I’ve been asking you guys a lot of meta history questions. I wanted to give you a chance if you could, to just talk a little bit about the two chapters, each of you wrote one for “Myth America.” Kevin’s chapter covers an earlier period about the Southern Strategy.

KK: Yeah.

JS: And it’s full of— go get this book and read this chapter if you ever want to discuss the subject with anyone. The amount of information in this one short chapter is extraordinary. But anyway, if you could tell us a little bit about that.

KK: Thank you. Yeah. I wrote this chapter, in fact, one of our impetus for this book came out of things that we were doing on Twitter and online and Julian on CNN and his column pushing back on historical mistruths. And one of the ones, if you follow me on Twitter that I’ve been pushing  back on for ages is this idea that the Southern Strategy is somehow a myth.

And for those of you who don’t know, the Southern Strategy is basically a shorthand term for: Republicans in the 1960s decide that they can no longer maintain their kind of past commitment to civil rights as the party of Lincoln. And in order to have national success, they need to reach out to southern conservatives and effectively make peace with segregationists and recruit them into the party.

This is a story that has long been, I mean, just as conventional as they get. It was written about at the time, in real time reporters were talking about it. Nixon’s strategists were explaining this in newspaper columns. In 1970, Kevin Phillips talks about how the Republican Party is going to win over “negrophobe whites” who are fleeing the Democratic Party because of their commitment to civil rights.

It’s all over the place. It’s in their archives. You can find this in everything from Nixon’s memoirs to the memoirs of Harry Dent, who was the chief southern strategist to papers of Goldwater, on and on. The Republican Party had long accepted this. Lee Atwater talks about the Southern Strategy being racist in the 1980s during the Bush era. Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele and Ken Mehlman both apologized for the Southern Strategy. So this has long been an accepted fact.

But during the Trump era, there was a change in Republican politics and while in the Bush era, apparently the idea had been to apologize for this past mistake and to say look: “We’re different from that now. We are now a multiracial party. You can look at the Bush administration. It’s got a commitment to racial diversity making moves on immigration reform. This is not the old Southern Strategy Party.”

Well, the problem is that the Trump administration came to power and embraced a lot of those old racist policies that the Bush people had tried [to] veer away from. And so instead of apologizing for that past as if they saw there was nothing to apologize for. They decided to pretend it never happened. So there was a new wave of partisans, people like Dinesh D’Souza, Carol Swain, other people like that who have spread this idea far and wide on the internet and in conservative social media that this is simply a fiction made up by academics like a dozen years ago or so. And again, it’s all in broad daylight. 

And as I note in the book and as you said, there’s lots of evidence there. And I do hope anyone who’s interested in discussing the Southern Strategy with someone who doubts it will draw this as a resource, because that’s why I wrote it. And all the time I did those threads I kept on thinking I wish there was a short, pithy piece that I could point people to.

All I could do with these kind of, you know, 600, 700 page tomes of political science or works that talked about it tangentially and there’s just nothing directly on it that was short and sweet. And so that’s why I wrote this piece to try to fill that need.

JS: One of the sentences in the beginning of your chapter — is one of the greatest, frustrated historian sentences ever written — where you say “This is well-documented in manuscript archives, public speeches, party platforms, contemporary reporting, polling data, oral interviews, memoirs, and elsewhere.”

KK: It’s all over the, I mean, again, this is not, again — I think people maybe have an eye that, you know, left-wing historians are rubbing their hands together trying to distort the past.

This is literally, you know, Bill Dickinson out of Alabama when he switches from the Democratic Party to the Republican party, says in his announcement. “I am joining the white man’s party.” He wins the election on that campaign. 1964, the first Mississippi Republican to win a house seat, where does he celebrate the win? At a Klan front group. The next day he goes to meet the Americans for the Advancement of the White Race or something like that.

Again, they’re not hiding this. And it’s not that Southern Democrats were all racial liberals. They weren’t. But this evidence of the Southern Republicans really being segregationist is out front.  The Mississippi Republican party — to give one more, just one more point. Mississippi Republican Party in 1964, its party platform declares its support for segregation, [saying] it’s necessary in order to maintain white supremacy essentially. So this is, again, hiding in plain daylight. 

What I did uncover, I’ll give myself a little credit for this, is that it goes back a lot further than the sixties. We often talk about this happening with Goldwater. What I found is from the Dixiecrat Rebellion of 1948. From the moment that happens — the moment southern Democrats start to balk at the new directions Harry Truman’s sticking the party with a support of civil rights — Republicans realize those southern Democrats are up for grabs. And they’re down there trying to recruit them.

Karl Mundt goes on a nationwide tour, spends a lot of time in the South in ‘49 and ‘50, arguing for a merger of the Dixiecrats and the Republicans. The chairman of the RNC is down in Alabama in 1952 saying Dixiecrats believe in state’s rights. Republicans believe in state’s rights. Let’s get together and form a union.

It doesn’t happen, right away. It doesn’t even happen completely in the sixties. It’s a process that unfolds over decades into the early 21st century. But it’s a really important transformation and again, it’s incredibly obvious, and I should stress that a lot of these essays aren’t saying anything new to historians. We’re really recapping the things that we know well. We’re trying to correct mistaken assumptions and misbeliefs held by the general public.

JS: Yeah, one of my very favorite parts of the chapter is Trent Lott, who people may know went on to become the Republican Majority Leader in the Senate, telling the sons of Confederate Veterans that “the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform, [and I am proud to be a part of it].”

I was like, well, that’s very straightforward. You can’t fault him for being dishonest here.

KK: Lott’s own career is a great example of this transformation. Lott had been the top aid to a long-serving segregationist southern Democrat, William Colmer. And when Colmer retired, he tapped Lott to be his replacement, but said, run as a Republican. And Lott did. And that’s the transformation that takes place all across the south. This old generation dies out, new generation comes up — comes up as Republicans.

JS: And so that chapter is an amazing resource on this subject. And Julian, your chapter about the Reagan revolution is also a fantastic resource for that subject because as you know in a lot of the popular imagination, what really happened during the Reagan administration has been totally reconstructed.

JZ: I mean, this is a powerful, I think myth. Certainly it’s become important to the conservative movement. A founding myth in many ways of a president who just transformed the nation almost completely toward the right, who was very successful and set the template for where we are today. 

It’s also, as I’ve said it’s a myth that a lot of, I think, liberals also subscribe to. And I wanted to really emphasize two elements of the period that I think are central and are either forgotten or ignored. Not that Reagan was not influential, not that conservatism didn’t have a big impact, but liberalism remained incredibly strong in 1980s’ America.

You can look at almost any area of politics and policy, whether it’s domestic welfare programs, whether it’s resistance toward excessive, interventions overseas. And there was a lot of strong support for all of this. I mean, to the point, Reagan backed away from many of the things that he actually ran on in 1981.

So it’s not really a revolution when there’s so many checks by the end of his term on what he’s able to achieve. And secondly, the notion this was a consensus that everyone was in on, as the ad said “Morning in America” again in 1984, just not true. He was incredibly divisive as president and Democrats from speaker Tip O’Neill in the House of Representatives to many voters in suburban parts of the country to organizations fighting against U.S. policy in Central America, the nuclear freeze movement — one of the largest international grassroots movements we’ve had, ever.

It’s just a very different portrait once you put all of this into that understanding of the 1980s. And so, that’s why I wanted to really hone in on that particular myth. And it’s important not just to understand Reagan or the ‘80s in a better way. And I think you actually understand Reagan in a more interesting way.

It’s not discounting him, it’s really taking him seriously. But you’ll see that the trajectory of politics that leads to today makes a lot more sense where you still see a lot of support for ideas that are more rooted in the New Deal and the Great Society than in Reaganism, which is perpetually a source of frustration to conservatives.

But it doesn’t really make sense if that was a revolution. And so that’s why I put it together and like Kevin, I wanted to write it in a way that was interesting and intellectually rich, but short to the point, easy to access and putting together a lot of literature that’s come out in the last decade or so on this subject.

JS: And I will admit, like I was genuinely surprised by your quotation from Tip O’Neill’s memoirs where I had bought into the public presentation of like, oh sure, you know, they fight during the day, but they get along great, you know, after hours and they’re all buddies in Washington. And you quote Tip O’Neill saying, “I’ve known every president since Harry Truman,” and “there’s no question in my mind that [Ronald] Reagan was the worst.”

JZ: And that wasn’t simply a normative statement about Reagan’s style. That was a fundamental sense of frustration with what Reagan was doing, what Reaganism was about. And O’Neill and many other Democrats were determined to stand their ground because the stakes were so high. There were ways in which Reagan was as divisive and contentious — I would argue — as Donald Trump.

And many people feared where this country was going to go and they fight back. That’s why Reagan has so much trouble achieving many of his ends. But that Tip O’Neill quote that is kind of the embodiment of how people now talk about this presidency, which is just unbelievable. I think, certainly for me as a student of the period, but also someone — a Gen Xer — who lived through the period. I remember a lot of people who were not so swept up and, not only friends, but just reading about it at the time. And so, I think that is a good accurate story to focus in on. And part of what I wanted to explore. And again, the point — and this gets back to earlier in our conversation — is not to diminish Reagan as president. It’s not to discredit Reagan as president. I actually take him seriously. 

And so I’m not going to present him given all I’ve learned as this guy who just walked through and erased decades of public policy and politics that had really had a big impact on the country since FDR, but rather, a president who struggled to achieve a lot of the goals that were central to the movement that brought him into power and learned this country was not exactly where he hoped it would be going, and that it wasn’t a revolution. It was a civil war. It was a kind of fraught decade that’s never been resolved since, because older ideas and older interests did not go away.

JS: Yeah it really is particularly striking the similarities between Reagan and Trump in so many ways. I’ve come to believe, you know, so Reagan was the prototype and Trump was the final product.

They had a lot of things that they said they were going to do, and the difference that they made I think much more was sort of in the tone of the country and just like the level of meanness and just overall vibe than actual like political standard, political achievements. So, the main question that I have now at the end of this for you guys is, I read this book and I thought there need to be 10 more versions of this. There are enough American myths that there needs to be a bunch of sequels. And so this has been a big success. It’s been a New York Times bestseller. Is that plausible in the future? Are there gonna be more “Myths America”?

KK: We haven’t talked about it. I mean, we agree that there are many more that could be done.

The 20 myths we’ve gotten in this book are by no means exhaustive. There are some big ones still on the table that would make for a great second volume. The question of pulling it off again is difficult. I’ve been kicking this current book project I’m working on down the road way too long.

Julian can multitask with the best of them. And I think he’s probably currently writing six books that will be out this fall. I cannot do that. I cannot multitask. So for the time being, I’ve gotta focus my attention on this, on this new project. That said, we might come back to this later on.

In the meantime, if other people wanna pick up the ball and run with it,  jump in. The water is fine.

JZ: I mean, right now we’re doing different things. Who knows? We can come back to it. We had written something a few years ago together. And so that’s always a possibility. And we’ll just see, but I think more importantly, I mean, the point of the book wasn’t to capture everything. It’s not encyclopedia of myths. I’s more an approach to doing this that I hope is actually portable, meaning that other scholars can find ways to do this as well. 

I hope the reception, which was so good, is encouraging, that there actually is an appetite out there to do this, and hopefully that will create an incentive, whether it’s someone writing one book or someone doing what we did. That ultimately is the best kind of accomplishment. Not just we produce more and more but we encourage others to think about maybe better ways to do it and in their own take, which is fine with us. But it’s a conversation that we started rather than some effort to definitively tell everything. 

And very important in this book is our effort to just showcase great scholars in the history profession who are not always the people you might see or hear in the media, but are very good writers who really have something to say about the issues that are going on today. And, maybe to push back a little bit on some of the hostility or tension a lot of people have with the university, which I think both of us think still does great things, and our authors are all part of that. And so I hope this also just fuels more interest in actually learning and broadening how many historians or how many kinds of scholars that you go to when you want information about what’s going on or what has gone on in the past.

JS: Well, as I say, I hope there are more versions of this book. There are so many more myths that really do deserve to be treated like this. In the meantime, everyone should go get “Myth America.” 

If you have any interest in American history, if you have any interest in American politics, this is really the book for you. Get it for your bright 15-year-old nephew, your bright 15-year-old niece. It’s a great book for teenagers to learn and they will be outraged by everything that they’ve been lied to about.

And you know, this is a great entryway to more and more and more history, but thank you guys very much for your time and I hope we can have you guys back here at some point to talk more history.

JZ: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. 

KK: Anytime. It was a pleasure.

[Deconstructed credits.]

JS: Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is the Intercept´s editor in chief. And I’m Jon Schwarz, a senior writer at The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give.

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Thank you very much. Ryan will be back next week, still in love with politics no matter what I said at the start of this episode.

We will see you then.


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