"Fake history" has powered the rise of the right — time for the left to fight back

When Bill O'Reilly is the best-selling "historian," you've got a problem. Nils Gilman on his profession's future

Published February 11, 2018 12:00PM (EST)


“Fake news” is everywhere, both as an actual product and a false accusation. But a deeper phenomenon, fake history, is a big part of how we got here. Donald Trump’s signature slogan, “Make America Great Again,” depends on a historical narrative of American greatness, swiped from Ronald Reagan, and a hazy peak in that past that Trump has never felt it necessary to identify.

This has been a long time coming. Back in 2010, with the Tea Party riding high in the news, Nils Gilman (author of "Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America") wrote a blog post, "Rightwing productions of history," that brilliantly explained how fake history empowers the right — which writes "history" for immediate propaganda value, with only the most tenuous concern for what actually happened historically — while academic history was too nuanced and complicated to help the left in those terms.

“There's an underlying irony here, which is worth underscoring,” Gilman wrote. “While the political right has largely lost the interpretive battle for the American past among professional historians, they remain far more sensitive than the political left to the political importance of dominating popular understandings of key episodes from the past.”

The surprise election of Trump may have shaken things up, however. There’s been a flood of popular writing about histories of populism, authoritarianism and threats to democracy since November 2016. Where all this leads is unclear, but at least the political importance of history has become a vital concern for the left as well as the right — which creates new possibilities. To better grasp how we got here, Salon sat down to interview Gilman about his insight from the Tea Party’s heyday, and what inklings it can provide for the days ahead.

What led you to write "Rightwing productions of history" in 2010?

There were a lot of things going on at that point. One had to do with the contested legacy of the Vietnam War, and counterinsurgency. There was a whole series of books coming out at that time written by various people who are not academics. Some of them were more or less credible sources: scholars but not academics. There's a very strong consensus among academic historians about the historical legacies of counterinsurgency programs, and the counterinsurgency program in Vietnam in particular. Basically, the last successful counterinsurgency waged by a power in the global North against power in the global South was — and this is somewhat arguable — Malaya in 1961, although Malaya became independent shortly thereafter [as the nation now called Malaysia], so it’s almost a rule-proving exception.

During the high colonial period, there were many insurgencies that were put down. What brought colonialism to an end, more than anything else, was the rising failure or inability to put down insurgencies in Algeria, in Vietnam and so on.

That was the dominant consensus view among academic historians. Now [in 2010] the U.S. finds itself embroiled in trying to lead the counterinsurgency in Iraq. And that historical view of counterinsurgency wasn't going to work as a usable past for people who are trying to foment contemporary counterinsurgency programs in Afghanistan and Iraq. So a series of books started to appear — some of them more credible as histories than others. Max Boot (who I've known since college) and Mark Moyar (who my wife has known since college) are people I would certainly call credible intellectuals — they aren’t just making up bullshit. But they are very much engaged in a project of writing history that's informed by the need to create a past that works for present political purposes.

I should note that I was actually working as a consultant at the time, trying to help people in the U.S. government try to think more historically about the insurgency processes they were engaged in.

You said “there were a lot of things going on.” What else did you have in mind?

There was also this domestic issue, which is that there are a lot of stories to tell about the past, not just one. If you ask almost any academic historian today, “What was the primary cause of the U.S. Civil War?” the absolute overwhelming consensus is one word: “slavery.” You know, complicated multi-causal factor, but you boil it all away — no slavery, no Civil War, right? But that's not a narrative that a lot of people are very happy with.

In fact, it wasn't the predominant narrative for a long time. It wasn't the dominant narrative really until the 1960s and '70s when there was a whole new historiography on that. And there are people who want to contest that history now. There's this whole industry of people funded by right-wing think tanks and right-wing benefactors, who are interested in creating a narrative about the past which is useful for particular political projects in the present.

I actually think the political right is much better at this. Partly because they lost the academy, they want [to win] these battles to a very large extent, and are hyper-aware that the way the narrative about the U.S. past has solidified over the last generation or two makes it much harder for them to pursue certain kinds of policies. So that's the general frame for the piece.

At the beginning you wrote, “Over the last 40 years of production of American history, historical memory has been quite radically transformed.” How would you explain to a layperson what you meant by that?

There's different dimensions to it. One major factor is that, 30 to 40 years ago we got civics lessons in schools, which were historical stories that were told to present the political values of the country. The Revolutionary War was an uprising against the despotic foreign government, and against taxation without representation. There was education about the republican virtues. There was a story told about the rising arc of freedoms in the history of the country. These things were all told in a pretty explicit way. My kids are school-age now. They don't get that kind of explicit civics lesson anymore. This is part of the retreat of public institutions from engaging in moral suasion in general and American civic life. So that's one part of the story.

At the same time, there's been a real change in many of the dominant narratives about the U.S. past. Academic historians have increasingly told stories in the name of inclusion, social histories. Fifty years ago, the dominant kinds of historiography focused primarily on political elites. The social history of revolution, which began really in the 1960s, and then became the dominant movement in the '70s and '80s, was about teaching history "from below," as the saying goes.

This was the history of various working classes and oppressed groups, and groups that had been written out of history. Because the political history focused on elites naturally was the history of "dead white men," as the saying goes. So people became interested in telling stories about the history of women, of working-class people, of African-Americans. This is done in the name of inclusion, but when the stories get told, they also become stories of oppression. As those became the dominant stories, the history of the past was no longer a history necessarily of the arc of history bending toward freedom. It was a history of a long series of only slowly, haltingly and hesitatingly overcoming oppressions — centuries of suffering. This became a story that was much less celebratory of the American past.

That created problems.

It contrasted very sharply with the kind of story that, at the same time, Ronald Reagan wanted to tell about his shining city on a hill, a glorious beacon that all others look out to. So you started to get a stronger and stronger divergence between the kinds of stories told. Certain political factions in the country — nationalists, and also darker forces like white nationalists, and people who were actually interested in perpetuating these oppressions that these social historians were trying to decry — were not very happy with this turn of historiographical events, where the dominant story was no longer a celebratory story about elites building a great and powerful country. It was instead the story about various kinds of predatory elites who had oppressed large segments of the country, not to say the rest of the world.

That was a much less useful history for people who wanted to promote U.S. power, plus the power of certain constituencies within the country. They recognized that the understanding of the past that has become the dominant view of academic history was an actual block for them to be able to enact the kinds of policies they wanted to enact. So alternative history started to be written, not by academic historians but by other kinds of people.

You tweeted recently about best-selling “historians” not being academics. What’s the significance of that, as you see it?

The fact that Bill O'Reilly is the best-selling "historian” in the country I think tells you two things. One is that there's a huge amount of demand for different kinds of stories than the ones told by academic historians. Second -- and this is a point I really want to make -- why is Bill O'Reilly spending his time writing histories? Two things: One is he feels that having the kind of story he wants to tell about the past is important for his political project, and two, he sees that such histories do not exist.

It's not just Bill O'Reilly. Jonah Goldberg wrote a ridiculous book called “Liberal Fascism,” where he argued that contemporary liberalism is a direct lineal descendent from fascism, just because there are some resonances between the anti-classical liberalism of FDR and the anti-classical liberalism of the fascists in the 1930s. There were a whole variety of different anti-classical liberalisms that arose in the context of the Great Depression. It was a major rebuke of classical liberalism, and the question was what to do about it. One answer was fascism. Another answer was communism. A third answer was the kind of mixed economy that FDR put together.

FDR is actually another very important figure in this. FDR has had, I would say, close to a cult following among American liberals, generally celebrated by American liberals as the greatest president of the 20th century.

I must have read a dozen books on him as a teenager.

Exactly. I mean he was celebrated as the guy who saved the country from the worst political fate. He saved American capitalism, he won the war. There were all sorts of things about him swept under the rug in those kinds of hagiographic narratives, matters relating to African-American civil rights, the Japanese-American internment, etc.  So there was some dissent. But basically, FDR was treated as a really important figure.

Republicans have had an explicit campaign to try to displace the memory of FDR as the greatest American president of the 20th century with the memory of Ronald Reagan. I think John McCain has an explicit project to make sure that more sites in the U.S. are named after Reagan than FDR. Why is that? It's a concerted campaign to control the symbolic understanding of the past.

One of the important things you highlighted is the asymmetry involved. There’s very little concern with getting the past right among conservatives, while among professional historians there's so much concern with getting it right that it becomes difficult to have a usable past. 

This goes to the style of academic writing, which makes it hard to reach popular audiences. Every year the best-selling histories, whether they happen to have a particular political project or not, tend not to be written by academic historians. That's partly because of the stylistic job pressures within the academy.

There's a second dimension, which is  that academic historians, for the most part, are motivated by trying to get the story right, and to understand the balance, the complexity and the nuances. Academic historians will always tell you two things: It started longer ago than you think, and it’s more complicated than you think. Complexity is the enemy of clarification, for political purposes. Political communicators have to make strong, clear statements. It’s not useful for them to be nuanced.

In a larger context, there is a parallel here with what's happening in the sciences, whether it’s “intelligent design” vs. evolution, or the attacks on global warming. Chris Mooney in "The Republican Brain" argued that the liberal tradition sees reason as the search for knowledge, but that's not what the science actually says. Our complex minds actually developed from being social animals. It's relationships and persuasion that the mind is much more attentive to.

I'm not a neuroscientist so I can't speak to that directly, but it certainly sounds plausible. There is a fundamental relationship between liberalism — not welfare-state liberalism but skeptical, open-minded, non-dogmatic liberalism, a willingness to revise accepted positions that is central to the mindset of an effective scientist -- that are antithetical to political systems that are entailed by dogma. So there is a connection there.

One framework I find illuminating is the one evoked by Karen Armstrong in the introduction to "The Battle for God" — that of logos vs. mythos. The scientific mindset, expressive of logos, is where a great deal of energy of the political left has gone for a long time, both the center-left establishment and more progressive forces. If you want to change the system, you have two choices — one is looking back to how things used to be or were "supposed" to be, and the other is to study things in a problem-solving way, to figure out how we move forward — and that seems to resonate with science. 

I generally agree with that, but here's my caveat. Effective politics speaks the language of mythos at least as much as the language of logos. My view is that populism is that style of politics which focuses on not logos, policy wonk detail but politics as a form of expression, as a vehicle for identity, and that takes place in the realm of myth. Really genius politicians manage to have some artful balance between the logos and the mythos. They manage their policy agendas that are rooted in logic and evidence, yet are able to express to people in a common idiom why this is meaningful to them, in terms of the larger values and beliefs -- call that mythos -- that they want to believe in.

I think the fundamental mistake that people make — policy intellectuals, especially — is to believe that everybody sees the world the way they do. Most people don't see the world and see politics the way somebody like you or me does. We're like political nerds, interested in policy details, and that's not how 99 percent of people think. They think about politics as a vehicle for other things. Nowadays, they think of it as a form of entertainment. That's why we have the entertainer in chief as a president.

That brings us to the question of how things have changed or remained the same in light of Trump. There is more widespread interest in serious history trying to make sense of him, but the question of course remains about what is good scholarship versus what will sell. The classical figure here would be Richard Hofstadter, who saw populism on the left and right as fundamentally similar, coming out of a "vital center" perspective. That’s been embraced by defenders of neoliberalism, which itself is a large contributing factor in how we got to Trump.

Let me unpack several pieces of that. First, Hofstadter’s view of populism was absolutely connected to "vital center" liberalism. You're completely correct. The narrative that Hofstadter wanted to put together was that populists were bad, but progressives were good, because the progressives were an elite project and the populists were a mass project. Basically the liberal tradition in the first half of the 20th century from Wilson to FDR was about containing populist enthusiasms and channeling them toward progressive ends.

I would say that the dominant view over the last 30 or 40 years has been that Hofstadter’s view of everything was wrong. Hofstadter is, among American historians, maybe the No. 1 whipping boy for "people who wrote brilliantly but got things really wrong." But I think there's more truth to what Hofstadter had to say then it's currently fashionable to admit. Certainly I think Hofstadter is due for a re-revisionist rehabilitation in light of Trump.

Now, a lot of people want to claim that Trump is not a populist, because the narrative that’s been dominant, put forward by Michael Kazin in "The Populist Persuasion," or a variety of others, that historical populists were actually not these backward-looking remnants of resistance to modernity, which is basically the way Hofstadter presented them, but people who are interested in progressive politics and doing things like adding referendums, having an income tax and bank regulation. I think there was a lot of that — a certain kind of logos. But I also think it's important to understand them as practicing not just the content of politics, but also a style of politics which we have good reason to be skeptical of. So that's the first piece.

And the second part, about neoliberalism leading to Trump?

I think it's absolutely true, and I’ve written about this extensively: The failures of neoliberalism, and the failures to even confront the fact that neoliberalism has catastrophically failed large segments of the population, is a precondition for the rise of Trumpism. I have a line on this: “If the left doesn't come up with decent solutions, the right will come up with indecent solutions.”

We had neoliberalism as a historical phenomenon, with the origins in the transformation of the 1970s. You get floating exchange rates, the anti-labor union movements, the rising financialization of the economy, the decoupling of growth from wages, the capturing of all productivity gains by small fractions of the top of the income bracket, and so on. Those trends begin really in the 1970s, coming out of the oil crisis and the economic restructuring that took place at that time, and there was all sorts of ideological work done to justify that.

I'll just cite one example: Eugene Fama’s "efficient market" hypothesis said that bubbles can't exist. He wins the Nobel Prize for that -- after 2008, the financial crash and the dot-com meltdown -- because it does useful ideological work to say that there are no such things as bubbles, that all information is captured in the market. There can’t be any such thing as irrational exuberance. And I think there's been a lot of work among academic economists to come to Jesus on the fact that a lot of boats were missed that led up to this. But no credible alternative model of political economy has actually emerged since 2008.

Ten years out from the crash, and none of the institutions have been radically reformed, and none of the trends that led to the crash have been addressed. We had a famously weak recovery. There's a lot of people who are employed, but wages have stagnated, a lot of people have dropped out of the workforce, a lot of people are underemployed, a lot of people are employed in jobs that don't fit their skill set. There's a lot of problems in our economy, and none of those things have been dealt with.

You can lay this at the feet of Barack Obama in the following sense: Despite the fact that the right is absolutely crazy about the “fact” that this guy is some sort of Muslim leftist or whatever, he’s actually a liberal centrist. That’s why he had no plan, he had no idea: This is not part of the agenda. Creating universal health care is actually part of the neoliberal agenda. There's all sorts of good neoliberal justifications for it, and he uses Mitt Romney's plan, which is the neoliberal health care plan. So Obama himself is a neoliberal. He was so personally gracious and he was an African-American, so there are a lot of people, and I think I include myself, who have a lot of fondness for the stylistic way in which he governed.

But he didn't do anything to deal with these underlying problems. They’re all still there, and no alternative narrative has come forward. If you think about the dominant movements on the left, since Obama was elected president: Occupy Wall Street just sort of faded away; the Tea Party came up; and Black Lives Matter was dealing with a very specific problem, police violence against African-Americans and to some extent the incarceration crisis, which is a symptom of neoliberalism, but not the cause of neoliberalism. There just hasn't been an alternative, credible left or center-left alternative. Under those circumstances, it's not surprising that people who are proposing some kind of real alternative become appealing to people who feel like the whole system is rotten. I think that's the truth about Trump.

Let's also be clear that he won the election because of a fluke in the way our presidential election process works. He lost the popular vote by a couple million, and he was also running against a historically flawed candidate. Hillary Clinton is the living embodiment of neoliberalism. Say what you will about Trump: It's hard to win a third presidential term [for the same party], and it's really hard when your candidate is married to the person who more than anybody else was responsible for the consolidation of the neoliberal consensus during the 1990s.

As you said, “If the left doesn't come up with decent solutions, the right you will come up with indecent solutions.” Where do you see those decent solutions coming from?

I've got a lot of confidence that there is an emerging set of new technologies coming online that promise significant reinvigoration of growth and productivity. Machine learning in artificial intelligence, robotics, gene editing, nanotechnology and so on -- that suite of technologies which will be combined to create a whole new industry and revolutionize existing industries really promises a lot of growth. The question is how we make that growth inclusive, because under the current political economy the coming of the robots is only likely to increase inequality.

I think there are people like Jacob Hacker at Yale, who is writing interesting things about "predistribution" as opposed to redistribution. There are discussions about universal basic income -- I'm skeptical that's really going to happen, but they’re pieces of an overall solution. By the way, that's an idea that goes back to Nixon, right? The idea of a negative income tax. So there's ways that might be politically viable, not just with people on the left. But I won't pretend I have some sort of silver bullet. I think we need to have a sustained conversation about how workers' voices get incorporated into decision-making over the distribution of the gains in the economy. That is the fundamental thing we need to work on.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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