How to Beat Demagogues Online: Know Your History!

Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse offers lessons in how to push back against the lies of the far right.
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Twitter feud

"I believe that we, as scholars, have a duty to engage with the public," says Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse.

We live in an era of viral lies. According to an analysis from the Washington Post, President Donald Trump has publicly lied over 6,000 times since he took office. Since the day of his inauguration, his press secretaries and spokespeople have followed this example by issuing blatant untruths and falsified video to support their agenda. On social media, high-profile right-wing pundits like Charlie Kirk and Dinesh D'Souza promote false claims to their millions of followers. Worst of all, perhaps, there's reason to doubt whether a lot of these right-wing leaders even believe their own lies, or whether they see them merely as a way to spread propaganda and to "trigger the libs." When one side doesn't even care about accuracy, what's the role of the expert?

Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse, who has written two books on the history of American conservatism, says that it's vital to engage and refute public dishonesty of this sort. Over the last few years, Kruse and other experts have been bringing evidence and expertise to well-curated public Twitter threads that rebut lies and historical misinformation. This year, Kruse vaulted to new levels of visibility (and gained around 150,000 Twitter followers) when he took on Dinesh D'Souza's claims that the Republican Party had never pursued a "Southern strategy" to attract racist white voters away from the mid-century Democrats. With humor, animated gifs, screenshots of primary sources, and lots of references to the work of other scholars, Kruse dismantled D'Souza's ahistorical argument piece by piece.

Pacific Standard spoke with Kruse over the phone to discuss how he got involved in social media fact-checking, and why he considers it so important.

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When did you start this kind of historical fact-checking on Twitter?

[In 2015] Joe Scarborough called Obama the "most partisan president ever." I did a long thread on that [and realized], wait, people pay attention to this stuff? My Twitter account had maybe 10,000 followers, probably less than that. Normally I just yell at Scarborough on the TV. This was like yelling at the TV, but he hears me, and other people hear me too.

2015 coincided with the start of the Republican primaries. I'd be watching debates, and then the same thing would happen. For example, Trump said "Bring back Eisenhower's deportation policies." [I thought] people might want to know it was called "Operation Wetback."

Kevin Kruse Princeton historian

This medium is really useful. There’s a ready-made audience out there listening, including journalists. People were happy to have this historian pop up to provide context.

Let's jump forward to your ongoing debates with Dinesh D'Souza, which seems to have vaulted your visibility to new heights. How did that get started

There was one right before the Fourth of July [this year]. I remember being at the beach, picking up my phone and saying, "Oh God that's not good." It really blew up and we had a series of back-and-forths where he would make claims, I would fact-check, and then he'd move the goal posts.

People really didn't like what he was doing and people liked someone with some knowledge pushing back on it. [It turns out that] dunking on D'Souza is a great way to build a following.

D'Souza clearly isn't interested in facts, so what kind of effect do you think you can have?

I'm under no illusion that I'm going to get him off Twitter. He's got a very profitable con—I assume it's a con. I do it for people on the sidelines, [for] people who aren't already his fans but are confronted with people pushing his work directly or his arguments indirectly. It's a way to serve as counterbalance.

Are you worried that you're just giving him more oxygen?

Both D'Souza and Trump have a much bigger audience than I have. The millions of people who follow them are already going to see [their tweets]. It's important to not just let them go unchallenged. D'Souza's schtick was to say that no historians ever objected to what [he says]. So our lack of fact-checking was taken as at least our tacit approval. If we don't speak up and challenge these untruths, then they have the floor.

Historians have the same kind of duty that scientists have to climate change deniers, that doctors have to anti-vaccine folks. It's not fun. It's not good for me to do this stuff. It's not the best use of my time. I don't get paid for it. I get flooded with hate mail and angry replies, but somebody's gotta do it.

Why you?

By the nature of who I am and where I am—I'm a white straight man, a full professor at an Ivy League university—I catch 1 percent of the crap that is thrown at other scholars out there. I have the security to do this. I have no excuse not to do this, other than that I don't want hate mail or it's a drag on my time. Those are not good excuses, as far as I'm concerned.

I believe that we, as scholars, have a duty to engage with the public. As much time and energy as I put in my scholarly books and articles and teaching, we have a duty to these larger audiences that will never read one of my books. They don't have [my books] on my desk, but they're going to see one of these Twitter threads. And that's good.

Does your commitment to public engagement influence how you train graduate students or mentor junior faculty?

I'm still learning this world myself and I'm learning it from my vantage point. I have to remind myself that I have a ton of protections that others don't. When I see grad students leaning in with fearlessness, I'm deeply impressed by that, [but] part of me worries if they're at a public university or on the job market.

I have to ask you about your now notorious thread comparing Trump officials to James Bond villains.

There was the picture of [Steven] Mnuchin and his wife, holding up the money, all in black with those gloves. Someone had made the link between Sebastian Gorka and Hugo Drax, so I thought I'd do the main people in the cabinet. And then it took on a life of its own. If I remember right, I did it watching football.

Has this social media visibility changed anything for you? Are you writing differently?

I'm locked in in terms of my [scholarly] books until 2030, [but] along the way, there are these side projects. Fault Lines [co-authored with fellow scholar Julian Zelizer] is coming out in January. It's a general-audience trade textbook on the United States since 1974. It's perfect for this broad audience because it goes to the present, up through March of 2018 when they pried the manuscript out of my hands. It's about political polarization over the last four decades and the role that changes in media have played in fragmenting the American landscape. So President Twitter is a perfect endpoint.

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