This interview was originally published by Public Books on November 1, 2019.
Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“Historian. Author/editor of White Flight; The New Suburban History; Spaces of the Modern City; Fog of War; One Nation Under God; Fault Lines.” These 140 characters of Kevin Kruse’s Twitter handle understate his scholarly and public impact. Professor of US history at Princeton University, Kruse has published works that reveal important new insights into the conflicts over race, religion, and the rise of conservatism in the 20th century and that draw crucial links between the past and the present. Most recently, with Julian E. Zelizer, he coauthored Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 , which traces the rise of political, racial, economic, and gender and sexuality polarization, paying particular attention to the ways the media has contributed to the exacerbation of existing divides. Fault Lines takes on the challenging task of creating a framework for understanding the past four decades of US history, from which many other historians have shied away.
In the last few years Kruse has also emerged as Twitter’s leading historian. At last count, he has 340,000 followers. Many are fellow academics, but their ranks include celebrities from Ken Burns to Questlove and political figures from Bill Kristol to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Kruse uses the platform to provide historical context for headlines and has taken on many right-wing figures, most notably Dinesh D’Souza. In this wide-ranging conversation, Kruse discusses the necessity and challenges of writing about the recent past, the media’s role in political polarization, and the need for political historians to take media more seriously. He also details his own use of social media, the potential benefits of Twitter as a means of public engagement, and its unexpected parallels to teaching.
Lily Geismer (LG): You and Julian E. Zelizer just published a book called Fault Lines, which is a history of the United States since 1974. A history of just the last few decades is rather unusual. Why do you think historians have been so reluctant to go into the recent past?
Kevin Kruse (KK): Historians root their work in the evidence and, for historians, the evidence is largely found in the archives. But when it comes to the recent past, those collections haven’t been deposited. Or if they have, then they haven’t been opened. So at a basic level, we just don’t have the raw materials we’d usually use.
But at a deeper level, I think historians have shied away from the recent past because we — like most non-historians — don’t quite think of it as “history” yet. It doesn’t seem to be as far removed from our own time. But the fact that it really is history comes into stark relief when we get out of our own heads and into the heads of our students. For them, this period is history.
When I started college at UNC in 1990, the end of World War II had happened 45 years before. And I, in 1990, knew that was “history.” Now, for a student who sits in my class in 2019, what happened 45 years before? Nixon’s resignation in 1974. As much as I as a student in 1990 needed historians to explain those previous 45 years — even the part that ran into my own short lifetime at that point — students today need us to do the same thing. We have to realize that, as much as it makes us feel old, our own lifetimes are now history.
The history of the United States since the 1970s is a period that can no longer be thought of as an afterthought or a coda to this earlier period of 20th-century US history. It should not be something that we skip our way through in the final lectures of a longer survey. It needs to be thought of as its own discrete, important era — one worthy of study, worthy of classes, worthy of books, worthy of attention.
LG: There is such an absence of books on the recent past. I know because I myself am working on a project on the 1990s.
KK: Of course.
LG: So, for both of us, all this history is composed of events that we’ve lived through. With this book — and when you teach classes on recent history — how do you see those events in new ways? And while we all have blind spots and subjectivities when we approach the past, is that especially true if that [past] is something you lived through quite recently?
KK: I came of age in the 1980s, so this, for me, was a chance to revisit a period that I remember. It’s actually easier for me to write about the 1970s than the 1980s. I was eight years old when the 1970s ended. I don’t have any really solid memories of that decade. My only real political memory from the 1970s is a kindergarten mock election in which I voted for Gerald Ford because he played golf and my dad played golf.
But I do have memories of the ’80s. And this book forced me to revisit that decade with really new eyes and overturned my expectations. I assumed, for example, that the 1980s were dominated by the so-called Reagan Revolution. What we realized as we researched and wrote that part of the book was that the idea that it was a “revolution” was something that the Reagan team purposely crafted as part of their PR. They didn’t want 1980 to be just another election, like 1976 or 1972, but wanted to present it as a sea change for the country. So they promoted that idea, and many Americans bought it. It was cemented by the 1984 reelection campaign, which truly was a landslide.
But the idea that it had been seen as a revolution right from the start really is wrong. What we discovered is that, despite Reagan’s rhetoric, there was an incredible stickiness to liberal institutions and liberal ideas through this period. There were so many obituaries written about the New Deal in the wake of 1980, but the New Deal was not dead. Reagan’s fight over Social Security, for instance, proved to be a doomed one. He succeeded in trimming some Great Society programs, but the New Deal state largely survived. So that was one thing I learned: the decade wasn’t as overshadowed by Reagan as I misremembered.
LG: Was that your main takeaway from revisiting that period? That the phenomena that you felt dominated the decade were actually not as decisive as you remembered?
KK: Actually, the opposite occurred. There were things I remembered as marginal that, in fact, had a much bigger impact on the country than I realized.
Take something like MTV. Having been a teenager in the 1980s, I remembered MTV for the music videos. That’s what stuck out to me. What we found in research for this book was that MTV, among other cable channels, helped pioneer a new style of programming: as opposed to the old broadcasting, which tried to reach out to as many people as possible, MTV talked about an approach it called narrowcasting: reaching out and finding a small slice of the audience. With MTV it was originally rock fans, but their model spread across cable television. There’s the Golf Channel for golfers and the Cooking Channel for chefs, and all these different small audiences. Instead of reaching broadly, these channels decided they were going to narrow their focus and zero in on this one audience, and speak to what they were already interested in. And reinforce those beliefs and reinforce those interests.
Now obviously that’s a bit innocuous when we’re talking about music or food or sports. But when we get into politics — where this model took off in the 1990s with channels like Fox News — then we start to see more serious ramifications from that turn to narrowcasting. So in the end, one of the major political transformations of our time had its origins, in a way, with MTV, which I had dismissed as just the home of Duran Duran videos.
LG: Let’s back up. Both Reagan and MTV are in your new book, Fault Lines. How did the book come about?
KK: We’d been working on this book since 2012. It came out of a course that we taught together here at Princeton. I had long taught a “US since 1920” course. It had been created in the 1960s, when “since 1920” was a manageable chunk of time, comparable to other advanced lecture courses on the books, but obviously the meaning of “since 1920” stretched longer and longer with every year. When Julian joined the faculty here, we finally decided to cut it in two at 1974. We taught the post-1974 chunk together for a couple of years, and then I passed it off to him. So the book really emerged from the course we created.
LG: You begin the book with Obama’s farewell address in January 2017, which, in many ways, was his observations about the meanings of 2016 and the election of Donald Trump and the divisions that he saw as fundamental to American democracy. You end the book with Trump’s first year in office. Were you working on the book before the election, and did you change it at all when Trump was elected?
KK: So much of it had been written before Donald Trump was even a candidate for president. We had much of it in place. In fact, I remember the initial full draft had a small bit at the end of what is now the penultimate chapter. Bracketed at the end, it said “2016 election here,” and in my mind, it was going to be a paragraph or two. It would be like one of those other minor elections that we kind of whistled past. Needless to say, that assumption did not pan out.
But the Trump era, in many ways, fit easily with the themes we’d already laid down. The book traces two major themes that have shaped the United States in recent decades: first, the growing political polarization and partisanship, and second, the fracturing of the media landscape and what that has meant for American politics and life. And there seemed no greater evidence of those two lines coming together than Donald Trump, a reality TV star who became president by stoking partisan anger through Fox News and Twitter.
So we went back into the text and looked for the roots of what happened on election night. We realized that all the pieces were already there, but took on slightly new meanings in light of what had just transpired.
For example, we had already written about moments of racial division across the book. But looking back, we realized that, to our embarrassment, we had neglected some of the key racial conflicts of the most recent decade. A lot of the racial story was told in the more familiar struggles of the 1970s, with the busing riots and the affirmative action fights, and the 1980s, with things like the Willie Horton ad of the 1988 campaign.
Focusing on that familiar ground, we had unwittingly glossed over some of the racial tensions in the Obama years. These racial issues were undeniable, but we had fundamentally framed the Obama era in a different way: presenting his presidency as basically the story of the post-2008 financial meltdown, the fight with the Tea Party over big government, the way congressional Republicans really dug in their heels to deny any effort at bipartisanship. Our original take on the Obama years was really a political story told largely through D.C.
But that changed as we revisited the draft and revised it substantially. It wasn’t just the Trump election that motivated that change, actually, but a constellation of events around that same time. The fight over Confederate memorials and, most significantly, Dylann Roof and the terrorist murders that he committed in Charleston convinced us of the need to address the revival of white nationalism. This had been a theme covered earlier in the book, but we’d somehow lost the thread. And so we went back and put those pieces together to show that the resentments Trump tapped into in the 2016 campaign weren’t something he invented, but had been there previously.
LG: Yes, and your earlier work already deals with issues of white nationalism and conservatism. This current book: Is it a continuation of your earlier projects or a diversion?
KK: It’s a little of both. My first two books basically were about two major fault lines in postwar America. White Flight was on the fault line of race and segregation; One Nation Under God, the fault line of religion. But those books were also set in different eras than Fault Lines, eras in which the lines of division were healed.
The post-World War II period certainly had incredible lines of division, but it also had a series of massive national forces that acted in a centripetal way: pushing things back toward the center.
The mainstream media were a few major city newspapers and the big three TV networks, which set the pace for the news but also set the conversation for the entire country. The economy was thriving, with unions lifting people out of the working class into the middle class, and that also papered over a lot of divisions in their ranks. In politics, this was a period in which people had faith in the federal government and looked to it to solve problems. The parties were ideologically diverse, and therefore bipartisanship was a necessity: conservative Republicans had to reach out to conservative Democrats to get their agenda through; liberal Republicans had to reach out to liberal Democrats, etc.
What we see in the post-1970s era is something considerably different, where we didn’t have those forces bringing the country together. Instead we increasingly had a number of incentives, which led people to be pushed apart.
There’s now profit in aggravating the fault line of race. There’s profit in stoking religious divisions. There are incentives in politics, from gerrymandering of congressional districts to the way people consume their news about political matters. There’s an incentive across the board for Americans to move to the corners rather than the center.
It’s not that there were not fault lines before. It’s that there used to be a movement to bridge those lines and to recognize them and move across them in the previous period. But in recent decades, the incentives have actually been working the other way.
LG: I found one of the most fascinating things about Fault Lines to be the emphasis on media. And this is something that again I think political historians don’t always take seriously. I was really struck by that quote you included, Newt Gingrich, who stated after the 1994 election: “Without C-SPAN, without talk radio shows, without all the alternative media, I don’t think we would have won.”
LG: Media are, again, a major factor in the history being made today. Now, you’ve earned a reputation as Twitter’s historian. But has your work on Fault Lines — as well as Twitter’s role in determining the polarization today — changed your relationship to Twitter?
KK: I was learning Twitter and writing this book at the same time. And I think Twitter helped.
Twitter forces historians to engage with the general public. In the broadest strokes, we’re handling history on Twitter in the same way we would write an op-ed or an essay for a general magazine for a general educated audience. But on Twitter you get feedback right away, so you can very quickly learn what resonates and what doesn’t, what warrants further explanation and what isn’t going to interest an audience. It’s a very prompt feedback machine, to say the least.
LG: You talked about how Twitter influenced your understanding and writing, especially for Fault Lines. Has it influenced your teaching?
KK: Has Twitter influenced my teaching? I’d say actually it was the other way around. I think my teaching really influenced how I approach Twitter. Again, I take my students as I imagine an op-ed audience: as generally intelligent nonspecialists, ready for these ideas that I am throwing out there, but also needing them explained with a bit of care.
Several of the more popular threads on Twitter that I have done have come directly out of things I’ve done in the classroom. There’s one I did on lynching, which is drawn directly from a lecture I give on the subject. The Twitter thread was prompted by a conservative commentator, who had dismissively said there were “only 13 blacks killed by police in the previous year.”
“Only 13 killed.” I was really struck by that language. And it reminded me of how I constructed my lynching lecture, with the goal of reminding the students that it is very easy to use numbers to hide the truth of things. We often think of numbers as providing hard facts. Numbers, when used to discuss lynching, provide us a way to get our hands around what is otherwise an unspeakable horror.
But numbers also obscure that horror. So in the first lecture in my course, which starts in 1920, I describe the wave of lynchings that happened in the wake of World War I. How there were this many lynchings in 1918 and a few more in 1919, and a few more in 1920. And it’s a way to shorthand a rising trend. I give the numbers to my students and they write them down.
But what I realized is that they are simply taking the numbers down, and it feels tidy to them. It feels like it has order, and therefore it feels like it has sense. What was important for me to do was to blow that up. As historians, it is almost part of our job description to provide order, to provide narrative, to make sense of the past. But in doing so we can often obscure what that lived reality was like for people on the ground, where things often didn’t make sense. Where there wasn’t a clear narrative or it didn’t have a hopeful endpoint, and where the senselessness of it was the most important thing.
LG: Yes, of course.
KK: So when I lecture on lynching, I place it a little bit later in the course, when we are in the 1930s. And in it I offer a series of rapid-fire lynching accounts, drawn from the first chapter of Charles Payne’s brilliant book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom.
Now, I speak pretty fast for a southerner, but I pick up my pace when I do this. And I do it intentionally. Because the students at first are doing what students are taught to do: taking down the names and the dates, names and dates, names and dates. But they quickly realize they can’t keep up with the information I’m throwing at them, especially the short-form horrors I’m relating. And pretty soon, the pencils start to drop and it gets a little more silent in the room. And by the time I get to the end of the ’30s it is just deathly quiet in there. I do that on purpose, I finally tell them, because I want to show them that the numbers obscure the facts, they obscure the horror of what actually happened on the ground.
It is easy for me to stand up there and say there were 28 lynchings in the state of Mississippi across the 1930s. It is quite another to put names to those deaths. It’s another thing for them to hear in detail, even in quick detail, what happened in those acts of racial terrorism. And to know that therefore, as those unfolded around other people, other African Americans in the state of Mississippi, they knew that they could be next. That any of them could be the next victim.
So that is something that I had done in class for decades. And then when I saw that phrase come up on Twitter — “only 13 killed” — I could build a Twitter thread around that, using those examples from the past as a way to speak against that same trend in the present. The original post wasn’t about lynching. It was about African Americans killed in police custody in 2018. But it was that, “only 13 killed,” that got me to connect the news on Twitter to the history I teach.
LG: So Twitter is a bit like another classroom.
KK: That’s really how I see Twitter: an extension of what we historians do in the classroom, where we’re trying to draw upon our own specialized expertise to explain the past but also to help students understand the present. Not necessarily by drawing constant connections between the past and the present, but by getting them to think about how they analyze evidence: how they respond to things like the numbers of deaths, or how they will analyze a primary source document in front of them. Students in my classes can take a speech from the ’30s and break it down. Now they can do that same thing when they get a speech in 2019.
So I’m not sure Twitter has really changed my teaching, but my teaching has absolutely formed what I do on Twitter.
LG: My very last question. We are talking over the cameras on our computers. But have you been on Twitter this entire time?
KK: I have not. [Holds his hands up to the camera] Can you see me on this?
LG: Yeah. I can.
KK: I’ll be honest, though. It’s up on my browser behind you. I haven’t touched it, but it’s there. It’s lurking in the past, as always.
Lily Geismer is an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton University Press, 2005)