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An Interview with Kevin Kruse, History Professor and Twitter Legend

Kevin Kruse is a scholar of 20th-century American history at Princeton University. He specializes in the history of racial segregation, religious nationalism and contemporary conservatism. He is also known for historically fact-checking prominent conservative figures on Twitter, crafting extensive threads to correct misrepresentations of America’s past. He has amassed over 250,000 followers and often educates his audience on discussions around Civil War causation and party realignment. Kruse works to popularize historical knowledge by sharing primary sources, historical texts and scholarly arguments with online readerships who might not otherwise have access to those resources. Kruse is the author of White Flight (2005) and One Nation Under God (2015). He is currently working on The Division: John Doar, the Justice Department, and the Civil Rights Movement and Law and Order: The Politics of Crime and Culture in New York City.

The Politic: When did you start using Twitter to inform digital audiences about American history?  

Kevin Kruse: I first started using Twitter in February of 2015. That was largely at the request of the publisher of my last book, One Nation Under God. They like their authors to be out on Twitter, but at first, it was fairly boring, straightforward, history channel-type things, like, “On this date, this happened.” It was really only about maybe a half a year into it that I started to do more of the kind of things that I do now. I was informed first by the debate over Confederate monuments in the South. I saw a lot of misrepresentation of Southern history, which is one of my fields, and I felt I needed to speak out about that. And then, during the presidential debates of 2015 and 2016, there were a lot of statements about American history being made there, which I had knowledge of, that I thought people might find useful.

You’re well known for crafting extensive “threads” on a particular historical trend or phenomenon. Do you have a particular intended audience in mind when you are writing these threads? And if you do, do you believe that the people most likely to read and engage with your posts are the same people you’re trying to reach?

Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, I write them the same way that I do when I write an op-ed or, say, an article for a mainstream publication. I imagine when I’m writing to the New York Times or Washington Post or Esquire or Rolling Stone, generally, there’s a standard phrase that most editors at those publications use, which is they want you to write for an “educated general audience.” So, people who are smart and interested but don’t have a specialized knowledge. You can pitch it at that level and I think it works. And that’s generally how I think people are reading those Twitter threads. It’s the same kind of audience.

Do you have a single thread that you’re proudest of?

Oh, that’s like you’re asking me to pick my favorite child. ‘Like’ is the wrong word, because it was a painful topic, but one that I think worked well was one I did on lynching. It was a response to somebody [who] had dismissed the number of African Americans killed by police in the previous year. It was “only 13,” this person said, and so I was like, well this rings true to me in the way in which we talk about death, and talk about it in the context of lynching. And it called to mind a lecture I’d done, and I do every year in my large survey course, in which I try to explain that you have to move beyond mere numbers when you’re talking about these things to really explain the way in which I teach lynching. It’s a thread that I think bridges that line between what I do in social media and what I do in the classroom, so I really thought that was one I was happy with.

Talking about bridging the line between what you do as a historian and in the classroom, and these different facets of how you engage with history, do you believe that our age of “Twitter politics” at all affects how your students at Princeton are engaging with history?

That’s a good question. You know, I feel my students–whatever their political background, whatever their own personal beliefs–still do engage with history the way in which I hope they would, which is to really dive into the primary source materials themselves and to draw their own conclusions out of it, to apply the context of what historians have written about it, what I might say about it in class, but to really interrogate the material themselves. That’s really what the discipline is all about, is teaching people how to be critical thinkers on their own terms. It’s one of the ways in which you can see [how] that approach, I think, really informs what I do on Twitter. If you read any of those threads, you’ll know that one of the things I like to do is to provide links to sources, whether they be screenshots of newspaper articles, or even photographs, or links to videos, or audio speeches, or links to documents, links to the Republican Party’s platform of 1960, or what have you, is that I like to throw those sources out “A” because it’s a way to keep around the character limit of Twitter. You’ve only got 140 or now 280 characters in a single tweet. It doesn’t cost you anything to have that image on there. But also, more importantly, it’s a way to move beyond the real theme of social media these days, which seems to be a sort of “he said, she said, who knows?” And rather than simply say, “Oh, I’m a historian and I know what’s right” – I have done that, too – but to say, “Look, here you go, here’s the evidence. Read this yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Here are the primary sources. Judge for yourself.” I do the same thing in the classroom. I teach off a lot of primary documents. I have my students analyze speeches, to use newspapers, to use archival materials when they can as a way to really get their hands dirty and do the work of history.

Yeah, I thought it was really interesting particularly in your thread on the Civil War, and how you took things from the mouths of southerners at the time to say, “This is what they thought it was,” just turning that on its head.

You know, that’s a great example. People debate back and forth, “What was the Civil War all about?” Well, let’s ask the people who seceded. They made declarations of secession. They put it down quite clearly. They have the Cornerstone Speech where Alexander Stephens explains what the war is all about. The maker of the Confederate flag said it was a banner for white supremacy. It’s all quite clear in their words. So, yeah, don’t take my word for it, listen to these historical actors themselves.

Loyal followers of your Twitter know that you have a sort of rivalry going on with Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative political commentator who, among other things, has critiqued how progressive historians teach America’s past. And it seems that some users you speak to don’t always care about the facts of historical scholarship, even if they provoke the debate, and aren’t open to being persuaded by your arguments. How do you engage in these conversations knowing the likelihood of bad-faith arguments from the other side?

I assume a lot of those arguments are being made in bad faith. And I’m not out to persuade someone like D’Souza. He’s not a historian. and that’s clear from his lack of knowledge about basic facts of the fields. He’s constantly presenting these things that we’ve talked about endlessly as something he’s discovered, like, “Did you know that Southern Democrats were the party of segregation and slavery?” Yes, it’s kind of actually a big theme of what we do in the classroom and in our work, I mean I literally wrote a book on what segregation has to do with Southern Democrats, it’s kind of a big thing. But he’s also clearly not a historian in the way in which he approaches this. He starts with a fixed political argument he wants to make, and when he looks back into the past for evidence, he cherry picks. That’s exactly wrong. You do history by looking at the evidence, as much evidence as you can, and following that to your conclusion, not the other way around. That’s not what an historian does. So when I make these threads, and they’re often springboarded off someone like him, it’s solely because I know that that claim has already been made out in the public sphere. And it’s usually, I won’t say never, but I almost always make these responses to someone who has a pretty significant following. So he’s got like a million people, or Charlie Kirk, or someone like that, people who have got a pretty big following and who are spreading what I see as misstatements, might be the most charitable way, or outright lies about the American past. When I respond to them, I’m not expecting them to say, “Oh, I was wrong!” I know that they likely have an ulterior motive here.

But what I also know is that there are lots of people out there who encounter these arguments in the wild and don’t have the expertise of an historian to be able to say, “Well, that’s wrong.” So when they throw out a cherry-picked fact without the larger context, or they throw out a quotation, or Candace Owens, for example, she threw out quotations that were completely made up. And so, that was an easy one to fact check. But when I respond to these things, it’s not with those people in mind that I’m hoping to convince. It’s rather the people on the sides that are watching this thinking, “What, is that true? I don’t know that.” And what I found, and what really got me to start responding to these, is that people like D’Souza used to take the silence of historians as our consent for what they were doing. He’d said in several threads, “Well, no historian has ever corrected me on this.” Well, that’s on us, if we don’t step up and speak out on that. So I think that we historians have a duty, the same way that doctors have a duty to speak out against the anti-vaccine crowds, or scientists have a duty to speak out against the climate change deniers. We have a set of specialized knowledge that we have to use here.

There have been some debates among those who use social media about whether engaging with these people further spreads their ideas and gives them a further platform. Do you think about that at all in your responses to these kinds of misstatements?

I get the argument. You know, why give these people attention? Why dignify it with a response? But, I gotta say, this was kind of the attitude that a lot of historians had for people like D’Souza and others for the past decade or so and I don’t think ignoring them did much. His last documentary was one of the biggest political documentaries ever, I think, so he’s got an audience out there, and if we don’t respond to it, it’s taken as our assent.

I follow a good number of American historians on Twitter, and a common remark I see from a lot of them is that they feel quite conflicted over the fact that politics has made their work–which covers horrific times in our history–suddenly relevant to such a wide audience. Discussions like your historical takedown of Kanye West’s comments, for instance, seem very “digital age” specific. How do you feel about your field being so relevant in our current moment?

I have mixed feelings. You know, my first book was on segregation and I used to have a chapter on neo-Nazis and the Klan. I have talked more about that in the last two years than I had in the previous decade. Now, on one level, a scholar loves to talk about their work. I really wish it were not so relevant. But it is, and other people who work on race in politics or Civil War and the Old South have found that their work is sadly relevant these days. And, luckily, what social media does is that it really lets us have a broader audience. We’ve always had the avenues of op-eds and things like that but that takes some time, there are gatekeepers there, it’s not an easy thing for a lot of people to get in, especially younger scholars, graduate students, who are more tech-savvy than older people like me. So, you know, what I think social media, especially Twitter, has done is that it really lets everyone have a forum here. And because there are so many reporters and journalists on social media, too, who are pretty good and pretty historically-minded and looking for these sources out there, it’s really let historians – and political scientists and sociologists and other scholars – really find a way to tap into the national conversation in a way that would’ve been fairly difficult for a lot of us a decade ago.

Twitter has also come under fire recently for a supposed “white supremacist problem,” including the website’s verification of users who spread particularly dangerous messages about marginalized communities. And, of course, it has become a political battleground since the 2016 election,  On the other hand, your Twitter is an example of how social media can be used as a force of good to correct the historical misunderstandings that motivate dangerous speech. Do you see social media generally as a powerful tool for good, a destructive weapon, or something else?

If you ask an historian any question, the answer is going to be that it’s really all of those things. I would say on this that it really is both. It can be a real force for good, it can be a real force for reaching people, for educating people. But it can just as easily be a force for distortion, for spreading mistruths. That’s the battle we have. And the one argument is that Twitter is a marketplace of ideas in which I can present my views and people can present their views and people can decide. But it also lends itself, I think, to some dangerous distortions. And I’m not quite sure what the remedy is here. I’m a firm believer in free speech from all sides, but at some point, there are malicious forces out there who are using that for really nefarious ends.

Of course, speaking about marginalized communities and protection on Twitter, as a white male professor at Princeton, you occupy a very different space in talking about issues of American race and gender than other voices do in similar discussions. How do you believe your identity affects your online advocacy and discourse?

It’s a great question. Look, this is what really led me to speak out more and more over the last couple of years. I know that I have the most privileged position of anyone. I am a straight, white, cis, het[erosexual] male professor. I’m a full professor at Princeton University. I have every kind of protection, every kind of privilege. I have no excuse not to speak out. I am in awe of graduate students who are out there fighting the good fight. I know that my colleagues, especially people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and others like that are coming from a place where they catch so much more grievance and hate mail and trolls than I will ever see. So that is really what leads me. I know that I have no excuse. And I know I catch maybe one percent of the nonsense that is thrown at my colleagues, so that makes me feel that I have to be in this fight.

What do you believe is Trump’s biggest–or most dangerous–misunderstanding about American history?

That is a big question. I think he’s fundamentally unaware of American history, period. I mean, he constantly makes these grand claims that he’s done more than any other president, that he has accomplished more than any other president, that he has had a bigger impact and accomplished more for this group or that group, or that he’s faced a bigger challenge. He’s given to these hyperboles that an actual understanding of American history shows is complete nonsense, so I think the biggest thing he misses about American history is everything.