Max Boot’s Screed Against Historians

Boot

Max Boot is the Jeanne Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN.  He is probably best known these days as an anti-Trump crusader.

Boot is also the latest public intellectual to chide academic historians for failing to speak to public audiences.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Washington Post:

A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.” Oh, and “more than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote, ‘From each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or Barack Obama.” It used to go without saying that this was one of Bernie Sanders’s most famous lines. (Wait. I may be confused.)

Boot defines the value of history education in America by how much kids know about the past.  He is completely unaware of the fact that Americans have been failing these tests since the early 20th century.  Sam Wineburg starts his seminal book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts with a reference to a 1917 exam in which Texas students answered 33 of 100 questions about “the most obvious facts of American history.”  The educators who conducted the test concluded that such a score “is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”  In other words, there is nothing knew here.  Boot’s understanding of history education seems to be little more than test-taking and memorization.  It has nothing to do with educating students to think historically.  I wrote about all this in the context of my home state of Pennsylvania. Click here.

Boot continues:

You simply can’t understand the present if you don’t understand the past. There is no more alarming case study of the consequences of historical ignorance than President Trump. He has adopted a foreign policy mantra of “America First” seemingly without realizing (or so I hope!) that the original America First Committee of 1940-1941 was sympathetic to the Nazis. And he has embraced tariffs seemingly without being aware of the disastrous consequences of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

More broadly, his appeals are steeped in misbegotten nostalgia. His slogan “Make America Great Again” implies that we must recover some lost golden age, a conceit that has been a constant of Western history since ancient Athens. Asked when America was great, Trump pointed to the early years of the 20th century and the 1940s-1950s. One wonders if he has heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire? Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”? The Balangiga MassacreLynchingsThe Palmer RaidsMcCarthyismTask Force SmithOrval Faubus? Of course, the United States did a lot of extraordinary things in the first half of the 20th century — but it was far from the paradise that Trump evokes. If Trump did understand that era, he wouldn’t be trying to undo its proudest achievements — from the Progressives’ regulation of business and protection of the environment to the Greatest Generation’s embrace of NATO and free trade.

Boot is right here.  It is not a new argument.  I have been deconstructing “Make America Great Again” since 2015 and I have written about it extensively in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Others have done the same.  And many are doing it before public audiences.  In the last two weeks I lectured on this very topic to audiences at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the University of Southern California, and a group of Christian college provosts at a conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Boot then goes after social history:

As historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin argue in War on the Rocks, since the 1960s, history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits. The push to emphasize “cultural, social and gender history,” and to pay “greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups,” they write, has been a welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect. Historian Jill Lepore notes that we have ditched an outdated national narrative without creating a new one to take its place, leaving a vacuum to be filled by tribalists.

Political, military, and diplomatic history is important, especially as we try to make sense of the Trump administration.  But the study of oppressed groups are more important than ever in the age of Trump.  How can we understand what Trump said about Charlottesville or what he is trying to do on the Mexican border without an understanding of social and cultural history?  How do we deal with the racial tensions in our country or the #MeToo movement without a grasp of this history?  I should also add that political, diplomatic and military history has not disappeared.  It has just become integrated with the new social history in a way that seems to make Boot uncomfortable. For example, historians are now thinking about the politics of race, the imperialism embedded in the history of U.S. diplomacy, and the role of women in the military.

And then Boot brings it home:

Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals — and students need to grasp the importance of studying history, not only for their own future but for the country’s, too. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad investment: History majors’ median earnings are higher than other college graduates’.

This reminds me of Thomas Sugrue’s recent critique of Jill Lepore. Historians are getting much better at engaging the public, but the university system does not often reward them for doing this kind of work.  So I have mixed feelings about this whole debate.  In other words, I do not think Boot is entirely wrong about this.  I wrote about it here in the context of the Sugrue-Lepore dust-up.

Boot has responded to critiques of his piece:

Max Boot Lists 18 Reasons Why Trump Could be a Russian Asset

trump putin

Max Boot is an American intellectual and military historian who is best known for his decision to leave the Republican Party and the conservative movement in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.  He tells this story in The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.

In a recent Washington Post piece, Boot offers 18 reasons why Trump might be working with the Russians.  Here is a taste:

On Friday, the New York Times reported that “in the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.” That investigation may well be continuing under the auspices of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. We don’t know what Mueller has learned. But we can look at the key, publicly available evidence that both supports and undercuts this explosive allegation.

Here is some of the evidence suggesting “Individual 1” could be a Russian “asset”:

— Trump has a long financial history with Russia. As summarized by Jonathan Chait in an invaluable New York magazine article: “From 2003 to 2017, people from the former USSR made 86 all-cash purchases — a red flag of potential money laundering — of Trump properties, totaling $109 million. In 2010, the private-wealth division of Deutsche Bank also loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars during the same period it was laundering billions in Russian money. ‘Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,’ said Donald Jr. in 2008. ‘We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,’ boasted Eric Trump in 2014.” According to Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s guilty plea of lying to Congress, Trump was even pursuing his dream of building a Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign with the help of a Vladimir Putin aide. These are the kind of financial entanglements that intelligence services such as the FSB typically use to ensnare foreigners, and they could leave Trump vulnerable to blackmail.

— The Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help elect Trump president.

— Trump encouraged the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails on July 27, 2016 (“Russia, if you’re listening”), on the very day that Russian intelligence hackers tried to attack Clinton’s personal and campaign servers.

— There were, according to the Moscow Project, “101 contacts between Trump’s team and Russia linked operatives,” and “the Trump team tried to cover up every single one of them.” The most infamous of these contacts was the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between the Trump campaign high command and a Kremlin emissary promising dirt on Clinton. Donald Trump Jr.’s reaction to the offer of Russian assistance? “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

Read the rest here.

Conservative Military Historian Max Boot Calls Fox News “one of the most damaging developments in modern American history”

Fox News commentator Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, believes that the United States should make a preemptive strike on North Korea.  He believes that Christians are the only “real refugees” from the Middle East.  He once claimed that “2000 years of Christian Civilization” was “destroyed on Obama’s watch.”  As historian and cultural critic Max Boot writes in The Washington Post“Peters is about as far removed from a liberal ‘snowflake’ as you can imagine…he is to the right of right.”

Recently Peters resigned his post at Fox.  In his resignation letter, Peters said:

  • “I feel that Fox News is assaulting our constitutional order and the rule of law, while fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers.
  • “I am ashamed” [of my association with Fox]
  • “Fox has degenerated…to a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration.”
  • “Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit”
  • “As a Russia analyst for many years, it also has appalled me that hosts who made their reputations as super-patriots and who, justifiably, savaged President Obama for his duplicitous folly with Putin, now advance Putin’s agenda by making light of Russian penetration of our elections and the Trump campaign.”
  • “As an intelligence professional, I can tell you that the Steele dossier rings true–that’s how the Russians do things.”

Ouch!

Here is a taste of Boot’s piece:

What makes Fox’s ravings so scary is that they are not just influencing the public — they are also influencing the president. Matthew Gertz of Media Matters for America found a feedback loop between Trump and the TV personalities he watches so faithfully. Many of the president’s deranged tweets — e.g., his claim that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s or that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin should be imprisoned — are lifted straight from Fox. On Monday, the First Fanboy was in ecstasy because his favorite evening host was on his favorite morning show. He tweeted: “.@seanhannity on @foxandfriends now! Great! 8:18 A.M.” Instead of watching Fox, Trump would be better advised to read his briefing papers — such as the one advising him not to congratulate Putin on his rigged election win.

Years ago, before the rise of Trump, I used to think that Fox performed a harmless service by publicizing conservative ideas. It has since become clear that its worldview has little to do with conservatism and everything to do with populism and white nationalism. Fox News’s  creation in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes was one of the most damaging developments in modern American history. The wonder is that there aren’t more commentators like Peters with the integrity to resign in protest over Fox’s propaganda.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Trump vs. Mueller a “Battle for America’s Soul?”

Mueller and Trump

Russian-American military historian and writer Max Boot thinks so.  Here is Boot on Robert Mueller:

Mueller embodies the ideals of probity, service and self-sacrifice that trace back to the Pilgrims who came to America in search of a “city upon a hill.” The Puritans preached devotion to the Almighty and had nothing but contempt for vanity and luxury — no blue shirts for them. Over the centuries, their religious fanaticism leached away, leaving behind in American culture a residue of obligation to serve not just God but also mankind.

Here is Boot on Donald Trump:

Trump combines the hedonism of the 1970s with the bigotry and sexism of the 1950s: the worst of both worlds. His consciousness was not raised in the 1960s, but his libido was. He did not take part in the civil rights or antiwar movements and won five draft deferments — including one for “bone spurs” — so that he could devote his life to the pursuit of women and wealth. He later said that fear of catching a sexually transmitted disease was “my personal Vietnam.”

Trump is the embodiment of what Christopher Lasch in 1979 called the “new narcissist” who “praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself”; whose “emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace”; and whose “cravings have no limits,” because he “demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” A product of the “me decade,” Trump is a “me first”— not “America first” — president whose speeches are full of exaggerated or falsified self-praise.

Read Boot’s entire Washington Post piece here.  This makes a lot of sense to me.