Myth America review: superb group history of the lies that built a nation

Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse marshal a fine array of historians for a bestselling assault on rightwing nonsense

This collection of essays by 21 exceptional historians has an ambitious mission: the re-education of Americans assaulted by lies more systematically than any previous generation.

The editors are two Princeton history professors, Kevin M Kruse and Julian E Zelizer. They begin with a concise history of how we reached this zenith of misinformation.

The assault on truth by a rightwing “media ecosystem” began with Rupert Murdoch’s invention of Fox News, augmented in recent years by even more fantasy-based cable networks like Newsmax and One America News.

The shamelessness of these sham journalists was best summarized by lawyers defending the most successful one, Tucker Carlson, in a suit accusing him of slander. The preppy anchor’s statements “cannot reasonably be interpreted as facts”, they said, because he so obviously engages in “non-literal commentary”.

Another foundation of the disinformation crisis was the deregulation of broadcast by the Reagan administration, which eliminated the fairness doctrine in 1987. That simple change insured the pollution of the radio airwaves by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators, creating the first echo chamber.

Of course, the internet allowed these waves of lies to reach warp speed, more destructive than anything humanity has experienced. In the understated description of this volume, “the conservative media ecosystem was augmented by … Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, where the tendency to find like-minded partisans and the freedom from fact-checkers took disinformation to new depths.”

These venues have given “far-right lies unprecedented access to significant numbers of Americans” and allowed “ordinary Americans to spread lies to one another”, instantly. “As a result, misinformation and disinformation have infused our debates about almost every pertinent political problem.”

The vastness of the problem is underscored by the fact that Fox News Digital ended 2022 as “the top-performing news brand” with more than 18bn multi-platform views and an average of 82.7m monthly multi-platform unique visitors. Not to mention 3.4bn Fox News views on YouTube. It was the first time Fox had surpassed CNN in these categories since 2019.

The essays in Myth America attack rightwing myths about everything from immigration to Reagan. The authors were chosen in part because they are already “actively engaging the general public through the short forms of modern media”.

In one of the very best chapters, Ari Kelman, a professor at the University of California Davis, tackles the foundational American myth: “Vanishing Indians.” He begins with the former Republican senator Rick Santorum’s assertion in 2021 that colonists arrived with a “blank slate” because there was “nothing here”. (Santorum said he had been misunderstood but was booted off CNN nonetheless.)

Kelman documents how such remarks can be traced back to myths started by the New England colonists, who “systematically erased evidence of long-standing Indigenous cultures … as a way of legitimating Euro-American land claims”. Portraying native Americans as hopelessly primitive, they “turned imperial violence into innocent virtue”.

The alliance of some native tribes with the British during the War of 1812 made it even easier to marginalize them. “That Indigenous peoples might disappear” began to “look like just deserts”.

A counter-narrative began in the 1880s, when Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor, which described “robbery” and “cruelty … done under the cloak” of 100 years “of treaty-making and treaty breaking”. Hunt described the culpability of white settlers in what we now realize was genocide: “This history of the United States government’s repeated violations of faith with the Indians … convicts us, as a nation” of “having outraged the principles of justice, which are the basis of international law.”

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the 1970 book by Dee Brown which sold millions, did more than any other modern work to explain how the conquering of the west was only possible because Americans assumed “treaties could be shredded” and the slaughter of Native Americans was just part of the natural order of things.

The book described a vanished Native American culture, at a moment when Native Americans had experienced enough of a resurgence to become “the nation’s fastest growing minority”. As a result, “a book written to debunk one pernicious myth unwittingly reifies another, hammering home the message that by the start of the 20th century, Indians had vanished”.

Another compelling chapter, The Southern Strategy, dismantles the assertion of the conservative political scientist Carol Swain “that this story of the two parties switching identities is a myth … fabricated by left-leaning academic elites and journalists”.

Karl Mundt, right, sits next to Roy Cohn, special counsel to the McCarthy Senate investigations subcommittee, during a hearing in Washington in 1954.
Karl Mundt, right, sits next to Roy Cohn, special counsel to the McCarthy Senate investigations subcommittee, during a hearing in Washington in 1954. Photograph: Henry Burroughs/AP

Written by Kruse, the chapter traces the Republican party’s decision to embrace racism to a cross-country tour in 1951 by a South Dakota senator, Karl Mundt, who was the first to propose a merger of Republicans and southern “Dixiecrat” Democrats committed to segregation. In 1952, the Republican platform endorsed every state’s right “to order and control its own domestic institutions”.

The election of the Republican John Tower to fill Lyndon Johnson’s Senate seat in 1961 made him the first Republican to enter the Senate from the south since the end of Reconstruction – and showed “the segregationist vote was up for grabs”.

Republican strategy shifted so quickly that by the time the party gathered in 1964 to nominate Barry Goldwater for president, for the first time in 50 years there were no Black delegates in any southern delegation. One of the few Black delegates who did attend “had his suit set on fire”. The Black baseball star Jackie Robinson, a longtime Republican, declared that he knew “how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany”.

Goldwater was crushed by Johnson but as well as his native Arizona, he carried South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

There is a great deal more surprising, fact-based history in these 390 pages. In an era notorious for an attention span demolished by the internet, it is buoying indeed that a volume of this seriousness has spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

  • Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past is published in the US by Basic Books


Charles Kaiser

The GuardianTramp

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