Since the realization that foreign and domestic disinformation played a central role in driving certain narratives during the 2016 elections, many Americans have tried to grapple with what this means, how it affects us and our communities, and what we can do about it.
This series explores those lessons we haven’t learned well enough since 2016, and what we should learn from them to be better information citizens and break patterns of how disinformation works.
Lesson 6: The war on history isn’t about history, but justifying a contemporary course of action.
The weeks leading up to Independence Day 2020 were a truly bizarre period in American public discourse, with an intense period of discussion about racial inequality and police violence sliding into a fraught counter-narrative about antifa radicalism and violence that failed to materialize. All of this was punctuated by discussion about the removal of Confederate monuments, and in some cases actions by protestors to remove or destroy those monuments, which in some areas took on a heady energy and spiraled outward into an attack on pretty much any statue of a historical figure, including some founding fathers and others whose names I doubt the protestors really knew. None of this was particularly widespread — but the White House latched onto it as a chance to regain the upper hand in the narrative after their crackdown on protesters didn’t go over so well.
The president’s initial pushback about attacks on the legacy of certain founding fathers known to be slaveholders quickly became a full-throated defense of the “sacrifices” of Confederate soldiers and of the symbols of the Confederacy. In the days leading up to the 4th of July, he announced he would build a national garden of statues to whatever “titans” of history he decided should be there, threatened long jail sentences for defacing federal monuments, and gave an endless series of speeches about our “heritage.” “Far-left fascism,” he warned, aimed to “overthrow the American Revolution.” On a daily basis, I cringed, feeling like America had become a sad, b-grade cartoon version of the war on history fought in the former Soviet republics for the past three decades — only one scripted by ham-fisted writers with a lazy grasp of history.
It’s easy to get lost in the inflammatory rhetoric, dogwhistles, and bizarro-world nature of these speeches and not understand the toolkit being used. There are a thousand different wars on history being fought at any moment, but none of them are about winning history. They are about justifying and framing a current or intended course of action, and sketching a vector – a direction – for the future. ‘Here’s where we started, here’s where we are going.’ Understanding this tactic is absolutely critical to seeing through malign and misguided historical narratives.
If you work in the region around Russia, you understand that historical revisionism is an essential element of the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in the modern politics of former captive nations and to disrupt the alliances that can protect those nations from the Kremlin’s hybrid aggression. We joke that the Kremlin tells you what they are going to do and then they do it — but creating the pretext and justification for their behavior is an important part of how they maintain influence and offset potential consequences for their actions despite overt revanchism. There must be the appearance of historical and legal rightness so that they and their defenders can argue that the Kremlin can’t really be held to account for what they do. And they invest considerable time and resources over the course of years and decades into making their narrative the loudest. Over time, this has an impact — because no one else is really talking about history, and then because once the narrative is everywhere, it must be sorta true, right? (Nope.)
For example, the Kremlin spends considerable time arguing that they were/are “liberators” of the captive nations, rather than occupiers. This means they spend a lot of time trying to rewrite the history of the Second World War. They emphasize the sacrifice of the Red Army as part of the Allied powers that defeated the Nazis, and that tens of millions of Soviet citizens who died during WWII. They don’t want to talk about how many of those died because Stalin had them killed, starved, deported, or purged. They allege over and over that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact — the agreement between Stalin and Hitler that divided parts of Europe between the USSR and the Nazis, launched WWII, and held until Hitler ultimately betrayed Stalin — never happened, creating layer upon layer of detailed storytelling to make WWII anyone else’s fault.
In a favorite version of one of these stories, the Soviet Union would have saved all of Europe and crushed the Nazis and WWII never would have happened if the ‘perfidious Poles’ (their term) had not been Nazi collaborators, forcing the Soviets to invade Poland to fight them instead of Hitler himself. In their telling, everything actually should be blamed on Poland. (In fact, Stalin and Hitler divided Poland as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.) Erasing the Stalin-Hitler agreement is important to the Kremlin’s modern identity building around the idea of Russia as ‘liberators’ of Europe, and the overall narrative that liberal democracy and freedom, and the defenders of those ideals, aren’t always what you think.
Parallel to this has been ongoing efforts to label historical resistance movements in the Baltic states — known locally as “forest brothers” — as terrorists and Nazi sympathizers. The forest brothers fought the Soviet occupation during and after WWII, and the mythology surrounding them remains a critical element of local historical identity and post-independence national identity. The Kremlin spends time discrediting them because it is a central aspect of their modern storytelling — that the Baltics were “liberated” rather than occupied, that life as Soviet vassals was simpler and easier than life in the EU, and that local opinion on the national orientation remains more divided than it really is. This is part of an ongoing effort by Putin to challenge the independence and sovereignty of these states and muddy their domestic politics. Only last week, Putin explained that many republics left the Soviet Union with more than they came in with, and that many took “traditional Russian lands” and other “gifts” from Russia .The implication being that they stole them from Russia. This narrative has been a central part of the justification of Putin’s invasions of neighboring states, so it puts everyone on edge.
In his speech celebrating the annexation of Crimea, for example, Putin anchored Russian history to a thousand-year arc originating in Crimea as justification for what he had done. This was the architecture of a complex, nuanced historical narrative that made Russian empire the historic constant and Soviet history the anomalous period. It was a critically important speech.
For anyone who has studied this speech, it was notable last week when President Trump tried to claim that 1492, a reference to Christopher Columbus’ landing in the New World (actually, in the Caribbean), was the origin point for the beginning of the American way of life. The first permanent colonies of what would eventually become the United States were not established until the early 1600s, making this claim extremely far-fetched unless you think the “American way of life“ is just about white Europeans being anywhere in the Americas? This felt like desperate and uninformed historical revisionism, more of a form of mad libs than nuanced argumentation — a sad shadow of how Putin reached back to purposefully anchor the birth of modern, orthodox Russia in Crimea to justify stealing it from Ukraine. Nonetheless it exposed the narrative strategy that Trump’s advisers are steering him toward.
The president’s cadre of July 4th speeches frequently references “heritage,” a fuzzy term he seems to be using to justify past wrongdoings and historical inequities without having to talk about the racial origins of some of them, and to leverage the kind of language used for decades by lost-causers attempting to glorify the Confederate south and make the Civil War about something other than slavery. Trump is trying to argue that Confederate history is American history, and that both must be defended in their entirety by patriots as an essential pillar of a re-election strategy meant to activate a particular identity group.
Even on its face, the way that Trump equates defending monuments of founding fathers with defending Confederate monuments is lazy and blatant, believable only by those who want to feel no shame for their own set of beliefs about race and identity. Trump speaks openly of lifting that sense of shame around a belief in tenets that once ripped the nation in two — “heritage” and “traditional values” that President Lincoln viewed as the founding sins of the nation that must be paid for with blood, purified from the steel of America in the fire of war.
In some respects, we are quite fortunate that the people around President Trump, and in particular his speechwriters, are themselves quite lazy and ahistorical, and also that they seem to believe that Trump is not smart enough or thorough enough to present the kind of nuanced argumentations that Putin and his foreign minister make on a regular basis to provide historical and legal heft to their justifications of aggression and wrongdoing. You have to know history to sculpt and repurpose it — and Trump does not, only buzzwords and catchphrases that he blurts out seeking to trigger cheers and jeers from a crowd, angry tweets and headlines.
This historical revisionism is nonetheless dangerous as it is founded in a deeper set of beliefs that perpetuate racial inequality in the country, and its purpose is to justify the sins instead of enact the penance. It is a distraction from common dialogue on the future. It creates the perception of vast and permanent divides. Every war over a monument is for Trump an excuse not to talk about modern problems or solutions, but to create imaginary villains.
In recent years, Republican Senators in western states pushed for the historic preservation and documentation of the camps in which Japanese Americans were interned during WWII. They did so to ensure this painful and inglorious facet of our history was understood — in context, with detail. They did so because they understood that American history is as much about analyzing how we got things wrong, and then doing better, and understanding that getting things wrong has to be about eventually getting them right — as it is about any foundational exceptionalism that sets us apart in history. I mention this because understanding history does not need to be a partisan pursuit. This nation is our shared project. It can only continue to be so if we share truths about the past and the present alike.
If the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — a job you can’t get without studying way too much of the Civil War and its causes and battles — can say with clarity that the Confederacy “was an act of treason, at the time, against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the US Constitution,” then so can you. Then so should the President. I can’t believe we even have to say this.
The point is: see malign historical revisionism — not adding perspective to history, but realigning basic facts and motivations — for what it is. Call it out. Put it in context. Be able to explain why America can be both great and flawed, and that those two aspects have always been inseparable, in conflict and competition. Understand why historical revisionism is dangerous and should not be accommodated. Don’t assume someone else is going to fight the war on this: far too often it is left to bad actors. Good storytelling — small pieces of history that explain and illustrate bigger topics — can be the most powerful tool in this conflict. No one can know everything, but have a good arsenal of stories on hand to explain the concepts you think are important.
Molly McKew (@MollyMcKew) is a senior adviser to the Stand Up Republic Foundation. She is a writer and lecturer on Russian influence and information warfare. She advised the Georgian president and national security council from 2009 to 2013, and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014 and 2015.