You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger. And you don’t brandish partisan talking points in a Twitter shootout with Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse.
But try telling that to Dinesh D’Souza. In July 2018, D’Souza, the conservative author and polemicist, was making a favorite argument among the far right, that Republicans have always been the party of civil rights and Democrats the party of segregation, and disputing that there was any partisan realignment following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“[L]et’s see a list of the 200 or so racist Democrats who switched parties and became Republicans,” D’Souza tweeted. “Put up or shut up.”
Kruse, who teaches a popular course on U.S. history from 1920 to 1974, and previously co-taught a course on U.S. history from 1974 to the present, saw the post and decided to put up. “Sure, let’s do this,” he tweeted back. In 28 posts over the next several hours, he named dozens of Southern Democratic party-switchers, in many cases adding links to contemporary newspaper articles as well as to a recent book by two political scientists on the rise of the Republican Party in the modern South.
Before administering his beatdown, though, in his first tweet of the series, Kruse rebutted D’Souza’s premise and argued that focusing on party-switching politicians masked an even broader realignment by ordinary voters. To support that argument, Kruse linked to an earlier, 40-tweet Twitter thread (this one correcting a public misstatement by Kanye West), which was also replete with links and citations.
D’Souza did not answer Kruse. But he was back on Twitter days later arguing that the Republican Party in Abraham Lincoln’s time supported only legal immigration. Not so, Kruse tweeted back; there was no federal immigration law in 1860, so the distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigration did not exist.
“Did you not take *any* US history courses at Dartmouth?” Kruse asked.
Progressives and history buffs, who make up a good part of Kruse’s 327,000 followers, have sat back and enjoyed the show as one does on Twitter, with popcorn emojis and memes: of Barack Obama dancing, battling ninjas, and children in an old Simpsons episode crying, “Stop, stop! He’s already dead.” Kruse’s thread about Southern party-switchers was retweeted nearly 11,000 times and received more than 35,000 “likes” along with hundreds of laudatory comments.
“I’m kinda in love with you right now,” a woman named Kathleen gushed.
“Lord have mercy,” author Diana Butler Bass added. “Dinesh D’Souza has no idea who he’s tangling with.”
“I’ve become such a fan of your Twitter I picked up your latest book and I’m enjoying the heck out of it!” said a government lawyer who goes by the handle Legal Dirt Burglar.
Over the last 15 months, whenever D’Souza has made a historically facile argument — something Kruse thinks he does several times a week — the professor tries to shoot it down with detailed evidence on topics ranging from the causes of the Civil War to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. In between, Kruse has also tangled with a number of others, mostly on the right, including National Review columnist Kevin Williamson, conservative evangelical blogger Erick Erickson, and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk.
Kruse’s professional credentials are impeccable. He is a tenured professor with a Ph.D. from Cornell. His first book, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, was named best book on urban politics by the American Political Science Association in 2007. His second, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America; and his third, Fault Lines: A History of America Since 1974 (co-written with Princeton professor Julian Zelizer), were Amazon bestsellers. This year, Kruse is on leave to work on his next book, about civil-rights lawyer John Doar ’44, for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
For all of those accomplishments, though, it was his battles with D’Souza that elevated Kruse to the level of social-media celebrity. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a long story on their Twitter feud (“How Kevin Kruse Became History’s Attack Dog”), as did The New Republic. In the three months following their first encounter, Kruse’s Twitter following doubled, and now includes Ken Burns, Bill Kristol, Rachel Maddow, Malcolm Gladwell, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s a weird mix,” Kruse admits.
“Kevin is at the forefront of the rising generation of American historians,” says his colleague Sean Wilentz. “To me, he is a very important presence in the department and the profession.” He is also, Wilentz suggests, increasingly a presence among the general public.
The cringe-inducing phrase “public intellectual” is often applied to academics such as Kruse, Wilentz, and others who write at a high level of scholarship but seek a popular audience and attempt to shape the public debate. In the intellectual world of 2019, much of the public debate is being conducted on social media. An older generation might think it unseemly for an Ivy League professor to engage in a food fight with a pardoned felon (D’Souza was convicted of making an illegal campaign contribution in 2014 and pardoned by President Trump last year), but Kruse thinks such engagement is not only salutary, but necessary. As The Chronicle of Higher Education put it, Kruse has “learned that teaching history on Twitter isn’t just about trying to coax people to eat their vegetables. It’s about getting people to love their vegetables. One way to do that is by throwing broccoli at Dinesh D’Souza.”
It would, however, be a disservice to define Kruse solely by his social-media exchanges. Wilentz says Kruse is one of several younger members of Princeton’s history department, including Margot Canaday, Matthew Karp, Wendy Warren, and Zelizer, who have rehabilitated the writing of political history, the history of great events and the leaders who shaped them. That field had lost favor among historians during the 1980s and ’90s in favor of social, cultural, and economic history.
“It was a collective decision within the department to make sure that political history would get its due,” says Wilentz. “Kevin has an acute sense of the importance of politics to understanding the American past.”
Raised in Nashville, Tenn., Kruse studied under the great New Deal historian William Leuchtenberg as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, and under Richard Polenberg, a 20th-century American legal and political historian, at Cornell. His dissertation, on white resistance to desegregation in Atlanta, became his first book. Kruse joined the Princeton history department in 2000.
All three of Kruse’s books have been aimed at a general readership. He takes as a motto a line by Columbia professor Carl Becker, the former president of the American Historical Association, who declared in 1931, “The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.”
When he wrote his dissertation, Kruse says, he had two readers in mind: his adviser Polenberg and his mother.
“My mom would have liked anything I wrote,” Kruse says, laughing. “But I wanted to make sure I could tell a story that was appreciated by someone like her, a high school graduate who didn’t have any special knowledge and would have been turned off by academic jargon. I thought, if I could make it accessible to her but still meet [Polenberg’s] academic standards, then I was hitting the sweet spot.” In that sense, he likens historical writing to building a house: “You do the hard work and research but then hide it all under the floorboards. There’s a lot of wiring and plumbing that you keep out of the reader’s view.”
Reviewers have praised him for achieving those goals. “Kruse’s ultimate success lies in using history to answer contemporary political questions, and without compromising his professional standards,” Clay Risen wrote of White Flight for the magazine Nashville Scene.
In addition to relatively small academic journals, Kruse writes regularly for mainstream outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone. He got on Twitter largely by accident, joining only in February 2015 when his publisher urged him to get an account to promote One Nation Under God. He confesses that it took a while to learn the swagger of social-media exchanges. His early posts were safe and largely ignored. (“Happy 100th birthday, Orson Welles,” one early entry read. “Hard to pick a favorite work of his, but Touch of Evil always impresses me. So many great shots.”)
The mass shooting at a black church by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, and the resulting calls to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol, provided Kruse with his first Twitter teaching moment. In a series of tweets, Kruse laid out the modern history of the Confederate flag and its reintroduction across the South during the 1950s to redefine the Civil War as a battle for states’ rights. His audience began to grow. Asked how much time he now spends on Twitter, Kruse gives a predictable answer. “Too much,” he says. “If I added it up I’d probably be horrified, but I do it in bits and pieces, so it doesn’t feel like a lot.” Like many, he squeezes it in at odd moments — waiting to pick up his children after school, at their soccer practice, and over coffee. His wife sometimes tells him to put his phone away.
Kruse admits that he is “deeply ambivalent” about being labeled History’s Attack Dog. “On one level, I think we’re doing a valuable thing — and it’s not just me doing it, it’s a lot of historians on Twitter. I think it’s long overdue, because for a long time we just wrote off people like [D’Souza] as partisan clowns, and who cares about them? We historians know their arguments are nonsense. But our silence was taken as a kind of assent.” D’Souza himself, Kruse notes, boasted that no historian had ever challenged his claims. “So I thought, well fine, that’s on us. We assumed everybody knew he was a joke, but I guess not, so we have to weigh in.”
D’Souza, for his part, rarely replies to Kruse’s rebuttals, though in June he bemoaned Kruse’s “long Twitter chains with obscure examples intended to prove that black is white and up is down.” Kruse retorted in a tweet: “This is now D’Souza’s standard response to my threads — they have too much evidence in them. Guilty as charged, I guess.” (D’Souza did not reply to PAW’s requests for comment.)
D’Souza has offered to debate Kruse publicly at Princeton — he has also offered to debate up to six historians simultaneously — and posted the challenge on Facebook, taunting, “#FakeHistorian Kevin Kruse talks big on Twitter, but when challenged to defend his facts in public debate, he goes into hiding.” Kruse replies that he has already debated D’Souza extensively online and declines to get into the mud pit. “Historians don’t get on a stage with someone and throw quips at each other,” he says. “We debate in print, with evidence, so that is what I have tried to do.”
Though he keeps his tweets grounded in evidence, Kruse’s Twitter persona is hardly professorial. Friendly and easygoing in person, he admits that the anonymity of social media lets him be rougher than he might be face-to-face. He has also been known to buttress his points with a snarky meme or two. In one of his most popular Twitter threads, Kruse, who usually downplays his partisan leanings, posted photos of Trump administration officials next to the Bond villains he thought they resembled.
Such sharp-elbowed and unconventional public engagement has drawn professional criticism. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last year, Arthur Brooks, the outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute, decried what he called “mediocrity through trivialization, largely from misuse of new media. To understand this, remember Gresham’s law: ‘Bad money drives out good,’” Brooks wrote. “Today, we see a kind of intellectual Gresham’s law. Famous academics spend big parts of their days trading insults on Twitter.”
Likewise, in a March 2019 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sam Fallon, an assistant English professor at SUNY-Geneseo, complained that “Twitter’s enforced brevity privileges the factoid; conversely, its endless threads — the favored genre of Princeton historian and social-media star Kevin Kruse — tend to collapse discursive arguments into data dumps.”
Such criticisms, Kruse says, misconstrue how he engages on social media — and what he hopes to accomplish. To start, he is under no illusion that his arguments will convince D’Souza.
“The goal isn’t to convince him or his followers,” Kruse contends. “That’s never going to happen. It’s all the other people who haven’t read our books or articles in the Journal of American History. We’re trying to meet them where they are, and they’re on Twitter, and they’re in the general public.”
Kruse says he feels an additional obligation to step up because, as a white, heterosexual, tenured Ivy League professor, he is insulated from much of the abuse and blowback that those without his advantages might receive for making the same arguments. He is also, he concedes, more likely to be listened to by the public.
Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, says she was active on Twitter until about 2015, when the atmosphere grew too ugly. “It used to be a discussion roundtable with journalists and experts from around the world,” she says. “At its best it was a global seminar, but it has now become Troll Land half the time.” Slaughter applauds Kruse’s attempts to engage others online, likening his Twitter threads to a “graphic novel of American history” — though with a caveat.
“Drawing on our knowledge and presenting it in a comprehensive way is what public intellectuals have always sought to communicate to the broader public,” Slaughter says. “This is especially important in an era when expertise of any kind is under attack. The challenge is, how do you perform that service without amplifying the toxicity?”
At heart, Kruse is a teacher. “What I think is useful about Twitter,” he says, “even more so than the op-eds or magazine articles we write, is that on Twitter, I can actually attach the evidence. And that’s the way I teach. I try to give my students the primary evidence. I don’t say, ‘I’m the Princeton professor and you’re not, so listen to me.’ I say, ‘Here, read the party platforms; read this speech. Don’t just take my word for it. Look at the evidence. Read it yourself.’ ”
In other words, Kruse hopes to use social media to train people how to think. “The goal of any history course is not just to teach the history, but to teach the students how to navigate their own world. They should be learning how to read any primary source and then interrogate it. Who is writing it? Why are they writing it? Who is the intended audience? What are the authors taking for granted? What are they trying to get across? Those are basic skills, regardless of the topic.”
That state of nature known as Twitter might be just the place for such an exercise. “It might,” Kruse hopes, “be a way to move past the post-truth world of social media in which each side believes what it believes and who is to say who is right.”
The breakdown of authority and the splintering of news outlets is one of the themes of Fault Lines, his most recent book with Zelizer. In a world in which everyone feels entitled to their own facts, some have questioned whether it is still possible to construct a unifying national story. Kruse thinks it is possible, and in an odd way his long social-media history lessons may even contribute.
“Our old national stories always left a lot of people out,” he observes. “What really ties us together across the centuries are the things we have always fought about.” Those battlegrounds center on two eternal questions, which Kruse says he uses as the focus of his 20th-century U.S. history course: What is America about? Who counts as an American?
“The class is all about these disagreements,” Kruse says. “Students see that we’ve always been arguing and disagreeing. That problematizes their past, but it gives them a little bit of comfort about the present. Once they see that we have always been fighting, they also see that unity we supposedly had in the past was always an illusion. ‘Make America Great Again’ —that’s a false sense of nostalgia.”
Real history, Kruse says, was always more complicated than that.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.