The word 'historian' has taken a beating

Expertise

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Has any word suffered as greatly in the Trump era as “historian”?

Perhaps “journalist” and “unprecedented,” but it is a close race.

Rutgers historian Brian Murphy on Sunday put his stamp of approval on a particularly ignorant take lumping together as indistinct several distinct historical movements and causes.

“Amazing pic,” said Murphy as he shared a photo from September showing a flea market vendor in Pennsylvania whose display included the flag of Nazi Germany, the Confederate battle flag, a Blue Lives Matter flag, a flag bearing the emblem of the U.S. Marine Corps, and the Gadsden flag.

Murphy adds, “A historian friend said, ‘it’s all the same flag.’”

Except for the part where each flag represents a unique and individual cause, some diametrically opposed to one another, that is a great point by Murphy’s anonymous “historian” friend.

What is worse than this ignorant and hyper-partisan commentary is that they are not alone in engaging in this sort of behavior under the guise of "historian." They have company in NBC News's presidential historian Michael Beschloss and CNN’s presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, both of whom have leveraged their credentials as historical experts into larger, more influential roles as partisan news commentators.

And it is not an exaggeration to say that Beschloss and Brinkley have done their profession no favors these past four years.

Beschloss lambasted President Trump in October, for example, after the commander in chief returned to the White House following a weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center battling COVID-19. Upon his return, the president saluted Marine One from the South Portico stairs.

“In America,” said Beschloss, “our presidents have generally avoided strongman balcony scenes — that’s for other countries with authoritarian systems.”

First, to call this an overreaction to the Marine One salute would be an understatement. Second, the bit about U.S. presidents avoiding “balcony scenes” is not even close to being true. A 10-second investigation of the Associated Press's photo archives disproves his assertion entirely.

Earlier, Beschloss also indulged in the collective freakout after first lady Melania Trump renovated the Rose Garden, sharing a picture from April 10, 2008, and implying it represents how the garden looked immediately prior to its restoration.

Before that, in March 2018, Beschloss warned that Trump was possibly laying down the groundwork to become dictator for life.

That same year, Brinkley argued the president did not technically commit treason when he deferred to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference overseas, but that the spirit of what the president did was “clearly treasonous.”

Earlier than that, in January 2018, as the press was peddling gossip columnist Michael Wolff’s ludicrous and unbelievable White House tell-all, Fire and Fury, Brinkley appeared on CNN to defend the contents of the book, saying, "Some of it may be hyperbole or exaggeration, but the overall portrait rings true to an awful lot of people.”

You would think a historian would require more than “close enough” before throwing his support behind an unverified version of events, but you would be wrong.

This is to say nothing of the former journalist-turned-presidential historian who lost his paid gig at MSNBC last week because he failed to disclose his role in shaping President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign speeches. This is to say nothing of historian and Politico magazine editor Joshua Zeitz, who said in June after federal officers cleared protesters from in front of the White House in preparation for an in-person appearance by the president: “Historian here. A head of state using a standing army to occupy an American city, compel citizens off the street, stifle free expression and assembly—using paramilitary forces to smoke clergy out of their churches at the head of state’s whim—is pretty much the founders’ nightmare.” A historian who is apparently unfamiliar with even the basics of the Whiskey Rebellion is not much of a historian at all. This is to say nothing of any of the historians who traded the credibility of their profession to prop up and defend the New York Times’s fraudulent 1619 Project, whose entire premise is based upon a deliberate lie.

Again, the death of expertise was not a murder. It was suicide.