Distinguished Princeton historian Sean Wilentz was recently part of a group of historians (and others) that Joe Biden invited to the White House to discuss the fate of American democracy. Marco Rubio called the group “elitists” and “snobs” working against the interests of “everyday people.”
Here is Wilentz’s response at yesterday’s Washington Post:
The senator, up for reelection, has adopted a familiar tactic by expressing his contempt for American historians who recently met with President Biden to put current events into historical perspective. According to Rubio, those in attendance, including myself, are “elitists” and “snobs.” According to his account of our conversation, for which he obviously was not present, we urged the president to stop allowing “working everyday people and their common sense” to “play a role in our decision-making.”
In fact, much of the historical discussion with the president involved exactly the opposite, including how to address issues that affect the hard-working American majority and how to overcome polarization.
Historians have long chronicled the deliberate manipulation and falsification of events for political purposes. Rubio’s version of what happened in the meeting stands in the sorry tradition of the great propagandists. He maligns independent thinkers and fabricates what they say to depict them as enemies of the people.
The danger is twofold. Rubio has contributed to a culture of fakery for easy political profit that plays upon suspicion and fuels the current atmosphere of incitement.
Secondly, Rubio strikes at the very idea of American history itself. What makes studying the history of the American people “elitist”? And why wouldn’t we want all our presidents to seek a stronger grasp of the past as they wrestle with our future?
Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, of course, were historians. Ronald Reagan brought historians into the White House, as have most other presidents going back at least to John F. Kennedy, who also wrote history. George H.W. Bush made himself, his family, his diary and his papers available to one of the historians who was at the Biden session. George W. Bush has long been an avid reader of presidential biographies.
Rubio’s contempt for historians and his predictable attempt to stir up hostility against them are part of a long American fake populist tradition of vilifying intellect, a tradition that infects our politics with reliable frequency. It extends from the Anti-Masons and the Know-Nothings of the 19th century through Father Charles Coughlin and McCarthyism in the 20th century to Donald Trump today.
Real American populism began with working everyday people, mostly farmers, in the fight of their lives against railroad tycoons, banker plutocrats and land-speculating moguls. It aimed to use the federal government to contain and regulate their exorbitant private power.
Fake populism, a craft that Rubio is clearly trying to master, distracts attention from the abuses of corrupt politicians and plutocrats by manufacturing imaginary threats both at home and abroad while projecting cooler heads as elitists.
Down through our history, the fake populists have always maligned teachers, professors and intellectuals of every kind as well as journalists and various other groups, ethnic, racial and professional.
Read the entire piece here.