Prominent historians jump into political arena, advising Biden, attacking MAGA movement

"There is an ultra-right MAGA contingent in this country that wants to overthrow the U.S. government," said historian Douglas Brinkley. Another historian, Michael Beschloss, made a historical error in one of his diatribes.

Updated: September 8, 2022 - 7:39am

Some of the nation's most high-profile historians have gone beyond the role of student of history to engage in partisan politics, advising President Biden on his agenda and potential legacy while attacking Donald Trump and supporters of the Make America Great Again movement aligned with him as threats to the country.

Most recently, CNN's presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley, lambasted the MAGA movement as treasonous insurrectionists during a TV appearance on Monday.

"There is an ultra-right MAGA contingent in this country that wants to overthrow the U.S. government, that despises our institutions — our constitutional foundations, because they believe in a Deep State conspiracy, and they cling to it," said Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University.

About a month earlier, NBC News' presidential historian, author Michael Beschloss, appeared to insinuate that Trump should be executed.

After the Washington Post and other news outlets reported that some of the classified documents sought by the FBI at Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence related to nuclear weapons, Beschloss tweeted, "Rosenbergs were convicted for giving U.S. nuclear secrets to Moscow, and were executed June 1953."

One prominent historian took Beschloss to task for drawing such a comparison, arguing "historical competence" is crucial when his colleagues enter the public square to support or oppose certain politicians.

"A 'presidential historian' like Beschloss who rushes to tweet out moral equivalence between two convicted and executed spies found guilty of passing nuclear bomb data to the Soviet Union and an ex-president engaged in a dispute over classification and custody of presidential papers that is currently in the process of adjudication by a court appointed official, is, well, no historian at all," Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson told Just the News.

Days after Beschloss's tweet, the NBC News historian appeared on MSNBC and told viewers to "vote as if your life depends on it, because it might," before claiming Republicans were threatening violence following the Mar-a-Lago search and comparing the current moment to combating fascism in the 1930s and enduring a civil war in the 1860s.

Such criticism of Trump and the MAGA movement came to a head in Philadelphia last week, when Biden appeared to all but declare war on both.

"Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic," Biden said in an incendiary and polarizing speech. "We're all called by duty and conscience to confront extremists who put their own pursuit of power above all else ... and MAGA Republicans are destroying American democracy."

Following the speech, Beschloss again compared combating the MAGA movement to combating fascists and Confederates on the eve of World War II and the Civil War, respectively.

In making his argument, Beschloss made a historical error.

"1860, this country was in big jeopardy," Beschloss said on MSNBC. "It was splitting apart. A house divided. Slavery or non-slavery. And Lincoln cast the election of 1860 by saying 'the house can't stand, half slave-half free, we've got to choose.'"

However, Lincoln famously declared that "a house divided against itself cannot stand" at the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Ill., in 1858, after he was chosen to be the party's candidate for U.S. Senate. Lincoln had yet to launch his 1860 presidential run.

Another popular historian was reportedly even more directly supportive of Biden's Philadelphia speech: author, historian, and Vanderbilt University professor Jon Meacham.

Politico reported over the weekend that Meacham, who's had a hand in crafting a number of Biden's speeches, helped write the Philadelphia address, which contained a recognizable feature of Meacham's prose: the idea of an American "soul" under assault by Trump.

"MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love," Biden said in Philadelphia. "They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fanned the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country."

Meacham himself invoked a similar battle over the nation's "soul" in August 2020, when he received a prime speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention after endorsing Biden months earlier.

At the DNC, Meacham, author of "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels," called the 2020 presidential election "a choice that goes straight to the nature of the soul of America." (Meacham also helped with Biden's speech accepting the Democratic Party's nomination.)

That November, Meacham also helped write Biden's victory speech after the election. The president-elect spoke — again — of a "battle for the soul of America," echoing language from Meacham's book.

Meacham came under fire for appearing on MSNBC as an official network contributor both before and after Biden's acceptance speech and praising it without disclosing he'd been involved in writing it.

Hanson pointed to Meacham concealing his role in helping Biden to argue it's important for his colleagues to be transparent if they consult with those in or seeking the White House.

"Historians are free to talk to presidents about the contemporary relevance of the past," said Hanson. "But those who go an unfortunate step farther and either help to draft speeches or advise on specific policy strategies, then should not editorialize in the public square about the wisdom of a president's subsequent actions — without disclosing their own role in and credit for the very policies they are so often praising to public audiences.

"Jon Meacham, to take one example, was chastised for his role in helping draft a Biden speech while offering public praise of its content," continued Hanson. "Given that ethical lapse, it is bewildering Biden would once again seek his help — or that he would even now consider offering it."

The speechwriting help didn't stop when Biden entered the White House. Meacham, who's not a member of the Biden administration, reportedly had a hand in shaping, among other speeches, Biden's address earlier this year marking the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol breach.

That same day, Meacham was featured at an event to "establish and preserve" the narrative of the Jan. 6 riot. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also participated.

Days later, Biden pushed a host of ambitious policies — most notably Democrats' proposals for sweeping changes to election law — through another speech written with the help of Meacham. Biden invoked the specter of what he described as an existential threat to democracy to advocate his agenda, dismissing those who disagreed with him as racists and dangers to the country. Even Democrats in Congress criticized Biden's rhetoric for going too far.

In his remarks, Biden said Trump "and his supporters" want "to suppress your vote, to subvert our elections," and "to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them," describing Republican election integrity reforms as "Jim Crow 2.0," a reference to state laws that enforced racial segregation in the South.

"That's the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies," he continued. "Will you stand against election subversion? Yes, or no? Will you stand for democracy? Yes, or no? ... Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?"

Meacham wasn't the only nationally known historian to endorse Biden's speech. A month later, Doris Kearns Goodwin noted on CNN that one of Abraham Lincoln's last speeches called for giving freed slaves the right to vote.

"And here we are, 150 years later, and there are people in the country now trying to get the idea that voting rights should be pulled back, rather than pushed forward," she continued.

It isn't new or inappropriate for historians to advise presidents, according to historians who spoke to Just the News. However, they explained, historians can risk their reputations if they make themselves fair game for public scrutiny.

"There is nothing wrong with historians getting involved in politics," said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian and senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "The famed historian Arthur Schlesinger established the model for this when he served as court intellectual in the Kennedy White House. However, when historians do get involved, they need to recognize that their comments and actions will be evaluated just like anyone else in the public arena."

Others argued Trump presents a unique challenge that gives historians license to enter the political fray.

"Presidents have long called on historians to offer their guidance," noted Mark Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation. "Who better to advise them than those who understand our nation's ideals and the events and figures in our history who reflect them? But especially given the current state of our democracy due to Donald Trump's perpetual lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, I don't see historians using their platforms to help our sitting president as being problematic. They are simply doing what they believe is in the best interest of preserving our democracy and upholding our most basic principles."

Updegrove added that the study of history is "inherently subjective" and impossible to do in a "neutral" or "objective" way.

"It's fair, for instance, for a historian to write about Lincoln as being morally courageous in promulgating the Emancipation Proclamation and championing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution," he said.

In Meacham's case, he's been serving as an informal adviser of sorts to Biden, using his knowledge of history to push the president's agenda.

Beyond speechwriting, Meacham helped organize a meeting in March 2021 between Biden and a group of historians at the White House. The group included Beschloss, Goodwin, Yale University's Joanne Freeman, Princeton University's Eddie Glaude Jr., Harvard University's Annette Gordon-Reed, and author Walter Isaacson.

At the meeting, they discussed several topics, including how Biden could and should push through historic legislation to change America. They also discussed Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At one point, Biden reportedly said, "I'm no FDR, but ... "

After the March meeting, Beschloss told Axios that Biden may be this century's analogue of Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson "in terms of transforming the country in important ways in a short time."

Then last month, Meacham joined another group of historians at a White House gathering with Biden, according to the Washington Post. (The group has recently faced criticism from other historians for being all white.)

Among those present were University of Virginia historian Allida Black, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race and currently works as an adviser and historian to Clinton. She had previously quit her job in 2013 to organize for Clinton.

Another historian at the meeting was Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, another outspoken Clinton supporter who advised her in 2016.

The gathering proved to be a sounding board for Biden's Philadelphia speech, with historians again comparing today's situation to the lead-ups to the Civil War and World War II and, according to the Post, painting "the current moment as among the most perilous in modern history for democratic governance."

About a week later, Politico reported, the writing of the speech began — with Meacham helping.

"The fear of that kind of work is you get labeled a court historian and are seen as being hyperpartisan," Brinkley told the New York Times in November 2020. "But if anyone can pull it off, Meacham can. He's liked by moderate Republicans. He's a best-selling writer. He's a wordsmith, and that's what Biden needs. He's probably able to keep a foot in both worlds."

Meacham and Brinkley didn't respond to requests for comment. Just the News couldn't get in touch with Beschloss.