The Radicalization of Washington’s Most Famous Historian

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When news broke last month that federal agents had discovered nuclear documents at Mar-a-Lago, Michael Beschloss did what he does best: He reached for a historical anecdote. But if you were expecting a nod to JFK or Eisenhower or one of the other leaders whose tales Beschloss has spent decades deploying in his role as Washington’s favorite TV historian, you would be mistaken. Instead, Beschloss tweeted a photo of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

“Rosenbergs were convicted for giving U.S. nuclear secrets to Moscow, and were executed June 1953,” he added, by way of caption. No further explication was offered.

Things proceeded predictably from there. One cohort of furious tweeters accused Beschloss of grotesquely calling for the death of Donald Trump. Another seemed downright eager to fire up the electric chair. Pretty much nobody used the photo as a jumping-off point for a sober, NewsHour-style conversation about the politics of secret-document preservation. The bile flew. In other words, it went just as you’d expect — unless, that is, you hadn’t been paying attention to the historian’s transformation from studiously bipartisan comment-giver to impassioned Trump-baiter.

With his sonorous baritone and his taut jawline and his impeccably gracious manner all still intact, Beschloss today may be the greatest example (or at least the one whose living room backdrop has the highest Room-Rater score) of a contemporary Washington phenomenon: The radicalized establishmentarian.

You can see the radicalism when you peruse his Twitter feed, an oddly compelling stream of archival images that turns ten years old next month and now has a touch more than 800,000 followers. Though the feed’s early years focused on images connected to mostly anodyne milestones, over the the years the feed, like his TV appearances, has become increasingly peppery: Photos of Mussolini and Hitler, allegations of fascism and racism, insinuations of ex-presidential criminality.

But you can see the establishmentarianism when you ask him about it and the first thing he does is assure you — with a suitably generous preamble — that he’s no angry yahoo. “Let me say what I assume I should not need to,” he says. “I was not suggesting that Donald Trump be executed. I was doing a historical tweet about the most famous nuclear secrets case in American history.”

Longtime Beschloss-watchers will also be relieved to know that he hasn’t become some kind of partisan, either.

“I was going through life happily, not spouting any views I might have on healthcare and taxes, which are still not well-developed, because I’m not by nature a very partisan person.” But what are those views? “I don’t really have many elaborate, strong views on a lot of current political issues. I have carefully-developed views on historical subjects that I have studied, and I certainly have strong convictions about democracy. But beyond that, partisanship is just not my professional focus.”

Attempts to get Beschloss to spill the beans on his own voting history are similarly unsuccessful. “I've been a registered Independent for decades. I think the last time I gave any money to a candidate was a modest donation in 1988 to Al Gore, who that year was one of the most centrist candidates — and to my home state Senator, Paul Simon of Illinois. In both cases, friends asked me. None of that suggests much about ideology.”

But the display of dispassion comes to an end when the subject turns to American democracy.

“The point I'm trying to make is that, until roughly 2017, I was not inclined to take public positions on current events. And that is because I did not feel that democracy was under immediate and serious threat. But if you and I had talked earlier, and we had been told that in the near future, democracy was going to be in danger and a President might be eager to tear apart just about every major institution of democracy that you care about, including free and fair elections as well as the rule of law — would you speak out? I would have said yes, I certainly would.”

As it happens, this question is one of the big divides in American media and politics right now: Whether to view the constellation of issues Beschloss puts under the threats-to-democracy rubric as simple political disagreements where the obligation to impartiality holds sway, or to treat them as something outside the bounds of partisan politics, a subject where it’s quite all right to root for one side. Beschloss has picked the latter option.

“Before 2017, discussing whether the United States should continue as a democracy was not a controversial subject,” he says. “Same with whether we should strictly preserve our rule of law. Both of those things are totally up in the air in 2022, as we speak.”

As the agita over the forced departures of outspoken CNN figures like Brian Stelter show, the behavior codes around this topic are awfully unclear and subject to change. Beschloss, for his part, says he’s never gotten any pushback from programming higher-ups.

It helps, of course, that as a guy called on to talk about history — he’s currently the in-house presidential historian of NBC news — he can draw on bygone parallels instead of tendentiously fulminating against the Trump crowd. At one point, I suggest that his diagnosis of an imperiled democracy might perhaps mean the network ought to bring in a historian of Germany or Argentina or some other country instead of an Americanist like him. No need, says Beschloss. For much of the next half-hour we’re walking through the past with the likes of the segregationist demagogue George Wallace, the reactionary, anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin, the red-baiting extremist General Edwin Walker, the Oklahoma City bombers, and other no-longer-quite-so-fringey-seeming characters from the American mists.

But it also raises the question of whether Beschloss was talking about the wrong stuff over all those years before Trump.

As American politics hardened during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama eras, should he and his colleagues have been offering more lessons from the 1850s or 1940s? Did focusing on our largely lucky country’s presidential past cause him to miss something about the present?

“Many of us did,” Beschloss says. “I think what I missed, I don’t want to talk about other people, is this point of view, which is conspiracy theories, bring down the temples of government including rule of law and institutions of democracy — that’s been there consistently all this time. This was an important, urgent danger and we might see it explode during our lifetimes.”

What he now sees as the historical antecedents of Trumpism, Beschloss says, “were too often treated by scholars, including myself, as isolated flareups, rather than alarms that showed an abiding historical movement that was present and rising through the past seventy years. We certainly knew, and know now, that this way of thinking has a long tradition that goes back to the start of American history…In the old days, many Americans too often saw these movements not as an immediate threat to our democracy but as angry people handing out handbills on street corners and going home to mutter to themselves into the night.”

Educated at Andover and Williams — where his senior thesis about FDR and Joe Kennedy eventually became a book — Beschloss hasn’t spent huge chunks of his career amid angry radicals handing out flyers on the sidewalk. He first came to the capital as part of a political internship program sponsored by his boarding school, then made it his permanent home after coming to work at the Smithsonian. He never went the academic route, instead settling into a life in the bosom of Washington’s elite, with a string of books depicting largely well-intentioned political leaders, a variety of board seats, and lucrative speaker’s fees. He comes by his reverence honestly. “I am deeply conservative in terms of preserving institutions of democracy,” he says.

His current sound-the-alarms posture still can feel odd. Until a few years ago, he pretty much never engendered hostility, except maybe from the career academics who were annoyed that a non-PhD working in the nonexistent field of presidential history could become TV’s favorite historian. “I went to college in the mid-1970s, a period where some progressives would fling around the word fascist to describe someone who was insufficiently liberal,” he says. But there he was on January 6, tweeting photos of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch and the Reichstag Fire and urging people to watch out lest Trump seek a pretext to declare martial law. It’s been a long few years.

This summer, Beschloss was among the group of historians who sat with President Joe Biden. He’s taken part in similar pow-wows going back to the George H.W. Bush presidency. Interestingly, the assembled historians this time included Anne Applebaum, a historian of fascism whose work has mostly not focused on the country Biden leads. Beschloss won’t say what they talked about — it was off the record, and this is a man who respects confidences — but the gathering’s proximity to Biden’s Philadelphia speech about democracy seems no accident.

But where Biden, as a politician, balanced the dire warnings with expressions of optimism about America, a talk with Beschloss these days features some grim notes. “For decades, I have believed that Presidents are too powerful,” he says. “The Founders made us too dependent on dumb luck that we will just happen to elect someone of good character that will keep him or her from abusing the power of the presidency. The safeguards against such abuse have never been strong enough. I have worried since Watergate that our luck would one day run out in a way that made Richard Nixon look like a Boy Scout. Now, in our own time, our luck did run out, and it may soon run out again.”

It’s a strange note from someone who’s been a part of the local cottage industry of presidential obsession. As the conversation drifts back to his sense of peril, he seems to catch himself. And, of course, wants to make sure once again that I know that he’s not a partisan or anything. He would rather be America’s father’s-day historian than a combatant.

“I’ve been radicalized only in my love for democracy and my dread that it is in grave danger. If that threat disappeared tomorrow, I would be more than happy to talk about subjects that are less controversial.”

As if on cue, as we get up from our lunch at Martin’s, the venerable Georgetown haunt that was once a Kennedy hangout, Beschloss spies the booth where the future president is said to have proposed to Jackie. He tells me he suspects the tavern’s presidential-engagement legend might be a tall tale. He stops for a moment and stares at the plaque decorating the table. Nope, he says. It couldn’t be. Look at how straight and uncomfortable the booth’s benches are. JFK’s back could never have taken it.

Now if only the news environment could be such that Beschloss gets to talk about things like that on TV again.

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