OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Robert Brent Toplin

Portrait of Robert Brent Toplin

Robert Brent Toplin is the author of several books about history, politics, and film including Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood; History by Hollywood; Radical Conservatism: The Right's Political Religion; Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11": How One Film Divided a Nation; and Oliver Stone's USA: Film, History, and Controversy. Toplin served as editor of film reviews for the Journal of American History as well as "Masters of the Movies," a series of articles in the American Historical Association's Perspectives on History. Toplin made numerous appearances as a commentator on history for CBS Television, PBS Television, the History Channel, C-SPAN, the Turner Classic Movies Channel, and National Public Radio. He served as a principal creator of historical dramas that appeared nationally on PBS Television, the Disney Channel, and the Starz Network. He was professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and at Denison University, and adjunct professor at the University of Virginia.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

In 1807 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Invented facts have long been evident in presidential elections and wartime propaganda. This analysis traces the phenomenon’s long history in American life. It draws attention, as well, to social media’s widening influence. Recent surveys show that voters disagree about “basic facts,” not just policies. Clashing viewpoints about “news” can be seen in disputes about the Iraq War and in arguments about recent presidential elections.
Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to prominence in early 1950s by stoking fears about communism. McCarthy had many critics, yet he managed to keep them off-balance and expand his influence for several years. What explains McCarthy’s popularity? Which developments in domestic and international affairs facilitated his rise? To what degree was McCarthy’s decline in 1954 due to his mistakes or to changing conditions in American society and politics? Toplin addresses these questions and considers the relevance of this story to our times.
We typically think of feature films as popular entertainment, not provocative and influential works of art that can shape public opinion and influence the course of national and international affairs. Yet history-oriented movies sometimes make an impact on attitudes and behavior. Toplin explores several intriguing examples that illustrate the emotional power of cinema. "Birth of a Nation" (1915) contributed to a second rise of the Ku Klux Klan. "Patton" (1970) played a role in President Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War. "All the President’s Men" (1976) may have affected the outcome of a presidential election. "Holocaust" (1978) contributed to acknowledgement of guilt in Germany. "Braveheart" (1995) inspired a nationalist movement for independence from the UK in Scotland. Toplin also considers how portrayals of history in film have changed from the days of “classic” Hollywood cinema to the present.
Michael Moore created several provocative documentary films, but his most controversial and widely viewed movie was "Fahrenheit 9/11." The film appeared during the 2004 presidential election. Moore hoped his movie would influence public opinion, making viewers less inclined to re-elect Republican President George W. Bush. When Moore’s film first appeared in theatres, it was broadly popular and generally well-received. Then critics mounted a well-organized campaign in the national media. Opinion about the production then divided sharply along partisan lines. Four years later, a conservative group sought to air and advertise a documentary film that was sharply critical of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Members of the group had been influenced by Moore’s example. A commission ruled, however, that distribution of the group’s “electioneering communication” violated campaign reform legislation. The conservative group took its case to the Supreme Court and won in the controversial Citizens United decision of 2010. Debates that swirled around Fahrenheit 9/11 reveal the power of partisan film to influence public opinion and provoke debates in national politics.