Teaching Conservatism in the Age of Trump

AHA Session 51
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Delaware Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Dara Orenstein, George Washington University
Seth Cotlar, Willamette University
Joshua Lynn, Yale University
Michelle M. Nickerson, Loyola University Chicago
Benjamin Cooper Waterhouse, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

Is Donald Trump conservative? Does the Age of Trump signify a rejuvenated Right? As conservatives and the Republican Party struggle to make sense of their new standard-bearer, historians enjoy an opportunity to reassess how they teach the history of conservatism and United States history generally. The Trump presidency will challenge historians and their students to historicize a seemingly unprecedented development in American history. This roundtable will foster a wide-ranging conversation, aimed at those who teach the history of conservatism and American history surveys, on teaching United States history in this unique political climate by examining how we construct historical narratives of conservatism and how we navigate classroom politics in the process.

The rise of the post-WWII conservative New Right dominates United States historiography. Teaching has kept pace with research, with the conservative ascendancy emphasized in U.S. history surveys, upper-level courses, and textbooks. Teaching conservatism exposes students to compelling new research and synthesizes multiple fields, including histories of capitalism, electoral politics, race, gender, and sexuality, the state, consumerism, and, increasingly, transnational political movements. The history of conservatism encompasses far more than political history, and it makes for an engaging and useful topic in the classroom.

Nonetheless, Trump’s presidency should prompt us to reevaluate how we teach the evolution of conservatism. By asking how Trump fits into this story, the roundtable participants will question how we frame this history in our classroom discussions and lectures. Trump’s election enables us to work with students in defining and historicizing a variety of American conservatisms and the tensions among them, such as the friction between pro-business and populist conservatism which Trump embodies. In looking for his antecedents, we can even teach a longer history of American conservatism, with roots before the twentieth century. As the historiography increasingly emphasizes conservatism’s triumph in modern America, moreover, we can reassess the implications of historical narratives driven by conservative success, asking, for instance, how women, Americans of color, and LGBTQ Americans fit into a story in which conservatism displaces liberalism. Conversely, in light of Trump’s success, we can consider if it is time for working-class Americans to return to a leading role in historical narratives that often foreground economic change, neoliberalism, and globalization. These questions are simultaneously historical and political.

This roundtable will thus also discuss the politics of teaching conservatism, a subject which demonstrates for students the intersection of academic history with contemporary politics and culture. How do we frame topics and select readings in ways that facilitate productive exchange among diverse students, with diversity also defined in terms of political identity? How do teachers address what historian Alan Brinkley called the “problem of American conservatism”—the inability of many academic historians to imagine the conservative worldview, now including the worldview of Trump supporters? Teaching conservatism ultimately allows historians and students to reflect on the connections between scholarship and politics. Students can contemplate the place of ideology and assumptions in their own research and can articulate their own views regarding historians’ dual roles as academics and engaged citizens.

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