Writing the History of American Conservatism in the Era of Donald Trump

AHA Session 262
Monday, January 6, 2020: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Mercury Ballroom (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Jennifer L. Burns, Stanford University
Marsha E. Barrett, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Jennifer L. Burns, Stanford University
Vincent J. Cannato, University of Massachusetts Boston
Geoffrey Kabaservice, Niskanen Center

Session Abstract

In the 1990s, a new consensus emerged among historians holding that conservatism, alongside liberalism, constituted a major strand of ideology in the American intellectual, journalistic, and political arenas. Yet conservatism had received comparatively little scholarly attention. One result of this awareness was a spate of research seeking to make sense of the diverse constituencies, ideas, programs, and commitments that have constituted the American right, particularly since World War II.

Yet just when the history of conservatism seemed to have crystallized into a subfield with broadly accepted narratives and canon, Donald Trump surprised the political world—including historians—by winning the presidency. Trump’s candidacy was improbable not just because of his unprecedented lack of political experience and his contempt for the rules and norms of politics, but also because he rallied Republican voters while explicitly disavowing longstanding conservative orthodoxies on a host of high-profile policy issues. National Review, the flagship opinion journal of the American right, ran an issue denouncing Trump as a phony conservative, with contributions from the full range of right-of-center commentators.

After Trump’s election, historians (and other observers) started asking new questions: Had the temper or ideology of America’s “red” half changed dramatically since Reagan and Bush? Or had historians overlooked elements in the conservative worldview that, while subordinate, had been there all along? How much does Trump’s politics represent a break with the politics of the “conservative movement” that had prevailed from Nixon’s presidency through Bush’s—and how much does it represent continuity? Are the hatreds now being so nakedly expressed toward immigrants and minorities typical of the new conservatism or of the old conservatism—or not typical at all? Has Trump opened historians’ eyes to the central place that racism has always played in postwar conservatism? Or has he blinded us to the persistence of other core tenets—beliefs in low taxes, small government, a muscular foreign policy, traditional moral values—that still underpin the philosophy of most Americans on the right?

Five leading historians of the right will examine these questions in a roundtable session, chaired by Jennifer Burns of Stanford University. Marsha Barrett of the University of Illinois will explore the conservative movement’s populist turn in the 1960s and its connection to that era’s profound shifts in civil rights laws and norms. Geoffrey Kabaservice of the Niskanen Center will ask whether the deepening political polarization and partisan enmity that produced Trump affected the analytical frames of historians themselves, leading to studies of conservatism and the Republican party that are less sympathetic and nuanced than the foregoing generation of scholarship. Vincent Cannato of U Mass Boston will explore the ways that Trump is changing the very intellectual underpinnings and orientation of American conservatism. And Nancy MacLean of Duke University explore the irony that despite having fiercely opposed Trump, the billionaires Charles and David Koch had enabled his rise by building conservative networks and organizations. Collectively, their insights and conflicts will illuminate Trump’s place in the history of conservatism as well as the way that American conservatism has changed—and continues to change.

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