I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the most frequent cause of my current existential dread election and I half-jokingly remarked that Donald Trump’s outlandish candidacy almost made me miss George W. Bush. She laughed and said that Bush had made her feel the same way about Richard Nixon. We both chuckled at the absurdity of the conversation and went on our merry ways.
When I got back to my office, however, something didn’t sit well. Did I really just say I missed George W. Bush? The Bush administration was a clear point in my own political and professional development. I was in college during the Iraq War and I started grad school toward the end of Bush’s presidency, all the while a steady diet of the Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and The Colbert Report rounded out my formal schooling. The Bush administration was the reference point I carried with me as I established a fuller understanding of American politics and political development.
W’s shortcomings and failings are legion and too numerous to name here. Okay, maybe just a few: the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Katrina and “heckuva job, Brownie,” No Child Left Behind, etc. I could easily go on. Yet, there I was, half-praising a presidential administration that both personal politics and academic experience told me was a low point in modern US history. Even worse, in light of Trump and the entire spectacle of the 2016 election, I couldn’t shake the conclusion that I was right to do so.
Wrestling with this line of thought convinced me of two things. First, Trump is certainly not an aberration in the history of conservatism and the Republican Party. Whether it has been matter of moving the goalposts or hidden history we have yet to fully map out, Trump has built his candidacy on a steady foundation. As Alex Sayf Cummings argued in this series about those deeper roots, There is a There There. My second conclusion, however, was that we don’t know nearly enough about the history that presaged the rise of Donald Trump.
This second conclusion prompted me to think harder about the way historians and others have conceptualized the Rise of the Right. Beginning in the early part of the last decade, the historical literature on modern conservatism underwent something of a mini-revolution. Earlier literature tended to fixate on the “backlash” element of modern conservatism. These histories lacked nuance and complexity and usually posited the rise of the Right in light of the dangers of McCarthyism or as little more than the bitter white response to the civil rights movement, Great Society liberalism, feminism, gay rights, and the “excesses” of the 1960s.
Coming at a time when a lot of historians still viewed conservatism itself as something of an aberration that would die off after the Reagan and George HW Bush years, few of these works looked beyond Richard Hofstadter’s famous indictment of the “paranoid style” in American and conservative politics. These narratives were often crude and simplistic, not only because they failed to see the staying power of modern conservatism, but because they lacked attention to the complexities and varieties of conservative political development.
Historians that began taking the history of conservatism seriously offered powerful correctives to this literature. Important works by Lisa McGirr, Kevin Kruse, Matthew Lassiter, Darren Dochuk and others offered needed complexity by highlighting the intersecting politics of race, space, place, religion and class privilege. None of them dismissed the racial politics inherent in the backlash narrative. Instead, they shone a light on the complexities and compromises that shaped conservative political development at the grassroots.
For the most part, however, this new crop of conservatism literature tended to focus on what Jonathon Shoenwald earlier called the “responsible right.” In A Time for Choosing, Shoenwald argues that postwar conservatives created two distinct but overlapping movement cultures: “responsible” conservatives who advocated the development of party and electoral strategies, and extremist conservatives who worked through private organizations like the John Birch Society (JBS). Shoenwald emphasizes the way responsible conservatives like William F. Buckley worked to marginalize the JBS and shake the taint of extremism from the conservative movement.
Though he argues that the divide was permeable, he still suggests that responsible conservatives pushed extremism out of the movement and created the space for the movement to thrive. “Since extremism had been so intimately connected with conservatism,” he argues, “the absence of extremism meant that conservatism gained newfound legitimacy.” According to this argument, the Republican Party regained national relevancy by purging the kind of politics that lurked on the fringes of the modern Right.
The focus on the responsible wing of the conservative movement undoubtedly revitalized the field and deepened our understanding of the Rise of the Right. Yet thinking about Donald Trump has me wondering if these historians made an overcorrection. If we accept the premise that Trump is not Sui Generis, then his conspiracy-driven, fact-challenged, ethno-nationalist campaign suggests that we need to reexamine the history of extremist conservatism. At very least I think Trump shows us that we need a Rise of the Right narrative that integrates the histories of responsible and extremist conservatism in a way that avoids relegating the former to a defeated or marginalized constituency.
This is not to suggest that we return to Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” framework, but nor should we ignore the parts of this history that resemble it. Edward H. Miller’s Nut Country: Right Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy offers a fine example of this. Miller’s work studiously and seriously examines the conspiratorial elements in 1960s-era Texas conservatism. He treats the Far Right not as an unwanted appendage but as an integral part of conservative developmental roots.
It is not enough to rediscover these roots, however. The kind of resentment that Trump has harnessed needs to be understood in a broader historical context, complete with attention to the changes that shaped these politics since the 1960s and the ways the relationship between mainstream and fringe conservative factions evolved over the same time period. There are figures who paved the way for Trump’s rise that have yet to receive the full scholarly treatment, people like JBS founder Robert Welch or fellow tycoon-turned anti-elitist presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.
Indeed, my own forthcoming book (***Warning: Shameless Plug Alert***) examines the white, blue-collar supporters of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s get-tough police commissioner-turned-mayor in the 1960s and 1970s. As I’ve been asked to comment on the similarities between Rizzo and Trump (twice), I’ve maintained that I see as many differences as similarities. Yet I’ve also said they share a similar appeal, not because of what they say but how they say it. They share an unpolished, populism of style that allowed them to connect with frustrated and angry white voters. These figures and politics need further attention if historians want to rethink the Rise of the Right in light of the rise of Donald Trump. It seems clear to me that shifts in modern conservative and Republican Party politics have deeper and more tangled roots than we have fully acknowledged. How we untangle them will determine how well we are able to understand and contextualize the Trump phenomenon.
I highly doubt that Trump or the politics he champions are going away any time soon. The Republican Party will have to reckon with what it enabled. How they do so will have serious ramifications for American politics writ large. Still, I can’t imagine the fire Trump’s lit under the so-called Alt-Right, Breitbart news crowd, and Alex Joneses of the country will dissipate with an electoral loss (if he does lose, which as of this writing is far from a certainty).
I hope I’m wrong, of course. I do tend toward the pessimistic. But my fear is that he is another step in a right-wing goalpost shift: Nixon to Reagan to W. to Trump to…? The worst outcome I can imagine is that someone will eventually come along and make Trump seem reasonable by comparison. I concede that could just be my own sense of doom and gloom. It’s entirely possible that his candidacy really is just a last gasp of a dying normalization of white supremacy that recognizes a much different future lay ahead. Even if that is the case, however, it seems clear to me that we will be dealing with the aftereffects of Trump’s presidential run for years to come. It seems equally clear that historians need to take the Far Right seriously if we are ever going to fully appreciate what Trump means to modern American political history.
Timothy J. Lombardo is an assistant professor of modern US history at the University of South Alabama, where he teaches and writes about cities, politics, and social movements in the twentieth century. He tweets @TimLombard0. Follow him and he’ll be forever grateful.
 Jonathan M. Schoenwald, A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 4; p. 7. The emphasis is his.
This piece is part of our ongoing roundtable discussion, offering a range of perspectives from historians about what Trump represents about the past–and future–of the GOP and the conservative movement. Past pieces are below, and more are to come!
- Adam Gallagher, “Is Trump Sui Generis?”
- Alex Cummings, “There Is a There There: Trump Is Hardly Sui Generis”
- Gary Gristle, “Reckoning Trump through a Didion Lens”
- H. Robert Baker, “Trump doth bestride the world…”
- Timothy Lombardo, “New Right, Far Right, Alt-Right? Donald Trump and the Historiography of Conservatism”