“Someone Sat on the Remote”: Teaching Conservatism in an Age of Trump

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Carson and Trump talk during a break at the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

Is Trump a conservative?  How should we teach conservatism in the age of Trump?  Inside Higher Ed was at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this past weekend and reported on a session titled “Teaching Conservatism in the Age of Trump.”

Here is a taste:

WASHINGTON — Seth Cotlar, a professor of history at Willamette University in Oregon, isn’t a historian of conservatism (or a conservative). But around 2010, as the Tea Party raged, he felt increasingly alarmed by some students’ tendency to dismiss conservatives as ignorant racist who, in his paraphrasing, “just aren’t as smart as me yet.”

So he began teaching a course on the history of conservatism, to engage one small corner of the overwhelmingly liberal Willamette universe in informed political debate. Cotlar’s duty wasn’t to change minds, he said, just to open them to what conservatism actually is: “a politically robust, complicated phenomenon.”

Now, Cotlar said here Thursday at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, President Trump has complicated all that.

Donald Trump’s election “totally has thrown into disarray my understanding of American history,” Cotlar said during a well-attended panel on teaching conservatism in the age of Trump. “The last 200-plus years of American history have been like a series of West Wing episodes and then [last] November, someone sat on the remote and now we’re watching a marathon of Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Describing Trump as caffeine-crazed and hyperactive, rather than the “slow, steady hand” typically associated with conservatism, Cotlar said the president’s rhetoric and policy positions not only defy conservative principles and political norms but also pose urgent pedagogical questions.

“How do we think about and engage with conservative Trump voters?” Cotlar asked. “What does it mean to empathize with people who advocate white nationalism?”

As always, Seth Cotlar is asking the right questions.

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