Many of the most recent generation of kindred spirits to the new labor history have jumped on the train of studying conservatism. But in American historiography, conservatism still seems to smack of the other and the exotic and the conspiratorial — rather than part and parcel, central to the very DNA of American politics. The residue of our own politics, and the revelation of all of the real radicalism in U.S. history, prevents me and my colleagues from confronting something fearful: what we like to call "backlash" is deeply intertwined with everything, including some of the left-wing movements.
What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just "conservative," nor is it just "working class" in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.
Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a "real-world" America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.
My generation’s historiographical compass is left spinning. North is gone. But the white working class is out there. And we still really need to understand it.