The History of the History of the Right, with Kim Phillips-Fein

The History of the History of the Right, with Kim Phillips-Fein

Matt and Sam are joined by historian Kim Phillips-Fein to discuss historical scholarship on American conservatism. How has the study of the right changed since 2016? And how should the field orient itself to 2024?

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on January 17, 2024. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Know Your Enemy is a podcast about the American right co-hosted by Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell. Read more about it here. You can subscribe to, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher, and receive bonus content by supporting the podcast on Patreon.

When did the American conservative movement begin? Who were its chief protagonists? What were their main motivations? Is the conservative movement a social movement, like any other, or is it something different? Should scholars have “sympathy” for their conservative subjects in order to study them? And are there important distinctions to be drawn between “conservative,” “the right,” and “the far right?”

These are the sorts of questions historians ask each other and themselves. The changing ways they answer them—and the reasons their answers change—is the subject of today’s episode. In other words: we’re discussing the historiography of the American right. (Fun!)

In a highly influential 1994 essay, historian Alan Brinkley referred to conservatism as “something of an orphan in historical scholarship.” By 2011, when our brilliant guest, Kim Phillips-Fein, surveyed the historical literature on conservatism, she found a dynamic, prolific, even “trendy” field, but one with many unsettled methodological debates. In 2017, friend of the pod Rick Perlstein wrote that historians, himself included, had made a mistake, privileging the more respectable and intellectual dimensions of conservatism over the more irrational, rank, and racist. “If Donald Trump is the latest chapter of conservatism’s story,” Perlstein mused, “might historians have been telling that story wrong?” Since then, several studies and popular books have emerged that correct the record and take up Perlstein’s call to study “conservative history’s political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage.”

To start off the year—an election year, no less—we’re taking up these questions again. What is the state of the field of conservative studies now? Have historians, popular writers, and/or podcasters overcorrected, in the Trump era, for the mistakes Perlstein cites? What might we be missing this time? We’re so very lucky to have long-time friend of the show Kim Phillips-Fein, the Robert Gardiner-Kenneth T. Jackson Professor of History at Columbia University, as our guide. Let’s get big picture and take stock. 2024, here we go.

Sources and further reading:

Alan Brinkley, The Problem of American Conservatism, The American Historical Review (1994)

Kim Phillips Fein, Conservatism: A State of the Field, The Journal of American History (2011)

 Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (2010)

 Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (2017)

Rick Perlstein, I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong., New York Times (2017)

Richard Hofstadter, The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt, The American Scholar (1954)

Willmoore Kendall, The Conservative Affirmation (1963)

John Huntington, Far-Right Vanguard: The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism (2021)

…and don’t forget to subscribe to Know Your Enemy on Patreon for access to all of our bonus episodes!

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