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Bridging the Chasm: Emory Class Delves Into America's Right-wing History

Joe Crespino, Emory University
Emory historian and professor Joe Crespino lectures to his packed History 385: Right-Wing America class. Kay Hinton/Emory University

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It is a chilly mid-January morning and the first day of the semester for History 385: Right-Wing America at Atlanta's Emory University. The class syllabus promises it will examine the history of right-wing ideology in the U.S. by "checking our personal politics at the classroom door in the pursuit of greater knowledge, insight and wisdom about America's political past and present."

There's not an empty seat in the house.

The teacher is Joe Crespino, a historian by profession and a Mississippian by birth. He's tall, thin and with an earnestness that comes with someone who lives his work. This son of the South — "I grew up in Mississippi in the '70s and '80s, where the legacies of racial segregation were still very real ... that's why I do what I do," he says later in his office — is not here to bash Donald Trump lovers or rail against the right. He doesn't teach to rile up his left-leaning students, nor is he out to offer some treacly Kumbaya moment in the search for middle ground.

Crespino freely admits to being "left-center" in his politics, but holding a certain political position doesn't preclude him and, he hopes, his eager class from striving for objectivity — maybe, even, a tad of empathy — when it comes to dissecting the "other" side. In explaining this, Crespino's first assignment is to have his students bone up on historian Thomas Haskell's notion that "Objectivity is Not Neutrality."

It's OK, Crespino is saying — and, in fact, if you're a student of history and politics, this is kind of the point — to look both ways. Don't try to be neutral. Just try to be objective.

Teaching the History of the Right

Forty students have crammed into Crespino's class, the second time he's taught it at Emory. The course aims to define the right (as difficult as that may be) along a timeline that begins as far back as the nation's rebellious birth. It moves on through more rebellion — secession — the Civil War, segregation, the first "Red Scare," the rise of nationalism, the Ku Klux Klan, the religious right, Dixiecrats, the radical right, Reagan, the South, the rise of technology in right-wing politics, extremism, sexuality, racism, immigration ... and, yes, Trump. Not necessarily in that order.

To teach a class on the American right these days, you have to start with the man now sitting in the Oval Office.

"Donald Trump really defied what we thought we knew about American politics," Crespino tells his class that first day. "Trump's election not only kind of upended what we thought were these iron laws of American politics" — mainly, that candidates have to run toward the center to get elected — "but it also makes the American past look a lot different, you know? Things that we used to take for granted as kind of hiccups along the way all of a sudden look more important. And they look more ominous. And we begin to see that they weren't just hiccups, but they're kind of a recurring pattern."

That pattern is what interests scholars. It's what Crespino hopes his students will grasp, too; that the ideas and beliefs that drive right-wing America today didn't begin with Trump. And they won't disappear when he does, either.

"I'll put my cards on the table. I don't think Donald Trump's election was good for America," Crespino says to nodding heads in his classroom. "But it was great for historians."

Joe Crespino, Emory University
Part of the goal of the course, Crespino says, is drawing a line from slavery and the Civil War, Jim Crow laws and segregation to border walls and immigration reform to Trump nationalism.
Kay Hinton/Emory University

Free Speech and the Right

In March 2016, chalk-wielding vandals, with either a need to exercise their rights of free speech or a desire to stir things up — maybe both — scribbled pro-Trump messages around the school's normally pristine campus. The chalkings ran along the lines of "Trump 2016" or "Vote Trump," though evidently a few "Build a Wall" scratches were in the mix.

Still, some Emory students were appalled — and frightened. Dozens marched on the administration building to demand (and get) a meeting with school president Jim Wagner. Several student groups, including the Emory chapter of the NAACP, the Young Democrats of Emory and the Emory University Young Democratic Socialists circulated a petition via social media that said, in part:

"Supporting [Trump], repeating his catchphrases, and arguing for his plausibility as the leader of the free world has become a threat to our democracy and an implicit attack on the Muslim, Latinx, Black, and other communities at Emory and across the country. This is not political expression; this is hate speech."

"There is right-wing speech, and then there are provocateurs," Crespino says. "There's a lot of back and forth, a lot of bluster, a lot of accusations.

"I'm interested in people who are serious about it and want to have serious conversations. Universities have to be places where people can come together and have difficult conversations. If not here, where?"

Isaiah Sirois is a 20-year-old history student from Nashua, New Hampshire. He writes opinion pieces for Emory's newspaper The Emory Wheel. He was an intern on Democrat Stacey Abrams' recent failed gubernatorial campaign in Georgia.

He doesn't find Crespino's class particularly politically charged. During a recent session, students were asked to come up with one-word descriptions for right-wing America. "Conservative" and "libertarian" were among the terms that made it to the blackboard.

"We had like 20 to 25 words up there ... but no one had said 'fascist,' which was interesting because that's one of the go-to pejoratives," Sirois says. "The class goes about it in a pretty academic way.

"For me, personally, there's a lot you can say about what's wrong with the right in the United States and there's a lot, especially in Georgia, that's wrong with how the right is operating," Sirois says, referencing allegations of voter suppression during the state's gubernatorial race last fall. "There's a lot of scholarship about how much empathy should be extended in situations like that ... I'm just trying to take an academic approach to this subject matter."

Understanding Does Not Equal Accepting

Crespino urges his students to try to walk in the American right's shoes, to understand the worries that a large segment of American voters have over changing demographics that they see as a threat to their cultural status. "It used to be a pretty good deal to be a white, Christian male in America," Diana C. Mutz, the director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics, told The New York Times in 2018, "but things have changed and I think they do feel threatened."

Still, asking students to feel for a political group that, historically, has embraced policies that many consider as discriminatory is one big ask.

"I think it's a legitimate pushback point that a student could make. 'Why should I be empathetic? These people are repugnant to me. These people don't think I should be here. They respect nothing about who I am as a person. Why should I be empathetic to them?'" Crespino says from his office overlooking the grassy quadrangle at the center of Emory's main campus. "I can see that. I can see that point. I can see that frustration. Or, 'Why should I be empathetic, why shouldn't they be empathetic to me?'"

In his eyes, Crespino's students seem to be, if not outwardly empathetic, at least more curious and scholarly than radical and loud. They show signs of empathy. But there may be a limit.

"I feel like, with empathy, you have to put a lot of thought into it to make sure that the empathy you're extending isn't coming at the expense of other individuals," Sirois says after some thought. "If you're extending too much empathy to a white supremacist, then you're probably not extending enough toward African-Americans."

These are the timeless lessons that Crespino is teaching through history. He is explaining how right-wing America came to be as a way of understanding how the nation is now so divided. He is drawing a line from slavery and the Civil War, racism, Jim Crow laws and segregation to border walls, immigration reform, wage gaps, voter disenfranchisement and Trump nationalism.

And from here? That may be the biggest question facing Crespino's class. Facing America.

"I certainly think that bridge-building is one way to approach things. That might be too, like, modern or milquetoast of an answer for a good chunk of people," Sirois says. "But, I mean, I don't know what else to do."

In his State of the Union address in early February, Trump made what many viewed as a somewhat tepid call for unity. Few think that's possible any time soon. Immediately after the speech, 64 percent of Americans in one poll said that's unlikely. Polls overwhelmingly say the country is heading in the wrong direction.

This is what these college kids are facing. This, more importantly, is why they're learning about the right.

"I really do believe that if we're ever going to get past this moment of polarization," Crespino says, "it has to start somewhere."

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