HST2513: Trumpism: An American Biography

20 credits (semester 2)

Module Leader: Dr Andrew Heath & Dr Rosie Knight

 Please note this module has an alternative assessment format compared with other level 2 option modules.

Module Summary

Donald Trump’s election, commentators claim, was not only unexpected, but unprecedented: a decisive break with more than two centuries of custom. Yet closer scrutiny of American history suggests a Trump presidency may be no aberration. The module will interrogate the U.S. past to better understand the present, looking at the likes of populism as a political language, whiteness as a psychological wage, masculinity as a path to high office, protectionism as an economic policy, and deindustrialization as a spur to politics. By asking historical questions about the roots of Trump’s rise, we will situate the American present in a complex and often painful past.

The module aims to use historical methods and approaches to understand the contemporary United States. We will combine political and social history to explore what some scholars have seen as the roots of Trumpism. This will require us to range widely over the span of American history, going back as far as the Revolutionary era of the late eighteenth century, but also moving forward to the late twentieth century. To ensure you have time to read around the issues we’re exploring, we will spend two weeks on the kind of themes listed in the indicative schedule below, and as we evaluate each method and approach we will use accessible case studies – introduced in lectures a week in advance – to help us think through the questions raised.

Although Trump and the movement that helped to elect him provides a focal point for the module, the unit is not about him, but rather the forces in the American past that made his rise to the presidency possible. By the end of the semester, though, you will have had time to consider whether the historical method provides the long view required to understand our contemporary world.

Indicative Schedule (subject to change):

1. Introduction (week 1)

2. ‘The Paranoid Style of American Politics’: Demagogues, Dictators, and Democracy (weeks 2 and 3)

Seminar case studies: The Federalist papers and Alexis DeTocqueville; post-Civil War fears of dictatorship.

3. Why Is There No Fascism in the United States? The Politics of Populism (weeks 4 and 5)

Seminar case studies: The Populist movement of the 1890s; Father Coughlin and Huey Long in the New Deal.

4. The Wages of Whiteness and the Politics of Rage: Race and American Politics (weeks 6 and 7)

Seminar case studies: How the Irish became white; the George Wallace campaign of 1968.

5. The Highest Glass Ceiling in the World: Gender and American Politics (weeks 8 and 9)

Seminar case studies: women in presidential politics; martial manhood and restrained manhood in American politics.



The module aims to place contemporary events in historical perspective: how can history help us make sense of Donald Trump’s election the U.S. presidency? To avoid presentism and polemic, though, the module will emphasise the importance of the historical method, and will aim to engage students with critical interventions in several subfields including critical race theory, the history of political thought, and scholarship on gender and politics. To make these themes more accessible to students, seminars will be built around applied case studies, which will be introduced in lectures a week in advance of discussion. Thus while Trump – and ‘Trumpism’ – provides a common thread for the module, our inquiries will be geared towards asking whether (and if so how) aspects of the Trump phenomenon are rooted in the American past. As the unit does not have a clear chronological framing – some aspects of the course will go back to the late eighteenth century, while others will be more clearly rooted in the post-1945 era – we will spend two weeks on each major theme. Such a sustained focus is designed to ensure that students are engaging at more than a superficial level with the questions and have the requisite background knowledge to learn. The precise coverage of the module may vary each year according to events.

  1. The module aims to provide students with an understanding of the historical roots of Trump’s appeal through examining aspects of the American past.
  2. The module will encourage students to think critically about the use of the historical method to understand present events, and in this regard will help candidates with the Achieve More Level 2 and 3 options, while working towards our aim of developing a more engaged curriculum.
  3. The module aims to introduce students to a series of scholarly subfields and debates in American history that can help to shed light on the Trump phenomenon; in doing so, students will become more confident moving between different methodological approaches, in a manner that will complement the History core module at Level 2, Historians and History.
  4. The module aims to develop students’ research skills through asking them to critically apply the methods and approaches we have discussed to case studies, both as seminar preparation and in formative coursework.
  5. The module aims to build students’ confidence in expressing ideas verbally and in writing.


Teaching and Assessment

The module will be taught through eleven lectures and eleven seminars. Lectures will use Trump’s presidency as a hook, but will take current events as a jumping off point to hone in on historical precedents and methodological questions. Seminars will then apply methodological approaches in more detail, and will be organized in part around case studies drawn from American history; active participation will be required. Students will be expected to bring independent research to seminars in which they apply some of the approaches / methods discussed. Guidance will be given here in helping students to identify suitable topics and material.

The 33% written assessment for the module will give you the chance to write a 2,500 word piece providing historical context for a contemporary issue in American politics. The piece should draw on quality journalism and scholarly literature and should be written with an educated general reader in mind. We will be looking closely at plenty of pieces like this for seminars, so you will get to see lots of examples. A lecture and seminar a couple of weeks before the written work is due will provide an opportunity to test ideas and peer review sections of a rough draft.

Further guidance is provided in the module course booklet, available through MOLE.

Information on assessment can be found at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/history/current_students/undergraduate/assessment/level2


Suggested Reading

To Follow


Intended Learning Outcomes
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