Several years ago, I inaugurated this class in recent United States political history under the title “The Age of Reagan.” Like many historians, I presumed that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 had been the culmination of a fundamental reorientation of American conservatism. I also presumed that it would have as lasting an impact on how historians periodized the political past. In other words, I believed that Reagan’s militarism, romantic nationalism, and embrace of values conservatism would be seen as a moment of permanent consensus within the Republican party, much as historians have viewed Abraham Lincoln’s assertion of federalism, Theodore Roosevelt’s critique of unfettered capitalism, Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal welfare state – to name a few — as moments of crucial consensus within their own parties. No theory of governance remains unchallenged for long, of course, within or between parties. Yet Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016, and the schisms within conservatism that his candidacy had revealed, caused me to think that I and other historians had missed something profound in Reaganism as well. In other words, I wondered if, for some conservatives — particularly those associated with the Goldwater insurgency in 1964 – the Reagan presidency might have been more of a stepping stone than a victory, a deferral rather than a triumph.
In order to think this through with students, I re-did the course, and the syllabus below that I am teaching this fall is what I came up with.