social science in the age of trump: a syllabus

How can social science help make sense of the current conjuncture? More precisely, what insights from sociology, political science, and economics are most important for understanding contemporary US politics and the rise of Trump? Last summer, Connolly and Blain posted the “Trump Syllabus 2.0” at Public Books, a wonderful resource for understanding the roots of Trump’s victory in the GOP. That list focused primarily, though not exclusively, on history and historical social science and covered essential topics from the white power movement to the links between violence, authoritarianism, and masculinity. My goal here is to offer a kind of sequel to that syllabus, one that focuses on works of recent social science that shed the most light on the cultural, economic, and political transformations that collectively constitute our present predicament. Any such list is necessarily partial and eclectic, especially when I venture far from my own areas of expertise, so I welcome suggestions for additional topics and specific readings in the comments.

Week 1: How surprising was a GOP win? How surprising was Trump’s win?

This week has short overviews of what actually happened in the 2016 election, and how well it mapped onto social scientists’ preexisting beliefs about American politics.

Week 2: Why did Trump win the primary? Who was Trump’s base?

In understanding what happened in 2016, it’s important to distinguish what happened in the GOP primary (and by extension, what’s happening with the GOP base) from what happened in the general election. This week focuses on Hochschild’s blockbuster ethnography of hardcore Trump supporters in Louisiana and complements it with short articles on the demography of Trump’s primary voters, and Isaac Martin’s review of the “empathy for the white working class” genre.

Week 3: Wait, isn’t big business supposed to be in charge of the GOP?

One conventional narrative about America politics is that the right is the party of big business. But big business seems to be increasingly incapable of controlling the Republican party, and especially its primary voters. What happened to the American corporate elite? Mark Mizrurchi tells the story of how big business in the US won major victories in the 1980s and then, having defeated its opposition, lost control of the political scene.

  • Mark Mizruchi. 2013. The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite.

Week 4: If big business isn’t running the GOP, who is?

The GOP has been taken over by activists. Who are these activists and how did this takeover occur? Skocpol and Williamson tell the story of the rise of the Tea Party. Josh Pacewicz offers a historical ethnographic take that links Mizruchi’s story about transformation in big business to Skocpol and Williamson’s story about the rise of right-wing activists. As local businesses merged into national corporations, and those national corporations moved their headquarters out of medium-sized cities, the GOP lost its “natural” leaders. Without local business elites, ideological activists stepped in to run the show.

Week 5: The Rural-Urban Divide

There are lots of ways to characterize political divides in the US. One of the most important in this election might be “rural vs. urban”. Katherine Cramer explores this tension in Wisconsin, trying to understand Scott Walker’s political success. Wisconsin seems like a plausible model for how the nation as a whole might fare under the new administration, from attacking public sector employees to attacking professors for teaching about race. Read Cramer to understand what happened there.

  • Katherine Cramer. 2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

Week 6: Why did the GOP come home for Trump? Or, Partisanship Uber Alles

One of the main findings from recent political science has been the increasing importance of partisanship. Most people vote party line. Some commenters either missed that fact, or thought it wouldn’t hold given the ways that Trump in particular deviated from GOP orthodoxies. The political science research was right. The GOP came home (as did Democrats). These pieces cover some of the main findings on polarization and rising partisanship.

Week 7: How Could People Vote for an Obviously Racist Sexual Predator?

Review the “Trump Syllabus 2.0” for the history of American racism and sexism. This history – combined with the partisanship discussed in the previous week – helps to explain why Trump’s louder-than-usual dog whistles and overt sexism failed to lose him many (any?) votes. And/or read:

  • Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States.
  • Joe Feagin. 2006. Systemic Racism.
  • Ian Haney-Lopez. 2014. Dog Whistle Politics How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.
  • C.J. Pascoe. 2007. Dude, You’re a Fag.

On 2016 in particular, read:

Week 8: Populism and Nationalism in the USA

The terms “populism” and “nationalism” have been thrown around an awful lot in the past few months, and especially since Trump won. Is he a populist? How can a populist run on a platform that’s all about giving money to the rich? Bart Bonikowski (with coauthors) offers both conceptual clarity and relevant data on the meanings of populism and nationalism. He, and other sociologists, define populism in terms of a style of campaigning and a kind of rhetoric, both of which Trump exhibited in spades. Bonikowski also shows how American nationalism takes different forms, depending on how inclusively or restrictively one defines the boundaries of the nation and how much pride you have in the nation.

Week 9: Fear and Extremism in American Politics

The politics of fear were on display from Trump’s very first campaign speech. His rhetoric connects directly to extremist movements, especially white nationalists and the so-called “alt-right”. How does fear work in contemporary American politics? How especially do politicians and fringe organizations mobilize racial and religious fears?

Week 10: What happened to the media?

Seriously, what happened? This week’s readings explore both the fragmentation of traditional media viewerships and the rise of outrage-based media (continuing the previous week’s theme on emotions and politics).

Week 11: What’s up with social media?

The story for social media is related to, but distinct from, the transformations in cable, broadcast, and print journalism. This week’s readings focus on the politics of attention and the role of algorithms and curators in shaping attention.

Week 12: Conspiracy Theories and the Facts on Fact Checks

The transformation of our media diets is only one piece of the puzzle in understanding how partisans live in different informational worlds. This week’s readings address conspiracy theories and (the failures of) fact checks, including tips for how to better present information.

Week 13: The GOP War on Science

While misinformation and conspiracy theories are too prevalent in general, the rise in distrust of science is decidedly asymmetric. Conservatives no longer trust science, especially around climate change (other issues exhibit somewhat different patterns, though the general trend is that conservatives have lower levels of trust). In addition to public opinion research demonstrating these trends, I’ve included Oreskes and Conway’s work on how particular industries mobilized to create some of this distrust.

Week 14: The Economics and Politics of Trade

There are many other intersections of trade, technology, inequality, and politics that could go here. That could, in fact, fill an entire class. I think the GOP’s shifts on trade policy are particularly interesting and so have chosen to highlight them, alongside new evidence from economists on how the most recent round of increased trade with China has likely had a significant effect on labor markets (much more so than NAFTA or other previous deals). The case also shows how attitudes, even towards highly politicized issues, are not immutable and hints at the power of party leaders to reshape those attitudes.

Week 15: Where Do We Go From Here?

Your guess is as good as mine. Here are some readings that have helped me both try to understand what’s coming and to stay sane.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

19 thoughts on “social science in the age of trump: a syllabus”

  1. Great list, Dan!

    Could add more about how unusually racist Trump supporters are with polling data. I did a little on that with Sean McElwee:

    Against Muslims:

    Against Blacks:

    Sean has other stuff on racial resentment, etc, also using ANES data I think.


  2. Hi there Dan,
    During Week 12, I’d suggest “the original” Nyhan and Reifler (2010) on misinformation (, and if you’ll indulge a bit of self-promotion our (with Joanne Miller and Christina Farhart) AJPS piece on motivated reasoning/conspiracy theories from this year (
    Thanks so much for putting this together. Great resource.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Compiling suggestions from elsewhere into this comment:

    Week 2 (or Week 8): Robb Willer, Matthew Feinberg, and Rachel Wetts. 2006. “Threats to Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support Among White Americans.”

    Week 7: Michael Kimmel. 2013. “Angry White Men.”

    Week 9: Ali Behdad. 2005. “A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the US.”

    Week 13: Dan Kahan et al. 2013. “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks.”

    Dan Kahan. 2015. “Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem.”

    Daniel Sarewitz. 2004. “How science makes environmental controversies worse.”

    Unplaced: James Morone. 2014. “The Devils We Know. Us and Them in American Raucuous Culture.”


  4. So far, the biggest common concern I’m hearing is the lack of an international/global perspective. This was both intentional and probably not justifiable. It was intentional in the sense that I didn’t feel confident to add that perspective, but not justifiable in the sense that it’s essential to understanding the US even in isolation. So I welcome any comments specifically on the international aspects of the present political moment – including, but not limited, to comparative treatments of the rise of xenophobic nationalism and populist political campaigning. I know this is not a small field, so I welcome pointers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t read this before I posted my comment to you. Please consider Alexander Bard’s work, Futurica The Trilogy, and Philosophy Sociology and futurology in the Internet Age. While he doesn’t speak directly about it, his work has widened my perspective on Trumpism and it’s causes and effects. He has a few lectures on YouTube. This is interesting and not an hour:


  5. Immigration and its consequences is touched on in at least one syllabus reading, but related readings include Craig and Richeson 2014 in Psychological Science (“On the precipice of a ‘majority-minority’ America”) and Abascal and Baldassarri 2015 in AJS, which respectively provided evidence that ethnic diversity increases conservatism and reduces social trust among whites. (Disclosure: I’m thanked in the Craig and Richeson corrigendum.) For a related popular reading, I’d recommend Annie Linskey’s Boston Globe article, “Being white, and a minority, in Georgia”, which would help balance with the readings and suggested readings that are much more unsympathetic to Trump supporters.

    For readings that appeared to influence Trump himself, maybe a chapter from Ann Coulter’s Adios America and/or Rick Santorum’s Blue Collar Conservatives (see here for a discussion of the influence of Santorum’s book on Trump).

    The syllabus has readings on the alt-right (Baker 2016 and Romano 2016), but both are written by critics of the alt-right. For more balance, and perhaps a better understanding, it might be worth including primary source readings of non-mainstream conservative ideas, or at least readings that aren’t hostile to the persons or ideas under analysis, such as Slate Star Codex’s “Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”.

    Also, Tom Owolade had a good end-of-the-year reading list with multiple readings relevant to the 2016 election.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Dan — great syllabus, thanks for posting. Re: week 12 and 13, I like Dan Kahan’s work a lot but I think the social psychological perspective on climate change deniers, for example, is too fixated on the “motivated reasoning” concept; STS work, on the other hand, takes a more nuanced approach towards disagreements between publics and experts. Naomi Oreskes’ book is a welcome corrective, but it too sometimes seems to veer towards a stance that science is best left to its own devices (i.e. peer review). I am traveling so I don’t have a list at hand but something by Brian Wynne, Sheila Jasanoff, et al on climate change, biotechnology etc. might be useful. On the CASTAC blog, I wrote about this difference in perspectives: I can try to look up some more references next week.


  7. This is a really thoughtful collection, Dan!! You mentioned the international aspect that you could bolster or etc. And you also mentioned that one purpose of putting this together is to answer the question “How can social science help make sense of the current conjuncture?” Not sure it at all strikes your fancy, but I submit that one way to do the latter is to posit that Trump is an authoritarian and take a look comparatively at other historical episodes of modern authoritarianism. I think that such an exercise could help with theoretical clarification on two levels. First, it might help lift us from the conceptual confusion in which, on the one hand, no small number of observers are saying that Trump is a fascist, to which a brave minority–still of course critical of him–says that that is not very historically accurate or that it’s downright hyperbole, and on the other hand, another evidently large number of observers claims that he is a populist without offering any definition in support. Crude historical analogies and flexible epithets aside, how does Trump et al. compare with these authoritarianisms? Second, it might help us understand the kinds of more-general social forces that produce this class of political phenomena and how they are or are not implicated in the rise of Trump–and therefore what makes Trumpism Trumpism as opposed to, say, Videla. What is it that produced Trump, and how does it compare to what produced other authoritarianisms?

    Specific questions could include: 1. How important are traditional elites in historical authoritarianisms and for the Trump phenomenon? 2. How important is the military, and in what ways? 3. What role, if any, does the lumpenproletariat, working class, traditional and new middle class, and the big capitalist class play? 4. How important, if at all, is secondary mobilization (mobilization in response to others’ mobilizing–e.g., middle class mobilization in response to workers’ mobilization, or white pride mobilization in response to BLM mobilization)? 5. How important, and in what ways, is crisis (economic, political, cultural?)? 6. Are there imbalances in processes underway (making new trends relevant or beneficial for some but not for others) that might explain structural tensions capable of producing changes in political direction?

    Here are a few classical (lest we forget!) and a couple newer (good thing scholars are still working in the area!) works that deal with some of these questions. The list tilts, as one might imagine, in the direction of the compiler’s own research:

    Guérin, Daniel. 1939. Fascism & Big Business. New York: Pioneer publishers.
    Arendt, Hannah. 1948. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt.
    Kornhauser, William. 1959. The Politics of Mass Society. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.
    Moore, Jr., Barrington. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.
    O’Donnell, Guillermo A. 1973. Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism; Studies in South American Politics. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California.
    Germani, Gino. 1978. Authoritarianism, Fascism, and National Populism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books.
    Oxhorn, Philip. 1998. “The Social Foundations of Latin America’s Recurrent Populism: Problems of Popular Sector Class Formation and Collective Action.” Journal of Historical Sociology 11(2):212-246.
    Roberts, Kenneth M. 2006. “Populism, Political Conflict, and Grass-Roots Organization in Latin America.” Comparative Politics 38(2):127-148.
    Riley, Dylan J. 2010. The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Romania, 1870-1945. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
    Jansen, Robert. Forthcoming. Revolutionizing Repertoires: Political Innovation and the Birth of Populism in Early-20th Century Peru.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sounds like a full course, extensive. Trumpism is a phenomena that is exhausting, to say the least and frightening in it’s rude and violent tendencies. But the issue of the History of Man and the dying Industrial Age is what I can’t get out of my head since hearing it. Much of it rings true and it seems to explain the push toward Populism and Trump.

    Alexander Bard’s lectures on time and the Internet seem to help the puzzle pieces to fit together as concerns this topic. For instance, Bard discusses his idea of the 4 epochs of History:

    Oral language
    Written language
    The Printing Press
    The Internet

    He discusses the implications therein but what I get from it concerning Trumpism is that we are in the midst of 2 Ages. The Industrial Age is dying, the Internet Age is rising and there is much turmoil and we see Trump’s popping up around the globe. Jeremy Corbyn just announced yesterday he was going to use the Trump handbook for his next campaign in the UK, for example. So populism can be seen as a force resisting the rising Age. From this vantage point, Trumpism becomes a last arthritic grip on a dying age. Trumpism seeks to bring back what was well known, to a World that’s already moved online. The Printing press is a relic of this age. But Trumpism promises factories back in the US where a 3D printer can retail for $400.00. It won’t work. It’s a plan doomed to fail.

    We are online now. We are global. We all have our communities online; our social media, facebook, twitter, snapchat etc. Global interaction can’t be undone. Can’t stuff that Globalism back in the box. Trumpism’s promise to make America make things again becomes empty. The relics of a dying age never make anything great. It’s just not going to happen.

    Anyway, I was looking at your list for a path of research and I see some interesting reading. Thank you. In return I offer an examination of Alexander Bard’s theories of what’s going on in terms of Time, Histories and our addiction to The Net and what is happening there that is changing not only our perception of ourselves but our perception about how we do things. I think his latest book is called Futurica. His lectures can be found on YouTube. Thanks for sharing your information. Bookmarked and followed. ;)


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