Interview with Robby Turner (CAS ’24): Kalorama Summer Research Fellowship Scholar

Posted in Announcement News

Robby Turner (CAS ’24) discusses his paper, “Images of an Illusory Past: The Role of History in the Changing American Far-Right”

By Lindsey Gradowski (CAS ’24)

Historical research does not always lead to where you think it will. That’s the lesson that Robby Turner learned during his Kalorama Fellowship. Turner’s scholarship focuses on, “the way that history causes radical social and political changes.” This focus led him to develop an interest in the ways in which the American far right operates, as, “far right violence has defined a lot of the last 10 years, all the way back to Charlottesville and Unite the Right, the Capitol riots, the waves of anti-Black and anti-Islamic shooters.” And from Turner’s perspective, “the role of history in this process was an understudied factor.” Further understanding, Turner reasoned, could help inform counter-radicalization efforts.

Turner proposed the research question, “how does history function as an avenue of radicalization into the American far right?” However, as Turner learned throughout the course of his research, it does not. Rather, Turner discovered that history is used as a way to push people already inside the movement further, rather than as a mechanism by which to bring individuals outside of the movement in. Turner’s findings included the construction of heroes by far right organizations. He said, “when we’re looking for a morale example, someone we want to emulate, we find heroes in history … these movements pick figures to make heroes, for example Charles Martel.” These historical figures who are portrayed as heroes provide credibility for the ideological underpinnings of a movement. If you want to read more about Turner’s surprising and important findings, you can read his full paper here.

History, according to Turner, can help us understand the present by revealing the underlying factors contributing to current problems. Turner recalled a metaphor used by Georgetown History professor Chandra Manning: “If we look at the present as a series of waves crashing on the shore, we can try to understand it by looking at the waves, and that can help us. Looking at the past is like looking at the currents that are driving the waves, at what is shaping them, and help us to predict what waves look like in the future.” Because of this, Turner explained, his choice to major in History was easy. “It’s getting to study stories and people for a living. It’s getting to learn what makes us, us. It’s the story of humanity passed on by imperfect recorders over and over again, and it defines our identity. There is nothing more interesting,” he said. And Georgetown was the perfect place to major in History. Turner recalled the plethora of mentors that helped him throughout his Georgetown career and specifically with his Fellowship research, including Professors Howard Spendelow and Paula Chan, both of whom taught Turner to research with purpose and how to create writing of which he could be proud.

And Turner’s goal is to one day pass on his knowledge in the same way that knowledge has been passed down to him. “I am hoping to do the same thing for young people as so many incredible professors have done for me,” he said. And by allowing Turner to self-direct his own research, the Kalorama Fellowship facilitated his ability to develop the skills necessary to be a historian and eventually realize that dream. For Turner, the combination of the Georgetown History Department and the Kalorama Fellowship was unmatched: “The faculty and staff are incredibly supportive and welcoming, and every time my subject matter got heavy, I knew I could go talk to one of the professors in the department and talk about how they handle those feelings. They were all very available and kind.” It was that supportive environment, coupled with his passion for the subject, that made the Kalorama Fellowship experience so perfect for Turner.