Talking about Trump on Campus

AP_17021010851045-Donald-Trump-Oval-Office-SignsEver since Trump’s surprising November victory, and even more so since inauguration, students have been asking me about life under a Trump presidency. Concerned and even scared, they were seeking advice on how to deal with the challenges of this new reality. I claim no expertise on American politics or Donald Trump, but I thought I’d share here some of the thoughts I shared with my students, which I think should frame the conversations we have about him (and politics in general) in and outside the classroom:

1. Some of Trump’s policies are classical Republican-Conservative ones. These include his reinstatement of the Mexico City policy (and his opposition to abortions in general), the cancellation of mortgage subsidies, his desire to increase military spending, and his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. There’s nothing inherently problematic with such positions. If you are a conservative, you probably like at least some of them. If you are a liberal, you probably don’t.

If you are in the latter camp, you just need to remember that there will be times throughout your life when you will be living under presidents you don’t like, or whose policies really scare you. Many conservatives felt that way about Obama. Also remember that many of the policies Trump will enact will be reversible by whoever comes next. Presidents do leave a legacy after them, such as the appointment of supreme court and federal judges. One reason many state laws that are quite abhorrent to progressives (voting rights, abortions, etc.) get struck down by federal courts is that Obama had stacked district and circuit courts with liberal judges. Educational and environmental policies presidents enact can have lingering effects. And a reversal of Roe vs. Wade, as unlikely as it seems now, would be a blow to progressives and, some would argue, to women’s rights. But none of these changes suggest everything will be lost and that our Republic is in danger.

The same goes for Trump’s nominees to head the various departments and agencies. Some, like Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, and Tom Price, represent a classical Republican approach to the issues these individuals were nominated to oversee: education (more privatization and school choice), environment (fewer regulations and increase in fossil fuel burning), and health (dismantling of Obamacare, turning Medicaid into a block grant program). Others may indeed appear to be strange or unqualified appointees, but Trump would not be the first president to appoint unqualified people. Overall, Trump’s new cabinet is less educated (by academic degrees) and much wealthier than Obama’s was, but that does not necessarily indicate it will do a lousy job. But, it may do a job you really won’t like.

2. Other Trump actions and ideas should alarm you. I’m referring to actions that endanger the very nature of our democratic republic and our standing in the world, and to policies that break from decades of political traditions both Democrats and Republicans cherish. Here I include a gloomy rather than hopeful inauguration speech, in which the President used words such as “bleed,” “carnage,” “depletion,” “ripped,” “rusted,” “sad,” “stealing,” “stolen,” “tombstones,” “trapped” and “unrealized” – which conservative and liberal commentators alike agreed did not belong in an inauguration speech. Then there was Trump’s bizarre insistence on the size of the crowd that attended his inauguration or on the number of fraudulent votes on election day, issues broadly rejected by any sane observer and excused by the Trump administration as “alternative facts.” And then there was his senior adviser Steve Bannon, who called the media the opposition party and suggested reporters shut up; the censoring of government Twitter accounts to prevent employees from publishing facts the administration doesn’t like; and White House Press Secretary’s Sean Spicer’s admonition of the media that “we’re going to hold the press accountable,” seemingly forgetting that in a democracy only the press criticizes the government, not the other way around. And finally, there’s all this talk about appeasing Russia and insulting Mexico. Ah, yes, and the immigration ban.

These are not liberal or conservative issues. They should frighten anyone who cares for the core values of our democratic republic. We have never had a president who acted this way, from neither party, who appointed an ultra-nationalist as a close adviser, or who during his campaign bragged about sexual assault and resorted to misogyny, racism, and childish insults. Thus, even if you voted for Trump – indeed, especially if you have – those actions should bother you. Professors should not take political sides in the classroom in a way that would intimidate students who disagree with them. But, when appropriate, they may speak up in defense of values we have always shared as a society and a democracy, and against racism and other forms of discrimination.

The good news is that America is not Weimar Germany or, to use a more recent example, Venezuela. A populist-radical movement, as powerful as it may be, isn’t likely to topple our democratic institutions. Our constitution and civic society are strong enough to resist non-democratic policies. Calling CNN “fake news” isn’t likely to shut them up; and congress still has much power it isn’t likely to give up so easily. But, Trump’s presidency has the potential of eroding our democracy, as David Frum explained in his recent article for The Atlantic. Frum is a conservative journalist, but his criticism is aimed primarily at Trump and other Republicans. It is worth reading for the fresh perspective it offers, its gloomy predictions, and his suggestions of what we – especially the conservatives among us who live in states that voted for Trump – can do to preserve the integrity of our republic’s democracy.

3. Understand why Trump won, and why Clinton lost.

Trump owes his victory to several factors: His reality-star reputation, his charisma, his ability to connect with crowds that never used to attend political rallies or vote, and his political message – as fuzzy as it was – that resonated with voters who felt the post-recession economy has left them behind.

But Trump also won because Clinton ran a lousy campaign. To lose to a candidate like Trump should have been really hard. But Clinton didn’t talk about the issues voters cared about; never visited areas that should have been key to her campaign, and which Trump did; she took blue collar workers for granted; her campaign did not listen to local organizers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere who indicated months before election day that democrats are shifting to Trump; and she immersed herself in unnecessary scandals (who uses a private server for government emails? Who does that?). Clinton spoke to some intellectuals and liberals along the coasts, but Trump’s charisma (and Bernie Sanders’, for that matter) made her appear dull and uninspiring. And we can think of other issues. Her loss, however, does not indicate the majority of Americans have turned ultra-conservative or ultra-nationalist a la Steve Bannon. In fact, many recent opinion polls on issues from immigration to healthcare and education indicate most Americans are somewhere in the middle between center-left and center-right. Take a look at this poll about immigration, for example. All we need are better candidates.

4. Reach out to Trump voters

Many of my students have said they are weary of talking to Trump voters, since people voting for Trump effectively condoned Trump’s behavior. A sexual assault survivor told me she no longer wants to talk to any of her (now former) friends who voted for him, as she feels by doing so they have degraded her and trivialized the trauma she had endured.

We can’t argue with that. Some will have a hard time reaching out to Trump voters not because of Trump’s policies, but because of who Trump is and their belief that voting for Trump was an endorsement of misogyny, sexual assault, mocking the disabled, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and more. But here’s something to consider: Many – I’d guess most – people who voted for Trump did so despite the horrible things he said, not because of them. They would never condone such behavior in their own lives, within their families. Aren’t you curious to know why they thought things were going so bad in this country (despite the Leading Economic Indicators suggesting otherwise), and what Clinton did or didn’t do, that pushed people to vote for someone they also saw as reprehensible, or at least, the lesser of two evils?

Thus in our classrooms and on campus in general we need to listen to one another, consider other perspectives, debate civilly and politely even when we have deep disagreements, and be vary weary of labeling anyone we disagree with as a misogynist, homophobe, etc. Some accuse college campuses of being liberal echo chambers, of fostering racial and religious diversity, but not so much ideological diversity (see more on this here and here; and a contrary view here). Whether this criticism applies to my campus or not, I can say this: Almost every semester, I meet students who in the privacy of my office tell me that they are conservative, but that they do not speak up in class or argue for their position because they do not want to be labeled negatively by their peers and the professor. “I’m pro-life, but I have stopped speaking about it because every time I did others dismissed me as anti-women” one student told me. Another lamented friends lost over an argument not about the right of LGBTQ people to marry, but simply about his refusal to attend a gay wedding as he personally believes in the traditional definition of marriage.

This has to stop. If you are liberal and college only exposes you to liberal ideas and you dismiss anything conservative as ignorant, dumb, outdated, racist, or Trump-supporting, you will have defied the purpose of attending college. Even worse, you will emerge as a mediocre version of the desired civically oriented citizen college aims to produce: One who understands how our society and politics work, who respects the rights of others to think differently, and who possesses the cultural, historical, political, and economic understanding to engage others in meaningful conversations. Want to understand why Trump won, or how to prevent this from happening again? Talking to those “others” may be a good place to start.

5. Stay informed, become an activist.

Don’t cry over November’s election results (especially if you did not vote). Instead, start educating yourself on the issues, on what matters to Americans whose lives are different than yours.

Don’t waste too much time on social media. That article you share is probably not going to make a big difference even if you have 5000 followers. Instead:

Read good newspapers that still maintain journalistic integrity, from the right and left.

Read good books on American society and politics, like Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, or Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, to name but a few.

[Have more book suggestions? Send them to me and I’ll add them here]

Donate to your favorite organizations (even $1 can go a long way).

Attend rallies and other political gatherings, and even join a social or political movement.

And yes, when you are done with college, run for office and make a real difference. You don’t need a lot of money to run for local positions, and often local government at the city, county, and state level is where real change that affects our lives happens. A 22-year old won’t likely get elected to congress, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t sit on school boars, city and county councils, or even at the state house. We need good, young, motivated, and reasonable people (i.e. not radical left or right) in politics.


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