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Teaching the Roots of Trumpism, One Semester In

Students and educators must resist Trumpism or risk ceding ground to anti-intellectualism, troll culture and xenophobia.

Explaining to students and colleagues the implications of Trump’s rise to power has deferred the temporary unplugging of a semester’s end and replaced it, for many, with renewed political mission.

Since January 2017, tens of thousands of students and faculty nationwide have moved from “Wait, what the heck just happened?” to “Resist, resist, resist.” From pro-immigrant student-faculty movements at the Universities of Southern California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Harvard to a California Polytechnic junior’s “50 percent towards charity, 100 percent against tyranny” anti-Trump lipstick, this semester’s grassroots have a 1960s feel. On May 10, 2017, in fact, graduates of historically Black Bethune-Cookman University turned their backs and booed down (anti-) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s commencement address for over 22-minutes. Twenty-two minutes. When threatened to have their diplomas mailed to them, students jeered still, reminding administrators that being complicit is unsustainable even in moments of celebration.

Academe, it seems, is waxing insurgent.

Curricula have become front lines as well. Professors Keisha N. Blain and N.D.B. Connolly’s June 28, 2016, Trump Syllabus 2.0 serves as perhaps the best example. With more than 100 contributors, this crowd-sourced syllabus complete with assignments is “concerned less with Trump as a man than with ‘Trumpism’ as a product of history.” Blain and Connolly frame Trump as figurehead of a much more complex set of problems (the “-ism” in Trumpism) and see historical literacy as one way towards addressing those problems. Over 345 academics and scholars stand in solidarity with Blain and Connolly (me included) in part to strengthen the incomplete original Trump 101. On January 24, 2017, Trump Syllabus 3.0 was released, and for fall 2017, Butler and Cornell Universities will offer “Trumpism and U.S. Democracy” and “America Confronts the World,” respectively. For many in academe, teaching the roots and wreckage of Trumpism has never been more important.

While campus organizing and historical literacy are certainly indispensable, confronting Trumpism must also include the recovery of productive (public) discourse. Trump, that is, has further exalted trolling over fact-based argument. An intellectually dishonest and at times relentless form of argumentative bullying, modern trolling was made popular in part through conservative talk radio — Rush Limbaugh its master handmaid. With trolling, constructive dialogue turns into talking around a question and away from challenging one’s own assumptions. Although difficult to trace how trolling traveled from radio to chat rooms to White House press briefings, it is fair to say that trolling has hijacked the ways Americans communicate and understand argument. This may be a major reason why Trumpers get away with repackaging white supremacy as “alt-right” or “alternative facts” as, well, “facts.” With Trumpism, trolling has become more acceptable, and demonstrably empty ideas gain footing.

For educators, one key danger of trolling is that it privileges “owning” or humiliating others over principled exchange, cultivating in students an aversion for counter points of view. Unable to healthily separate from smartphones and social apps, millions of students (and non-students alike) unknowingly take on troll-like habits. Despite personal politics, well-meaning students parrot fake news and place feelings-over-facts at the expense of informed argument. Both students and educators must now reckon with Trumpism in all its forms, an invasive species that now creeps through the ecosystems of academe — ecosystems upon which social democracy depends.

To be fair, perhaps Trumpism will pass, or maybe focusing too much on the presidency redirects academe’s attention away from larger problems of, say, institutional biases or high tuition. Perhaps Trumpism’s hazards are overstated and the more consequential problem is raising inequality. And with developments over Trump’s possible obstruction of justice after his firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump may finally be exorcised from our body and mind politic.


If his executive orders and proposed educational cuts are any sign, DC and at least 41 percent of Americans, according to a May 28, 2017, Gallup poll, have indeed gone retrograde. Trumpism, in other words, is not dependent on Trump. For Trump’s followers, theirs is a single-minded desire for autocracy dressed in red hats that haven’t made anything “great” at all.

At its best, academe’s is a fierce allegiance to genuinely good ideas, accountability and human solidarity — all what moves this American project forward even if a mere inch per generation. As one of many sites of resistance, then, academe must continue to stand its ground against an autocrat whose ideas and politics must be contested by any means necessary.

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