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A Syllabus for Trump U

How should professors address this year's election in the fall semester?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has posted a mock syllabus for a course on the Trump phenomenon. Based on suggestions from a fair and balanced panel of faculty advisors, the reading list is pretty good (if too long for an actual course).

I was pleased to see Christopher Lasch included with classics of political philosophy and seminal works in American history. But the most helpful selections are probably those that deal with the collapse of urban liberalism a few generations ago. As the historian and TAC contributor Philip Jenkins puts it, “If you want to understand Trump, understand New York City in the era of Big Hair.”

Jenkins’s point is too often neglected. Academics and journalists have made strenuous efforts to uncover Trump’s links to the conservative movement or the populist tradition. But the most relevant context for his persona and political style is the combination of ethnic rivalry and media sensationalism that defined 1980s New York. The political theorist Nancy Rosenblum recommends Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men as a fictional depiction of Trumpian politics. What about The Bonfire of the Vanities?

If I were teaching Trump 101, I might also deal with the European right differently. Instead of The Concept of the PoliticalI would have students read Schmitt’s Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. Trump’s appeal doesn’t reflect Schmitt’s quasi-existentialist argument that liberalism doesn’t take life seriously enough. Trump simply claims that our institutions are run by dummies and weaklings who aren’t getting the job done.

Is this “authoritarianism”? The psychologist Dan McAdams would have students read The Authoritarian Personality studies conducted by a team led by the critical theorist Theodor Adorno. These studies have been criticized (by me among many others) for reducing politics to personality traits. But perhaps Adorno actually meant to challenge the assumption that there is an autonomous psychological sphere that exists prior to social influences. Getting to the bottom of that might have to wait for the graduate program in Trump Studies.

The Chronicle presents the syllabus in a spirit of fun, but it raises an important question. How should professors address students’ hopes and fears about this unusual election? If you were teaching politics in the fall semester, what would you assign? If you were a student, what would you want to read?

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University.



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