Talking to College Students About Donald Trump & Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Answer
It's a bit tricky teaching political science these days. Many students just started paying attention to politics in the Trump era and don't have a lot to compare it to. Others realize that Trump is "different" than past Presidents, but are unsure of his impact on American politics.
During my 29 years of teaching, I've been proud that my students have consistently told me that they didn't pick up a particular bias in my lectures. A professor's job isn't to tell students what to think, it's to provide them with the skills they need to draw their own conclusions. So, my twin mantras have always been, "what can history teach us," and "what does the research tell us about that policy."
However, it's hard to be unbiased about Donald Trump. We have never had a leader who lies constantly, day in and day out, about almost everything from climate change and cancer-causing wind turbines, to crowd sizes, and the effects of tariffs, to illegals voting and where his father was born. Nixon was a choir boy in comparison. We have never had a President who has worked so diligently to vilify the press and undermine our alliances while embracing foreign despots and giving comfort to white nationalists and xenophobes. We have never had a President who denigrated the nation's war heroes, spread harebrained conspiracy theories, and invited foreign interference in our democracy. It's not that Donald Trump is "different," it's that he is simply wrong, dangerously wrong.
So, teaching political science today is a bit more challenging than at any time in the recent past. What should students understand about the Trump presidency?
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg captured part of the answer Friday at an appearance at Amherst College. When asked by a student to characterize this moment in American history she responded, "as an aberration.”
She's partially right; one element in understanding the Trump era is recognizing how wildly different he is from the Presidents we most respect, and the attributes he lacks like FDR's vision and leadership, Reagan's boldness, and Obama's convictions, compassion and communication skills.
But there is another element. Donald Trump also embodies those traits and prejudices that led to some of the lowest moments in America's history like the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s, the xenophobic "Know Nothing Party" of the 1850s, Nixon's lies, paranoia and assaults on the media, and George Wallace's white nationalism. America has experienced much of this before, just not bundled so tightly into one divisive leader.
Students need to grasp that our most able and venerated Presidents found ways to unite the nation in times of turmoil and division around solutions, sometimes compromises, that embodied the best of America, our generosity, idealism, diversity and stubborn optimism. So, teaching about the Trump era involves not just pointing out this President's faults and mistakes, but also how we find our way out of this era with concrete examples from our past and solutions based on science and research, tempered by empathy and compassion.
By: Don Lam