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Skidmore College

Teaching Trump

October 28, 2016

by Brian Allan '17

A standing-room-only faculty discussion at the Tang Teaching Museum Wednesday night covered the ways that Donald Trump's mold-breaking candidacy has infiltrated into the academic sphere. The panel was aptly titled "Teaching Trump."

From notably diverse disciplines, the panelists were psychologist Sheldon Solomon, historian Jennifer Delton, political scientist Chris Mann, and sociologist Andrew Lindner '03; the moderator was social-work professor Pat Oles.

students at TeachTrump
A reaction from Linnea Harris '19 draws a smile
from Conor Pochna '19

Delton recalled, "When I was in school, my professors always taught that Ronald Reagan would be the worst thing that ever happened to the country." She had heard that about Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon too. "I said, 'When I become a professor, I'm not going to do that.'" Delton paused before adding, "And then I get Trump" After the laughter subsided, she described how Trump's campaign and popular following have played a role in her classroom discussions of economic and social class in America.

Lindner said, "Courses reflect the individual teacher-scholars who teach them," but of course "students should be able to trust their faculty members to be intellectually honest and admit their assumptions, and to create a civil and respectful environment where you can try out new ideas."

Mann reported that Trump has forced his way into his "Campaigns and Elections" classroom. Though the course doesn't focus on presidential elections, this year Trump complicates what it means to campaign at any level. "Donald Trump doesn't act like any candidate we've had since basically World War II," Mann said. From its fundraising to its media strategy, he argued, Trump's campaign has the capacity to drastically alter the topography of future campaigns, and of political science: "It may very well be that I have to tear up my syllabus for the second half of the semester," because, regardless of whether Trump wins or loses, "much of what we think we understand about how campaigns work as organizations and how elections work as institutions may get thrown out the window."

Tongtian Xiao at TeachTrump
Tongtian Xiao '18 queries the panel.

Solomon spoke about his research based on the thinking of sociologist Max Weber, who believed that in times of danger or upheaval people are more drawn to an outspoken "charismatic leader," and of anthropologist Ernest Becker, who posited that a key impetus for supporting such leaders is an underlying fear of death. Building on his research conducted just after 9/11, in which people who had been subconsciously reminded of mortality were more likely to support the Bush administration and its invasion of Iraq, Solomon applied the same methodology to the current election and found that people reminded of their mortality were more likely to say they endorsed Trump.

Among the audience questioners was a student concerned about whether a liberal majority on campus may be stifling to the conservative voice. A member of the Skidmore Republicans student club noted the surprising levels of agreement at a debate last semester: "People were surprised that we weren't actually bickering the whole time." And Lindner said that while he routines has more liberals than conservatives in his classes, he has seen that "conversation really is possible."

Skidmore Republicans club
Skidmore Republicans club

In terms of Trump the candidate, the panel clearly demonstrated how he serves in different academic roles: in psychology, he is a way of understanding how fear of mortality can influence one's choices of leaders; in political science, he is a case study of a potentially new norm in campaign strategy; in history and sociology, his constituency brings to life some important socioeconomic and political characteristics of American society.

The event was organized by the Skidmore Republicans. Co-president Julia Budsey '19 says the club will not be endorsing a candidate this year, but she told the Skidmore News that the group hoped the panel would "further the political dialogue" as a way of sharing "in Skidmore's academic and extracurricular community."


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