When I was in college, my professors regularly declared President Ronald Reagan “insane,” “irrational,” “dangerous,” and “mentally incompetent.” The same is true of many (not all) of my colleagues today with regard to Goldwater, Nixon, or George W. Bush. In their teaching, they explain why conservatives are wrong or racist and why people fall prey to their erroneous and dangerous ideas. These explanations are not necessarily wrong, but they give students a deeply partisan view of the world under the guise of scholarly objectivity or “alternative” history.
At the small Northeastern liberal arts college where I teach history, most of my students describe themselves as liberal and are already inclined to see conservatives as dangerous and irrational. My aim is not to reinforce their prejudices, but rather to help them understand the rationality and merits of ideas that may fall outside the liberal norm but are very much a part of the nation they live in. I try to avoid the alarmist hyperbole and dismissive gibes that a large contingent of my left/liberal colleagues typically dispense when talking about Republicans and conservatives, and ask students to consider the validity of ideas that they think may be dangerous, wrong-headed, or just plain stupid.
This year I am confronted with Trump, who imperils not just a democracy, but also this teaching philosophy. True, I can find a way to teach about Trump and his supporters, to contextualize his unlikely candidacy in the recent history of political and racial polarization, the ongoing disintegration of anything resembling a national political community, and the politics of white nationalism. But this adopts the left/liberal academic, New York Times perspective that I would normally want to disarm or challenge. I could, alternatively, approach the election from the perspective of horrified conservatives and Republicans, who have been forced into a politically impossible situation by the revolt of their base. But this also affirms the liberal perspective. Either approach implies endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who, despite her shortcomings, has the trappings of a traditional candidate: discipline, competence, a clear program, and arguments to support her positions. We may not agree about her politics, but at least we can talk about their merits and understand how rational people might disagree about them.
Not so with Trump. I can only talk about Trump the way U.S. liberals have always talked about the Right, which is as a political and social phenomenon, the product of dangerous forces, not a rational ideological perspective we might disagree with. Amidst Trump’s bloated verbiage, there are a few ideas that seem reasonable, if arguable, such as his views on NAFTA or the impact of immigration on labor markets. But since he continues to allow his impulsiveness and race-baiting to define his candidacy, it is impossible to consider his ideas seriously on their own terms. And what of his supporters? Is there any way to explain their attraction to this man without resorting to condescending views about their racial resentments, economic fears, or lack of education? Can we take their political views seriously as part of the “marketplace of ideas”? Or do we have to apply the disparaging scalpel of social science to reveal the unfortunate circumstances and pathologies behind them? Is there any way to talk about Trump and his supporters that doesn’t uphold their assumptions about professors’ liberal prejudices?
Some historians will no doubt see this election as a “teaching opportunity,” a time perhaps to tell students how other conservatives—Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Ryan, Cruz—were and are just as fear-mongering, irrational, and/or injudicious as Trump, that Trump in fact is the logical conclusion of the extremism of the conservative movement, beginning with Goldwater. Others will place Trump in a long line of illiberal rabble-rousers and race-baiters. Many will see Trump as a threat to civil society that requires them to take a political position in the classroom.
But for those of us seeking to challenge liberal pieties in the classroom, to disrupt students’ unexamined assumptions, to provide an alternative to social media snark, the Trump candidacy is, as the man himself would say, a disaster. It affirms the correctness of every liberal piety ever uttered; it earns the snark heaped upon it; it gives new life to a white liberalism floundering in the complexities of a diverse democracy. That may, one hopes, prevent a Trump presidency, but it also reinforces the liberal groupthink prevalent on so many campuses.