My Trump Syllabus

My Trump Syllabus August 7, 2016

I recently found myself on the fringes of an academic controversy.

The Chronicle of Higher Education approached me to suggest books for a hypothetical “Trump Syllabus” that they were preparing, Trump 101. Together with many other academics, I duly contributed. The Syllabus itself was, though, bitterly criticized by some for its neglect of major aspects of what they felt to be the core elements of the Trump phenomenon, namely nativism, racism and xenophobia. The Chronicle duly issued a humble apology for the project, but not for the contributions of any individual scholars.

Looking back at this furor, I certainly do not apologize for my own contribution, nor in retrospect would I do anything differently.

Let me offer here the original response I gave to the Chronicle, which they edited down substantially, omitting some of my suggestions and most of my comments. (I don’t criticize that editing, as they had a lot of contributions to play with, and they had to smooth over overlaps). This is what I offered for the Syllabus:

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

Lewis portrays the rise of an American fascism, which is certainly not what Donald Trump exemplifies: he is the reverse of ideological. The book does however give a wonderful sense of how different kinds of discontent find a focus in one individual, regardless of any talent, oratory or charisma he might have, or lack. Lewis’s dictator bears the flatulent name Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip.

Robert Penn Warren, All The Kings Men (1946).

All The Kings Men remains one of the finest studies of power in American life. Going beyond any crude suggestion of the masses being stupid or malicious, he shows how populism and demagoguery often begin as sincere and well-intentioned responses to deep-laid discontent and perceptions of injustice.

Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett, City For Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York (1989).

This is the classic study of the world of cynical deal-making that made Donald Trump, and to which he contributed so massively. If you want to understand Trump, understand New York City in the era of Big Hair.

Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (1995).

You can draw whatever comparisons you wish between Donald Trump and George Wallace, especially in matters of racial politics. The main question, though, remains the legacy that such campaigns bequeath to future decades. Wallace’s 1968 campaign contributed mightily to Reagan era successes. Will Trump’s movement still be influencing campaigns in 2028 and beyond?

As a footnote, I then said:

I would also add the 1990 film of Gremlins II, which offers a gorgeous portrait of “Daniel Clamp,” who is Donald Trump with a dash of Ted Turner.

Two of the four books I submitted – Lewis and Carter – are thus centrally concerned with issues of “nativism, racism and xenophobia.” It Can’t Happen Here imagines how a demagogue uses those very forces to seize power in the US. It is still eminently worth reading.

If the Gremlins reference seems flippant, that is because I remain open to the possibility that the Trump candidacy should be treated as performance art rather than electoral politics.

On balance, I think that’s a pretty good list.

Now, if you want my Clinton syllabus, I have lots of thoughts on that one too.

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