How should academics respond to Trump’s election?

Donald Trump during presidential debate.

Donald Trump during presidential debate. (Photo credit: NBC News)

Ever since the night of November 8, 2016, I’ve been struggling with how to reconcile my role as an educator and scholar with my impulse to respond as my heart dictates to the election of Donald Trump. If my interactions with colleagues since then are any indication, I’m not the only one going through such a struggle.

The struggle stems from my strong political convictions. Call them progressive, liberal, or whatever word for them is currently acceptable. I prefer to think of them as simple human decency. They include radical notions such as regarding immigrants, documented or not, as fellow human beings deserving of respect and compassion instead of scorn and scapegoating for global economic changes; regarding terrorists as aberrations within their claimed religious traditions rather than the norm , and not heaping verbal or physical violence on their home communities; regarding all human beings as equally deserving of respect, regardless of their skin color, ethnic origin, gender, religious belief or lack thereof, physical and mental abilities, and other differences — a respect that leads me to believe it’s not acceptable to mock individuals with disabilities or dismiss talk of sexual assault (whether real or ‘braggadocious’ ) as simply ‘ locker room talk,’ and that led me to recoil from a candidate (now president-elect) who called for violence against protesters at his rallies and continues to accuse five African American men of gang rape even after they have been exonerated by DNA evidence.

The campaign Donald Trump chose to wage, and his ultimate victory, was an assault on all those values, which I think most (which, ideally, all) members of the academic community share. In a campaign for the presidency of a liberal democracy, Donald Trump chose to run for the presidency of just the latter, mocking the norms, values, and traditions that have usually restrained democracies from devolving into simple tyrannies of the majority.

There is already a strong temptation among some in the academic community to simply observe and study how the Trump presidency unfolds over the next four years or more. I have been similarly tempted. But this was not an ordinary election, and the Trump presidency will not be an ordinary presidency. We face the prospect of a U.S. president who is utterly contemptuous of the norms, values, and traditions that fill the constitutional gaps of our democracies and keep them from descending into Putinist-like systems where the niceties of democracy are observed but their substance is gutted. Just look at this picture of formerly fierce Trump critic Mitt Romney dining with the president-elect to see how fragile those informal institutions could turn out to be.

I have become convinced that, as scholars and educators, we have an additional role to play in our societies and institutions over the next four years. That role is to resist, to the best of our ability, the encroachment of illiberalism that Trump and his allies around the world represent.

Resistance will mean different things to different scholars. Some of us will be more effective spokespeople for particular communities than others. Some of us could be more influential voices among the press or other elites than others. Some of us could mentor young people who may play a role in defeating Trump four years from now. Regardless of how we resist, we must make it clear at all times that this resistance has nothing to do with partisan American politics but everything to do with commonly shared human values that Trump and his allies are threatening around the world.

In thinking through how best to show my objections to the way Trump ran his campaign and will presumably govern as president, I have come up with some specific ways that scholars can enact their resistance. This list is not all-encompassing, of course — twenty different scholars may come up with twenty completely different lists. But I hope this is a good start:

Use your classrooms. Turn our classrooms into spaces where students feel free to have conversations about the implications of a Trump presidency for the subject we’re teaching. This must happen organically, of course, and conversations must be respectful of all points of view unless they veer into hate speech of undue lack of civility. The president-elect’s worldview would not bear the close scrutiny of a college classroom.

Offer safety. Offer students who feel vulnerable because of the election results (foreign students, minorities, LGBTQA, women, and others) a safe harbor to talk about their concerns. A space for them to vent their feelings, as well as some reassurance that not all Americans feel as Trump’s most ardent supporters, may go a long way to make these students feel safe again.

Mentor. Offer mentorship to student organizations that are well positioned to take on Trump. If you have never become involved with a student organization, this may be a great time for you to do so. Many student organizations exist solely to support those populations that Trump targeted most blatantly during the election: Muslims, immigrants, and the like. Your mentorship could make a world of difference in these uncertain times for these populations, even in supposedly ‘safe’ spaces like college campuses.

Write, write, write! For academics, Trump’s election gives the old adage ‘publish or perish!’ a whole new meaning. If we don’t do what we do best — think, analyze, argue, write — then many important values and institutions in this country that are already under attack will slowly but surely start to perish. Take every opportunity to voice your opposition to the new regime. They may still succeed, but we shouldn’t make it easier for them by not mounting a vigorous opposition.

Connect. If you find yourself nodding in agreement as you read this piece, that means you’re not alone in your desire to act. Find other like-minded academics in your institution or your discipline and brainstorm how best to enact resistance. You know your institution and your discipline best, but regardless of what those may be, there is something you can accomplish by connecting with your peers.

Push. Academic organizations have the potential to be powerful vehicles of opposition to the new administration, but many will be loath to do so, at least at first. You can help change this by pushing your academic organization to adopt firm stances against the administration on issues where it can make a difference. Some may resist doing so because of their tax-exempt status, but there are ways of taking firm stands without risking this precious commodity; and depending on the issue, it may well be worth risking for the greater good.

Taking on this additional role wouldn’t mean compromising the integrity of our research in any way — in fact, maintaining that integrity will be paramount to bolstering our credibility as critics of Trump and his allies. But for those with a certain flexibility in their research agendas, I urge you to turn your full attention to the new administration. Is the new president keeping his promises? Is he following up on his firebrand rhetoric or pulling his punches? What are the consequences of his campaign and presidency for your particular field of study, the country, and the world? An administration led by the least politically experienced person in modern American history deserves an especially close level of academic scrutiny. If you can spare the time, this may be the most important research of your life.

There are many paths I could’ve chosen after that fateful Election Night: abandon academia and return to my work as an activist, keep my head down and despair in private, and others. But in the end, I’ve chosen to remain a scholar. Thanks to our ability to clarify issues through our research and education, we can provide a valuable service to our communities during this potentially dark period for liberal democracy and basic human decency. But we can only provide this service is we choose the harder path: the path of resistance.

This piece is also available at Medium — please share and recommend there!

Luis Hestres

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