Keeping It Real in Trump's America


Like many of my friends I am trying to come to terms with the reality of a Trump presidency, working through my own emotions and thoughts, while simultaneously consulting and being consulted by others. As an educator, parent, and public intellectual I have an obligation to provide an accurate assessment of the possible future, which neither ignores nor exaggerates the dangers. After all, we (educators, parents, and public intellectuals) are in a privileged position and should be aware of the power of our voice.

I am a father of a three-year old son, who is fortunately too young to understand the ramifications of the recent elections. In fact, yesterday it was his oblivion that provided me and my wife with calm and strength, rather than the other way around. But I have many colleagues and friends who had to comfort their older children and adolescents, who were angry, sad, and sometimes terrified about the future of them and their friends. One colleague's child asked whether her Hispanic friend from elementary school would be deported. Another friend's son was terrified because Trump, the man his parents had castigated for months, is now going to be his president. In most cases the emotions of the children are primarily the result of the information about Trump and a Trump presidency they receive from their parents.

Many of my colleagues also wrote heart-breaking stories about students crying in class, looking for guidance. Many diverted from the scheduled topic of the day to discuss the elections and the possible ramifications of them for the US and the world - ranging from pure emotional therapy sessions to more academic discussions. It is important to reach out to your students, and be responsive when they reach out to you - particularly for educators who teach on topics related to (American) politics. We have a moral and professional responsibility to help them make sense of the world. But we should do this in an inclusive and informed way: the classroom should be a space for all opinions, including those of Trump voters, as long as they are expressed respectfully. I admit that this is not always possible - take, for example, the sincere expression of Islamophobic views in a classroom with Muslim students - but it is the role of the educator to help facilitate the dialogue and ensure it is based on credible facts, while allowing for different interpretations and evaluations of those facts.

Like many others I was asked by journalists to comment on the elections and speculate about the consequences of a Trump presidency. I have spoken mostly about the possible effects on the success of far right parties in Europe, my main expertise, and have been cautious not to overstate the effects. Given the fact that Trump has held virtually every position on almost every issue in the past years, has no administrative experience, and will probably be surrounded by mainly inexperienced people - with some exceptions, like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - it is irresponsible to claim to know the future beyond some broader, fairly standard right-wing, points.

Suggested similarities to Weimar Germany and fascist regimes are in most cases not just fundamentally flawed but also disingenuous and irresponsible. Weimar Germany had been democratic for a mere 15 years when Adolf Hitler came to power - the vast majority of the German elites and the masses at that time didn't believe in democracy and the mostly new political institutions were largely untested and weak. Whatever the problems of US democracy, and there are many more than are generally acknowledge, the system has been functioning for centuries and has withstood various tests (think, for example, of a Civil War and Watergate). The democratic system has protected the rights of most white citizens for centuries and the rights of most minority citizens for at least many decades. Both the US elites and masses overwhelmingly support democracy and the US democratic system. Moreover, while there are worrying aspects of Trump and his campaign, which are indeed reminiscent of aspects of fascism (e.g. nativism, racism, and an exceptional high tolerance for violence), he lacks the ideological coherence and organizational structure of the fascist movements of the 1930s.

But even if some people truly believe that there are fundamental similarities to both Trump and Weimar Germany, then I am puzzled why they are openly tweeting and writing about the dawning fascist Trump regime? Particularly given their historic insight, knowing what fascist regimes are capable of, are these people truly so heroic that they are willing to face almost certain imprisonment if not outright death in Trump's America? If they really think that we are facing a fundamental threat to democracy and life, why don't they take their families into safety and move abroad?

I assume they don't do this, because deep down they know full well that Trump isn't a fascist and the US isn't Weimar Germany. They can distinguish between their personal hyperbole and political reality. They know that things could get bad, although particularly for certain minorities (notably non-whites), but the basic institutions of US liberal democracy will survive and continue to protect them. Unfortunately, many people within their audiences do not know this and will actually internalize that frightening scenario. Looking to them for guidance, and respecting them as experts on the topic, they will truly believe that Stormtroopers will roam the streets soon and concentration camps are just around the corner. This fear-mongering is ideological grand-standing at the expense of the weakest people, exactly what they (rightly) accuse Trump off!

This is not to argue that we should not emphasize the threats to liberal democracy that are inherent in the nativism and authoritarianism of Trump and his campaign, particularly to minority rights and the rule of law. But more than anything we should empower our audiences to defend liberal democracy rather than frighten them into submitting to alleged fascism. After all, only heroes stand up to a fascist regime and history has taught us that there are very few true heroes. Empowered citizens can help protect minority rights and rule of law, when indeed challenged, and can campaign to weaken the grip of Trump and the radical right-wing of the Republican Party by taking back the Senate in 2018 and making Trump a one-term president in 2020.