Donald Trump began his presidency by targeting Muslim immigrants and visitors to the United States – people with next to no political power, who could be persecuted and bullied without repercussion. Four years later, Trump ended his time in office by inciting supporters to attack the most powerful people in the country. The President of the United States stood by as the carnage unfolded on Capitol Hill, only belatedly calling on the mob to stand down (although not before saying that he loved them). As it turned out, nobody was safe from this President who prizes his own political self-interest above all else. Not even members of Congress.
Political scientists like me have struggled with how to deal with Trump. His actions cannot easily be explained using our conventional theories. There are precious few historical figures with whom we can make useful analogies. Sometimes, Trump’s behavior has seemed erratic. At other times, the President has been all too predictable. For the past four years, we have debated how to make sense of Trump in the pages of our most esteemed academic journals. I am not sure we made much progress.
But it is in the classroom that Trump has posed the biggest challenges. After all, students frequently look to their professors for an interpretation of current affairs. Many of us are happy to oblige, using whatever conceptual tools we have at our disposal to make sense of the world around us. Ever since Trump announced his candidacy for the Republication Party’s nomination in 2015, the questions have been never-ending. Is he conservative? Is he a real Republican? Has his presidency set the country on a new path, or has it merely highlighted the enduring importance of historical legacies? Is Trump a liar? Is he dangerous?
Just days after Trump was inaugurated, I was asked about the new president’s controversial decision to deny people from seven Muslim-majority countries entry into the United States. As a professor of International Relations, I was someone whom students expected to have answers to their questions. Was it legal? Did it violate the Constitution? Should it be called a Muslim ban or a travel ban? Did it matter that the affected countries were ones that President Obama had already listed as terrorist havens?
I could tell that we were in for a rough four years.
Curated classroom discussions
What I wanted to say was that Trump was a disgrace. That, yes, this should be called a Muslim ban – that the euphemistic term “travel ban” was a cynical attempt to disguise the cruel and discriminatory nature of the policy. I was sure that this had zero to do with terrorism; it was nothing more than a transparent attempt by Trump’s team to stoke racism and xenophobia for reasons of political expediency. It was demagoguery at its most heinous.
In the event, I said none of that. Instead, I curated a classroom discussion focused on questions that I thought could be answered objectively. In the past, Congress had enacted laws to give the presidency expansive powers over immigration policy, I explained. The legality of this specific decision would be decided in court, I went on. This could fairly be described as a “Muslim ban” given that only a tiny number of non-Muslims would be affected by it, I suggested, but I stopped far short of condemning the Executive Order in the harsh terms that it deserved. The closest I came was to compare Trump’s actions to the reprehensible Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 1800s.
It was the same story for the rest of that semester – and, indeed, for the remainder of Trump’s presidency. Time and again, Trump would engage in outrageous behavior that would require discussion and explanation in the classroom. Sometimes there was a way to use concepts or evidence from political science to make sense of the chaos. At other times, I guided students to figure things out for themselves. To my recollection, I never took a firm stance against Trump or his enablers.
As a general rule, we professors have had good reasons for wanting to remain circumspect on Trump and the contentious issues that his presidency has thrown up. Our classes include students who despise Trump, to be sure, but they are also filled with students who respect and admire him – as well as students who lack firm opinions about politics but who look to their instructors for objectivity. I take seriously my responsibility to serve all students, irrespective of their political beliefs. It is not my job to proselytize. I am proud of my conservative students, past and present; I count several of them as my friends. After Trump, I will continue to hold these students in high regard. I will teach them, mentor them, and write strong letters of recommendation on their behalf.
However, if we have learnt anything from the ordeal of the Trump Administration, it is that the truth matters. We cannot afford to shy away from telling the truth because we are worried about causing offense. The stakes are too high. This is why I have no problem saying now that the storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters was the sickening culmination of a presidency that has been defined by lies, division, hatred, rule-breaking, and threats of violence from the very beginning: because it is the truth as I see it.
I hope that this country never experiences another four years like those which have just been inflicted upon us, but if it does, I will not be making the same mistakes again. I never had a problem criticizing Trump in my public-facing scholarship, but I chose not to do a good job of scrutinizing his presidency in the classroom because I did not want to cause offense or be branded as a partisan. That was a mistake. When President Trump used the awesome power of his office to terrorize and persecute Muslim immigrants – including some of our own Colorado State University students – I should have raised the alarm, in the classroom as well as in print. I should have labeled him a dangerous demagogue and justified my assessment by appealing to the best available evidence.
So how should we interpret an attack on Congress by a violent mob waving Trump flags? The same way we should have understood his early attacks on Muslim immigrants: as a national disgrace, the very epitome of Trumpism.
Peter Harris is assistant professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of his colleagues, department, or Colorado State University.