Teaching Donald Trump: What Is a College Professor to Do?

I was an avid partisan when I was in high school. I had my (correct) opinions and anyone who didn't agree with me obviously either didn't know all the facts or simply had poor judgment.

As I went on to college and later to pursue a Ph.D. in political science I evolved in my thinking. My political philosophy classes especially challenged me to critically examine my own opinions and see their various shortcomings, as well as to appreciate the strengths of opinions that differed from my own. Over time I came to view most political differences not as question of "right or wrong" but rather reasonable and legitimate differences of opinion held by people of good faith.

I took this perspective into the classroom when I started teaching college classes on American politics six years ago and have regularly received positive feedback from my students on how I am always fair and objective when discussing contentious and divisive political issues. I repeatedly tell them that there are smart reasons to support a variety of political positions and that they would do well to learn them rather than resorting to "bumper sticker" arguments in their political thinking.

Once again this fall I will be teaching classes on American politics including campaigns, elections, and political parties. What in the world am I going to do?

Under normal circumstances I lead discussions with my students on the various issues and perspectives in today's political environment while emphasizing that while both major political parties and their candidates certainly differ in their platforms and approaches, each is certainly within the boundaries of legitimate expressions of American political values and ideologies. I have taught why it was inaccurate and borderline stupid when Democrats called George W. Bush a fascist or when Republicans accused Barack Obama of being a communist. I also have emphasized that while we might disagree with their political values, most politicians (including recent presidential nominees Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, etc.) are fundamentally decent people trying to do the best they can under difficult circumstances.

Yet this year, many of Donald Trump's proposals and much of his political style are clearly outside the traditional boundaries of legitimate American values.

Reasonable people can disagree, for example, on desirable levels of taxation or the merits of medicinal marijuana. It is not controversial, however, to assert that racism is bad. Many of Trump's proposals and much of his rhetorical style, however, are clearly and explicitly racist.

This is not to say that other political candidates, including the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, are without their shortcomings and bone-headed decisions. But again, their flaws are arguably on a different qualitative and quantitative scale compared to Trump's as far as they relate to their ability to effectively serve as president and represent the United States with moral authority on the world stage.

I do not generally agree with those that have predicted that a Trump presidency would be the second coming of the Third Reich. Our Constitutional separation-of-powers systems would to some extent limit the damage that a President Trump could inflict. However, I do believe that a Trump victory would lend a good deal of validity to his perspectives and normalize many of his views, effectively "moving the goalposts" of what constitutes legitimate expressions of our traditional American values. This would make it all the more easy for a strongman figure like Trump to move our country that much closer to authoritarianism in the not-too-distant future.

How does a college professor teach with a commitment to politically neutrality and objectivity under these circumstances? Is neutrality in the classroom even desirable or ethically defensible at this point? Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan has argued that this is a moment in history where it is indefensible to remain on the sidelines. This time, he argues, patriots must stand up and be counted. Future generations are depending on us.

Given these considerations, I need to figure out before August how I can, as a college professor, effectively teach about the presidential election and American politics while simultaneously 1) clearly demonstrating that many aspects of "Trumpism" are illegitimate expressions of American political culture and values, 2) raising awareness of the potential future spectre of authoritarianism that a Trump presidency might enable, 3) emphasizing that there are legitimate reasons to support Trump even if you do not accept the viewpoints and proposals that are not legitimate, and 4) making sure that all students, Republicans and Democrats alike, feel that they are welcome to express their views in classroom discussions, and 5) making sure to emphasize that despite many of Trump's illegitimate views and that he is this year's standard-bearer of the Republican Party, the "mainstream" GOP is still well within the traditional boundaries of American politics and values?

I am open to suggestions.