When Jennifer Delton was a budding historian in the 1980s, her liberal professors decried Republicans Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. “Out country would never survive Ronald Reagan,” she remembered them saying.
Delton vowed to be different, to be more objective and analytical.
“I said when I become a professor, I’m not gonna do that,” Delton, now a history professor at Skidmore College, said Wednesday night. “And then I got Trump.”
Delton and three other Skidmore professors — a sociologist, a political scientist and a psychologist — delved into the different ways that the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has changed and affected the way the teach their classes.
The academics used their different disciplines to explain the rise and popularity of Trump.
Delton, the historian, pointed to other populist candidates like Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan who rode a wave of support from the “forgotten man” to prominence.
Sociologist Andrew Lindner highlighted how Trump’s nationalistic appeal mirrors similar “national front” movements that have cropped up in Europe in opposition to immigration.
The experimental psychologist Sheldon Solomon even suggested that “death anxiety” could be driving Trump support, just as other “charismatic leaders” have come to the fore during times of great social upheaval throughout history. Solomon cited studies that showed that voters were more likely to support Trump if they were reminded of their mortality, even if they would otherwise have supported Hillary Clinton.
“To Mr. Trump’s detractors, he is a vulgar, sadistic, egomaniacal, racist, misogynistic . . . twittering Mussolini,” Solomon said. “To his supporters, that matters not one bit; they see him as a heroic figure unrestrained by special interests and political correctness.”
But the Trump candidacy is also challenging things that academics — not to mention political professionals and elites — had once taken for granted. Traditionally, modern campaigns followed similar patterns of raising money and allocating resources to paid advertising and organized get-out-the vote efforts — not so with Trump.
“I may have to tear up my syllabus for the second half of the semester, because, even if he doesn’t win, if he comes very close, many of the things we thought we knew about campaigns may get thrown out the window,” said Chris Mann, a political scientist who is teaching a campaigns and elections course this semester.
Mann said it was Trump’s radical unconventionality that made him difficult to teach in a political science class. He said Trump can only be understood in the context of his opponent, Clinton, and the way that he has framed himself as an outsider against one of the most experienced candidates in modern times.
Toward the end of the discussion, a student pressed the professors on one of the key questions underlying the Trump candidacy: Was the Trump campaign “normalizing” sexist, racist and xenophobic language and ideas?
“There is an important aspect of his campaign that is normalizing all of this hate that is not OK and not talked about and has been kind of just skipped over tonight,” sophomore Barbara Contin said.
The short answer to her question: Yes, Delton and Lindner agreed. But it’s more complicated than that, they said.
“People are outraged by his language, and people who thought this country doesn’t have a race problem now think maybe it does,” Delton said. “That can be good in the sense that we can get away from this hazy talk that race doesn’t matter and face that question head on.”
While the depth of Trump’s lasting impact on history, politics and sociology remain to be fully understood, the academics said his impact isn’t likely to diminish soon, even if he loses the election next month.
“If we think Trump is the last Trump, we are mistaken,” Lindner said. “There are going to be lots of down ballot Trumps that adopt that language.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, email@example.com or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.