Eliyohu Mintz

My Thoughts on Education

Jennifer Mercieca was stuck. For going on seven years, the Texas A&M communication professor had been working on an academic paper about demagoguery in politics but couldn’t quite wrap things up. She needed the right recent example: a successful candidate playing the press while sidestepping a serious policy debate.

Then came Donald Trump.

As the billionaire surged to the front of the Republican pack, riding his fame and a wave of insults, Mercieca realized she’d just been handed exactly what she needed. Trump’s attention-grabbing rhetoric—chastising Mexicans, Muslims and the media—and his policy vagueness were precisely the illustration she’d been looking for. She promptly wove Trump into the concluding sections of her paper and is now on track to submit her work later this fall to her field’s most esteemed peer-reviewed publication, the Quarterly Journal of Speech. She also expects to present her findings next year at a major professional conference.

“I needed him,” she said in an interview.

As Trump’s surprise candidacy disrupts everything it touches, it is now exploding into the academic realm, launching a yuuuuge new wave of what you might call Trump Studies. From philosophy to law to computer science and history, researchers are finding they can’t look away from Donald J. Trump. For some, like Mercieca, the astonishing popularity of the celebrity real estate developer is the perfect tent pole to hang their existing research on. For others, his candidacy is like an experiment on a national scale, blowing up conventional wisdom about how American politics and society work.

“It’s a gift of sorts,” said DePaul law professor Terry Smith, who has used Trump to bolster his research on a range of civil rights issues. “We weren’t going to get the same thing from Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or any of the other presidential candidates.”

There’s a measure of irony in that Trump’s candidacy—grounded in an anti-elite message and regular bashing of the political correctness “crap” rooted on college campuses—is such a boon to professors. Though Trump flaunts his academic bona fides—the degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an exceptional vocabulary (“I know words. I have the best words.”)—his almost proud indifference to detail and accuracy has made him perhaps the least popular candidate among the American professoriate in recent memory. None of the two dozen professors and student researchers interviewed for this story signaled they were a Trump supporter.

But like the rest of America, they’re fascinated by the Trump phenomenon, and they’re turning the tools of research and analysis to figuring out what it means, why it’s happening, and what the aftershocks might be. At the University of Miami, a communications professor who studies conspiracy theories is looking into what happens if a candidate who questioned whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States actually succeeds him in the White House. A University of Rochester computer scientist has put Trump’s Twitter habits under the microscope. A Yale philosopher and Rutgers education theory expert recently partnered on a paper analyzing how teachers can address Trump’s bombastic rhetoric in their classrooms. At Notre Dame, a historian has been studying where Trump fits into a Republican Party that was already facing deep fault lines. Racial issues are central to some studies, too: Smith’s work at DePaul theorizes Trump’s appeal to the white working class demonstrates federal protections overturned by a 2013 Supreme Court decision are still needed for minority voters, and a UCLA instructor with a background in African-American studies is weighing in on the billionaire’s appeal to disenchanted white voters.

Trump scholarship has even leapfrogged the Atlantic. Studies of the celebrity-turned-politician and what he means for American policy and politics have emerged from universities in Iceland, Norway and the United Kingdom. A blog post by Mercieca was translated into German under the title: Die rhetorische Brillanz des Demagogen Trump. During a lecture on U.S. history earlier this month at Bjorknes College in Oslo, international studies professor Hilde Eliassen Restad asked a room full of her undergraduates to name 10 things they knew about America. Before mentioning guns, obesity, Hollywood and House of Cards, the students named Trump.

“He’s everywhere,” Restad said.

***

Asked whether he’s ever seen a White House hopeful generate such an intense level of academic interest, University of Miami political science professor Joseph Uscinski conceded Trump trumps them all. “Not in my lifetime,” he said.

Presidential candidates always fascinate scholars, of course. Ross Perot kept researchers busy throughout the 1990s studying the effect that his two independent bids had on everything from voter turnout to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Presidential firsts, like John F. Kennedy becoming the country’s first Roman Catholic chief executive and Obama as its first African-American leader, have provided prime fodder in academia.

But Trump, who hasn’t even won the Republican nomination, let alone the White House, has nonetheless already achieved unique notoriety through an unorthodox campaign that seems to break a different rule (or two) every day. “He’s saying things and doing things that you can’t do,” says Uscinski.

No less a source than Trump’s vanquished foe, Marco Rubio, the soon-to-be-former Florida senator and part-time college political lecturer, said so in March after Trump whupped him in his home state: “It’s a very unusual year. People are going to write books about this year. There’s going to be a lot of political scholarship on what exactly is happening.”

Boston-based Michael Lissack, executive director of the nonprofit Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, said Trump is driving such a diverse blend of study because “he’s deliberately acting outside the mold.” He cited as an example some of the early research being done by psychologists trying to understand Trump’s campaign behavior and what kind of influence it’s having on voters. “The way you study psychology is by looking at deviants,” he said. “You don’t look at normal people. You look at deviant people. And Trump is clearly a deviant politician.”

By research standards, the Trump phenomenon is still young, but fields are littered with the certainties it’s already shaken. For political scientists, Trump’s primary and caucus victories challenge the reigning belief that a strong party institution is the ultimate key to electoral success. For communications pros, his freewheeling use of social media and a penchant for saying things that alienate different segments of society shatter assumptions about what should kill a presidential campaign. Trump has even put his own imprimatur on the conspiracy theory playbook that typically targets powerful people and institutions. He has dropped the Obama birther shtick he peddled in 2012 in favor of a rhetorical dog whistle the size of a tuba that attacks far more vulnerable populations like Mexican immigrants and Muslims.

Trump’s candidacy is also a cannonball aimed straight at perhaps the most influential book on electoral politics in the past decade: The Party Decides, which argues establishment insiders ultimately determine who wins a presidential nomination, despite the primary voting process. Martin Cohen, the James Madison University political science professor who co-authored the book, has found his work the subject in recent months of an intense online debate over whether its findings hold up—or whether Trump’s success, in blunt defiance of his own party’s elders, is undercutting the entire idea. “Certainly, he’s had an impact on the way we think about politics and how they are supposed to work,” Cohen acknowledged, while still insisting that more study needs to be done to assess whether Trump is just an aberration who doesn’t change the fundamental findings spelled out in his book’s thesis.

That might sound defensive, but it’s going to be a while before we really know what happened during this head-scratching election cycle. Most academic research papers are built on months, perhaps years, of data-gathering and analysis; top professional journals evaluate and publish them only after that. Scholars report that reams of these kinds of deeply sourced Trump papers are just starting to make their way through the process, which means that the research world can expect a Trump boom to arrive circa 2017, if not later—even if he doesn’t win the GOP nomination or the presidency.

“For the next couple of years, all of the political science and political communications and similarly associated journals are going to be filled with everyone’s interesting take on Trump,” said Matthew MacWilliams, a Ph.D candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is studying how Trump’s rhetoric exhibits strong authoritarian tendencies.

Of course, academics like MacWilliams aren’t shying away from revealing some of their early findings. After all, the media beast is hungry and the opportunities for self-promotion are abundant while Trump’s campaign is still at the center of the political world. And there are numerous outlets hungry for their kind of analysis, from the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog to Vox, Huffington Post and Politico Magazine.

“I feel like a prostitute,” said Restad, the Oslo-based professor who earlier this month wrote an essay for the London School of Economics’ website about how American exceptionalism has returned with a force via the Trump candidacy. “If you put Trump in a title people will click on it.”

***

Research isn’t just something you do in a room and on a computer: Scholars actually know they’re witness to history, and some of them are taking history up on that invitation. Jessica Collier, for example, hopped into her 1999 Mustang last month and drove 75 miles from the ivory tower to the roiling scrum itself: a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Collier, a journalism and mass communication master’s degree student at the University of North Carolina, wanted to see for herself the fistfights and the ejections and get a first-hand read on what fires up the Republican front-runner’s supporters.

“It’s a prime research setting” to study people’s voting behaviors and their views on partisanship and ideology, Collier said, recounting how she spoke with 20 people at the rally and was surprised that nearly all described themselves as independents. Only one acknowledged plans to actually vote for Trump. Her paper is due by the end of April for a seminar on qualitative research methods; after she gets feedback from her professor and classmates, she hopes to submit it for publication. But she’s already reached one conclusion: Trump is drawing on a more centrist crop of voters that may help explain the dramatic increase in overall Republican primary turnout.

Struck by the unrest at Trump’s rallies, University of Missouri communication professor Ben Warner led a team of 17 faculty and students to Iowa earlier this year in an attempt to understand whether Americans would support violence as an alternative way to accomplish political goals. Spreading out to Trump, Cruz, Clinton and Bernie Sanders events held the night before and the day of the state’s caucuses, the group surveyed more than 250 attendees to gauge their support with a series of stark statements, such as, “The day is approaching when violent measures may need to be taken to protect the United States from itself” and “The tree of liberty needs to be nourished with the blood of revolution.” Their preliminary findings found Trump’s supporters were the closest to being in agreement with the statements, albeit by a very narrow margin ahead of the Cruz and Sanders attendees.

Warner said he expects to write up his research results with the goal of publishing in a journal in late 2016 or early next year and he’s planning to discuss his findings at conferences later this year in Japan and Philadelphia. He’s also looking for additional funding to study the prospect for violence during the general election, research that he hopes will get traction because of what’s been happening at the Trump rallies. “People should have been reading our applications as the violence was erupting,” he said. “Hopefully they realize this is timely and serious.”

Several scholars interviewed by POLITICO said Trump’s ultimate success or failure at winning the GOP nomination won’t stop the academic work that’s already in the pipeline, though they concede it might dampen the demand if he doesn’t make it to the general election. Still, even a scenario in which Trump doesn’t become the nominee would likely prompt examinations in political science on the esoteric U.S. delegate selection process plus a deeper look into “our expectations of democracy.” DePaul’s Smith said he envisions writing just such a paper if Trump fails to win the nomination despite carrying the most primary and caucus states and the lion’s share of overall votes.

Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn, political science professors at the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota, respectively, are under deadline to finish a paper this month that tries to make sense of Trump’s rhetoric. A preliminary version of their work—based off an online survey and a close review of more than 230,000 spoken words from Trump and six rivals—appeared last month in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. It found that Trump supporters “are true populists” and shouldn’t be labeled, as some researchers have, as “authoritarian.” Oliver also plans to include the Trump findings in a chapter of a new book he’s writing about how institutions shape public opinion. Trump’s supporters, he argues, approach politics from a “pre-Enlightenment emotional and visceral” perspective. The two researchers are also aiming for another soapbox: a spot in the fall edition of The Annals, the primary publication for the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Obviously, nobody knows what will happen at the conclusion of the 2016 election, but some are already focusing on what would be the ultimate research bonanza: a Trump presidency, perhaps the strangest and least predictable political development in American history. Last month, for example, University of Virginia law professor Michael Livermore published a commentary predicting Trump “would face huge challenges in effectively overseeing the executive branch and pursuing a coherent policy agenda.”

But the very thing that makes Trump so interesting from a scholar’s standpoint also makes him impossible to pin down conclusively: He keeps producing a steady stream of surprises.

“The way I like to describe it to my friends is to imagine we were astrophysicists and there’s this weird blob of ectoplasm that seems to defy all laws of time and space,” Oliver said. “We’re desperately trying to get our instruments out to measure it while it’s going on.”


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