Over the past several months, I have noticed a growing sense among undergraduate students of being overwhelmed by mainstream electoral politics. From the long, vitriolic primary campaigns, to the scandal-plagued lead-up to the vote, the disbelief after November 8th, the confusion during the transition period, and the ongoing turbulence since the inauguration, it seems their sensibilities and expectations have been under repeated assault. What started out for many as a joke and then an embarrassment turned into a circus and then a threat, and then, finally, a disturbing reality.
At the same time, students have been inundated with various commentaries that seek to give coherence to all that has happened during the election cycle and its aftermath. Dozens of articles appear almost every day dissecting one or another aspect of Trump's victory and what it means for different groups of people, the country as a whole and the wider world. The attempt to ban Muslims from several countries, the push to end subsidized private healthcare and the renewed targeting of undocumented migrants are only the most recent measures compounding their sense of uncertainty and anxiety.
One way to overcome this feeling of being overwhelmed is by teaching the current conjuncture in a broader historical context yet with a sharper analytical focus. At William Paterson University, a mid-sized public institution located in northern New Jersey, my students come from mostly working-class families with a remarkable degree of ethnic and religious diversity. In my introductory Modern Global History course, I have adopted a three-pronged strategy to encourage them to think through the Trump presidency without succumbing to the pitfalls of exaggeration, conflation and exceptionality.
At the outset, I emphasize the need to attend to the specificity of Trump. It is critical to avoid generalization and hyperbole, no matter how cathartic. Students ought to understand Trump not as a crazed tycoon or a ridiculous imbecile, or even an ominous fascist-in-the-making. Instead, I ask them to choose appropriate adjectives: he is erratic and opportunistic, no doubt, but plainly right-wing, with regressive positions on a host of fiscal, social and environmental issues. Just as we would not accept students characterizing, say, Southern slave-owners, Napoleon or East India Company officers as "crazy," "stupid" or "evil," we should prevent Trump from being merely ridiculed in our classrooms...