How Not to Study Donald Trump

How Not to Study Donald Trump

The “Trump Studies” syllabus was intended to mock his bigotry; instead, it served as a perfect example of white racism in academia.


Donald Trump is a racist and misogynist, running one of the most successfully racist and misogynist campaigns for national office in US history (perhaps second only to Andrew Jackson, who in 1828 made Indian Removal, a cause he long championed, a major campaign promise). To make sense of Trumpism, and to put Trump in his historical context, The Chronicle of Higher Education asked a mostly white group of scholars to suggest readings for a syllabus for a mock course in Trump Studies. They returned a syllabus that was all-white in composition—not just in that the primary authors of the books selected contained no people of color but the books themselves largely avoided America’s colonial- settler, chattel-slavery, and racist-imperial history.

The response from scholars—many of whom participated in a similar, uncredited project putting together the much more critical “Charleston syllabus” (which is maintained by the African American Intellectual History Society) and “Ferguson syllabus”—has been scathing. As the historian Charles McKinney put it, “An allegorical novel about a 19th-century Paraguayan strongman” made the #TrumpSyllabus. But Cedric Robinson didn’t. Or Angela Davis.” Charles Murray’s 2012 Coming Apart is on the CHE syllabus—not as a primary text that helps illustrate the pervasiveness of racism in American social science but as legitimate book with a reasonable normative standpoint that is supposed to help us explain Trump.

Nathan Connolly, a colleague at NYU, was among the first to raise an objection. Connolly, whose own book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, should be the starting point to grapple with the kind of toxic relationship between development, racism, and property that spawned the likes of Trump, wrote the following in the CHE comment section:

Respectfully, this syllabus offers a disgraceful example of white methodological myopia. 1) There are no books by people of color. 2) The entire syllabus fails to grapple with the actual experience of Trumpism being endured by subalterns. 3) Dan Carter’s work is great, but there’s a broad and rich literature on white popular sovereignty, the racial contract, the dangers presented by non-white political gains (like, y’know, a two-term black president), and the political economy of so-called “backlash” politics and “color-blind” racism, written by historians, anthropologists, literary critics, sociologists AND pundits. The disregard for those catching hell under deportation politics, Islamophobia, racism, and sexism, becomes even more evident through glib references to “big hair” or the elevation of ghost-written works by Palin and H. Ross Perot. At best, these documents are little more than superficial (and arguably cynical) expressions of deeper political and economic transformations that, again, have a literature. At worst such titles serve as filler to pad a syllabus that suffers from profound racial illiteracy. I’ve already been castigated by some of my colleagues and professor-friends for not calling this what it is, so I won’t make the same mistake here. This syllabus is racism. Intended or not, this document offers sad testimony to the ongoing segregation of American political history, and is far less an interrogation of racism than an artifact of racism itself.

On social media, #trumpsyllabussowhite got hashtagged, and a petition calling on the CHE to revise its syllabus is circulating (the CHE has appended a note to its syllabus apologizing for the absence of works by scholars of color and other marginalized groups. We recognize that these omissions are offensive”).

Individually, many of the readings on the CHE syllabus are interesting. Kim Phillips-Fein, another terrific NYU colleague whose forthcoming Fear City is on NYC in the 1970s, recommended the excellent Jonathan Rieder’s Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism (1985), which, according to Phillips-Fein, “charts the rise of a sneering, nasty, anti-liberal politics built around blaming a racial other for the desperation of working-class life in a Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1970s. This is the milieu out of which Trump emerged.” And there is the underrated Stiffed, by Susan Faludi, one of the best accounts of how neoliberalism has toxified masculinity and the only book on the syllabus that touches on gender.

But taken as a whole, the reading list stands as a monument to the limitations of the liberal imagination, the inability to think of Trump’s nastiness as constitutive of US history. Rather, his racism, sexism, and “authoritarianism” are presented in psychological terms, as expressions of status anxiety or of humans’ “natural tendencies toward ethnocentric thinking.” The founding fathers, via the Federalist Papers, along with Tocqueville, are represented, with the point being the same as the psychological tack: to translate social racism into the anodyne categories of “populism” or “authoritarianism,” and then situate those categories as either exotic to the American tradition or latent within human drives, a latency contained (up until Trump) by the genius of our liberal system of governance. Rather than a book on the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans lynched throughout the course of US nation-building—say, William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb’s The Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928we are sent to Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder: “It’s all here: sex, fear, madness, jealousy, revenge—just about every dark emotion stirred by Trump’s quest for victory over others.”

There’s Plato, of course, and enough Christopher Lasch to choke a horse. I myself love Lasch, and sometimes feel it is my sole purpose in scholarly life to keep alive the analysis of long-gone New Left white guys, like Lasch, William Appleman Williams, and Michael Rogin, who themselves translated continental Marxism into a vernacular that Americans could understand. (In fact, I was asked to contribute to this syllabus by the CHE editors, and only didn’t because I’m still hobbled by a broken leg. Much to my now embarrassment, I was going to suggest a white guy, Michael Rogin, either Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjection of the American Indian or Ronald Reagan, The Movie: and Other Episodes in Political Demonology.) But when Lasch, along with Adorno, who of course is also on the syllabus, is invoked in contexts such as these, it is usually to up-play his Freudianism—which has the effect of explaining racism according to psychology—while downplaying his Marxism and social history. Lasch, we are told, documented “America’s propensity for self-absorption,” of which this syllabus, if not Trump, is a symptom.

All syllabi are selective, and this one, compiled by one-off suggestions by a large committee of scholars, is what it is. But in the spirit of the crowdsourced #Charlestonsyllabus” and #Fergusonsyllabus, Nathan Connolly put out a call asking what a Trump Syllabus 2.0 would look like. You can send suggestions to his twitter account, @nconnol2.

The suggestions that have so far come in are too many to list here. I believe Nathan is organizing them into a proper syllabus at Public Books. What comes below, in no particular order, just gives a sense of what might be on a reading list that helps explain Trump, other than Aristotle:

Or, as Tom Sugrue has suggested on FB, we really could just switch #Charlestonsyllabus for #Trumpsyllabus, and the readings would largely be the same.


Author’s note: An earlier version of this essay failed to note that Cindy Kam, the second author of one of the books on the CHE syllabus, US against Them: The Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, is Asian-American.

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