Three weeks before the presidential election, the basement of Boylston Hall is filled with John Oliver’s voice, blaring, “Make Donald Drumpf Again.”
Senior lecturer and former editor of the New York Times Jill E. Abramson ’76 is spending the afternoon discussing the intersection of satire and elections with her “Politics and Journalism” class. Most of the session is punctuated with bouts of laughter as the group watches ‘Saturday Night Live’ parodies of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Today is an unusual class, which is fitting for an unusual election.
“I don’t want you to think [we] just watch SNL clips in my classes,” Abramson says, laughing. “I don’t want students to think that my class is a pushover.”
But Abramson’s use of sketch comedy as a teaching tool is just one of the ways that Harvard professors are approaching an election season characterized by the bizarre, especially as it pertains to Trump. The candidate’s bombastic style and penchant for attracting controversy has contributed to a presidential election that many faculty members find both fascinating and frustrating.
“This election is so different, so unusual, from anything I’ve seen before,” Abramson says. “When I watch the presidential debates or see quotes from the candidates, other elections over the past 30 years just seem quaint.”
Indeed, in their teaching, thinking, and writing, Harvard professors are seeking to understand Trump, who is a political phenomenon.
Their published work on the topic ranges from Government professor Danielle S. Allen’s series of Trump-focused op-eds for The Washington Post to University professor Stephen J. Greenblatt’s recent piece in the New York Times, which presented an extended metaphor comparing Trump to the Shakespearean villain Richard III.
Across disciplines, Harvard faculty are studying Trump’s sudden rise, popularity, and style in the unique contexts of their respective fields.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—whose resume includes First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State—is often seen as more representative of the traditional mindset of the political establishment. Trump’s background as a businessman, rather than a politician, has energized a frustrated segment of the American electorate, many professors say.
“His recognition of a constituency that other people weren’t seeing gave him a strong starting point,” says Allen, the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and a professor in at the Graduate School of Education.
She views Trump’s early and continued involvement in the “birther movement,” which falsely asserts that President Barack Obama is not a natural-born U.S. citizen, as a significant advantage to him electorally.
Following his support of the “birther constituency,” Allen says Trump has been able to garner support from groups unhappy with the current political system, such as rural voters.
“The dominant policy paradigms are much more oriented towards urban experience than to rural experience, and have been insufficiently attentive to the impacts of economic change on the working class,” Allen says. “So there’s another constituency... that doesn’t feel aligned with either of the major parties and is therefore available... Trump found a way of connecting to that constituency.”
In a similar vein, Dr. Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in the Government Department whose academic work focuses on the theory of liberal democracy, sees Trump supporters as engaging in a kind of provincial rebellion.
“If you think of liberal democracy in a quite minimalist way of translating popular views into popular policies... I think Trump is a democrat—though he might be dangerous to democracy—but he does really speak for a [certain group of] people,” Mounk says. “There are people who feel far away from the metropolises, the places that matter culturally, where things are decided, where the power lies.”
Brett Flehinger, a lecturer in the History Department who teaches “American Populisms: Thomas Jefferson to the Tea Party + Trump,” says that Trump’s appeal to this alienated voting population harkens back to historical instances of demagoguery in broad populist movements.
“There are a lot of aspects of Trump we’ve seen before,” he says. “A constant focus of populism [is] this fear that ‘the people’ are going to be dispossessed by the elite, an elite that wields economic and political power.
That sense of corruption, that sense of dispossession, that sense that elections—or systems—can be rigged against you... that sense that there are outsiders and insiders, all of that is there.”
In Trump—who has made his “outsider” status a main focal point of his campaign—voters have found a champion of their anti-establishment movement. Flehinger sees anti-establishmentism as analogous to populist movements in the 19th century.
“That figure of the people, that rises from the people and represents them, is pretty notable,” Flehinger says.
In addition to Trump’s populist appeal, many professors believe Trump’s stances on these issues attract voters who feel left behind due to globalization.
“All through the history of the stability of liberal democracy, we’ve seen basically the standards of living rise from one generation to the next, and that’s no longer the case,” Mounk says. “From 1935 to 1960, the standard of living doubles, from 1960 to 1985 it doubles, from 1985 [to the present] it’s basically flat… It’s not necessarily people who are badly off who are voting for Trump, but I think economic insecurity has a lot to do with it.”
Trump has called for an overhaul of international trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which he has called “failures,” and a weakening of economic ties between America and other countries, specifically China and Mexico.
“He’s managed to construct a narrative which suggests that a combination of trade and immigration are responsible for the erosion of manufacturing jobs in the United States,” professor Robert Z. Lawrence, who specializes in international trade and investment at the Kennedy School of Government says. “This plays particularly well in certain parts of the midwest, which happen to be swing states, and among middle aged, typically white and less well educated, men.”
However, Lawrence believes these voters’ worries will not be ameliorated by the trade policies Trump suggests.
“In contrast to what Trump says, most economic studies say that NAFTA had only a small impact on the U.S. economy,” he says. “The aggregate evidence isn’t consistent with the story that NAFTA caused a crisis and the studies suggest that the trade volumes with Mexico are not very significant anyway.”’
On immigration, too, Trump finds support with a nativist “America first” philosophy. Some Harvard faculty members believe this stems from Americans’ concerns with domestic security, a fear of displacement by immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East, and a nostalgia among the electorate for a perceived period of prosperity, reflected in Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again!”
“Fortress America is always a more appealing narrative than the more complicated notion of risky globalization,” Juliette N. Kayyem, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School and a national security advisor for Clinton, says. Kayyem cites the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernadino, and Orlando as events Trump should’ve emphasized in his campiagn. “And if New York, New Jersey had been successful, the narrative was there for him,” she says.
Nonetheless, several professors note that Trump’s isolationist rhetoric on immigration still has significant appeal.
“His vision is a vision of, let’s face it, a white man’s democracy, in which white men had jobs, they received pride and dignity in their work, there was not very much immigration, you looked around you and it was a segregated world,” John Stauffer, a professor of English and African American Studies, explains. “Racism is socially unacceptable, but [he says], ‘Make America Great Again,’ [and] it’s a tacit way of saying, ‘let’s return both economically to a time in which there were far greater restrictions [on] immigration and whites had jobs.’”
Linda J. Bilmes, a senior lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School, also stresses the significance of Trump’s call for a return to the past. “I think it’s a vision that is grounded in nostalgia—a nostalgia for a world that was simpler, where trade was not global, where technology had not eroded the U.S. manufacturing base, where the population was more homogenous… which I think does explain some of the appeal.”
Timothy P. McCarthy, a lecturer on History and Literature and a program director at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, sees Trump’s status as a wealthy businessman, though not directly related to immigration, as part of the explanation of his constituents’ fascination with a bygone era of growth. He speculates that Americans who have fallen on tough economic times view Trump as a representation of prosperity. “For people who understand in real economic terms that the American Dream is at best an aspiration if not a fiction, I think Donald Trump represents that last gasp or glimpse of the American Dream that they’ve always wanted to believe in,” he says.
In spreading his nostalgic message, Trump has managed to attract an unprecedented amount of media attention—often without paying for advertising. A number of Harvard faculty members attribute this phenomenon to Trump’s demagogic persona and widespread fame.
“It matters that he is a TV celebrity and that celebrity is a new source of power,” Kayyem says. “[Celebrity status] has always been a source of power, but it has gained greater traction now because of social media and he was able to tap into that celebrity power in a very significant way,”
Abramson believes Trump’s high name recognition and background in television has both saturated his exposure and prepared him for the bombastic campaign he has run over the past 18 months. “In many ways, the ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ was a perfect training ground for him,” she says. “Trump is clickbait, and he’s a ratings bonanza for broadcast media.”
Trump’s ability to connect with the electorate goes beyond his fame or his knack for entertaining, Abramson says.
Over the course of his campaign, he has employed a rhetorical style that taps into Americans’ feelings of alienation, insecurity, fear, and nostalgia in much the same way that his policy proposals do, many professors note.
“Regardless of whether or not you have anything to do with his politics—or even know what they are—Donald Trump is a showman, and his energy creates a charisma that is hard to look away from,” McCarthy says. “When you combine that with the fact that his way of communicating is also rooted in an ‘us versus them’ binary view of the world—‘disaster’ or ‘greatness’ everybody is either a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser,’ etc.—it simplifies complex things for people who are really looking for a simpler worldview.”
McCarthy compares Trump’s rhetorical style to Ronald Reagan’s, and describes his ability to break down complex ideas into digestible messages as a unique strength.
“Great communicators... can take nuance and sophistication and complexity and make them readily accessible and crystal-clear for audiences. I think Trump does that for his electorate in a way that resonates, though he often crosses the line into manipulation,” he says.
Harvard professors have no doubt that—win or lose—Trump will have a significant impact on the future of American politics.
“My biggest fear is if Trump [becomes] president, that the US would [become] irrelevant,” Kayyem says. “In other words, not that we would [be] bad or good, but that the world would... bypass the US.”
Mounk expresses concern that, regardless of who is elected president, the future of politics in the United States may be defined by a cleavage that runs contrary to American values.
“There’s these moments where you have political realignment and suddenly the thing that defines what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican changes,” he says. “The main dividing line may no longer be economics… but it may wind up being about race.”
Lawrence believes the rhetoric surrounding trade in this election may shift public opinion towards an anti-trade sentiment.
“[Bernie Sanders and Trump] both promoted a skepticism about trade and I think have raised doubts about its advantages,” he says. “So it is going to be a more difficult environment in which to negotiate trade agreements looking out into the future.”
Allen views Trump’s impact as having much broader implications.
“I think lots of people are talking about this as if, if Trump loses, that’s the end of that sort of Trump phenomenon. To the contrary, Trump has shown a pathway that’s available for political entrepreneurs, other people will try to make use of it,” she says. “He has highlighted some of our hardest cultural, social, and political questions, and, in that regard, I think he has laid a table for what our political struggles will be for the coming decade.”