How Academe Helped to Elect Trump

President Trump scares academe. Many feel threatened, under siege, rejected, aghast. Eric Klineberg, professor of sociology at New York University, summed up this anxiety a few days after the election: “My pulse raced and my blood pressure spiked when I realized that Donald Trump would be president. I felt afraid.”

Trump’s victory, he adds, is “a repudiation of everything that universities stand for: free speech, open inquiry, inclusion, and civility; reason, and the relentless pursuit of truth and wisdom.” We now live in a “post-truth era.”

That last reference, of course, is to what many of Trump’s critics say is his common distortion of reality, flagrant lies, and preference for “alternative facts.” It is also a reference to what Klineberg calls his “disdain for academic norms and values.”

Yet what’s lost amid all the lamenting is that academe has been shredding many of those norms and values for some time. Except perhaps in the hard sciences, it has by and large rejected the idea that objective truth exists or that obtaining wisdom might be possible; it maintains that things such as human nature, psychology, and gender identity are social constructs; it asserts that language is self-referential and hegemonic, merely reflecting the interests and values of society’s powerful and elite; and it embraces moral, epistemological, and cultural relativism. In short, it embodies postmodernism.

This ideology helped pave the way for Trump.

I’m not saying that academe is directly responsible for his election, but that it shares many of the characteristics that it criticizes the president for: abandoning universal reason; rejecting common values; seeing language primarily as a tool of manipulation; and eschewing tradition, to give a few examples.

As a result, academe has lost the high ground to present its “norms and values” as an alternative to what it portrays as the nihilism of the nascent Trump administration. Its denunciations ring hollow.

I witnessed this firsthand at a conference I recently attended. The feelings of dejection and dismay were palpable. There was much commiserating and disbelief. During the plenary session, the moderator and panelists felt a need to reassure the audience—and themselves, I suppose. They were defensive, reactionary, and, at times, preachy. They called for soul-searching—“Where do we belong?”—and for getting to the root of campus-climate issues. It is time, said one panelist, for the “acknowledgement of racism” inherent in the structure of higher education.

There were additional calls for action: academics should learn to communicate their ideas to the broader public; help students become better media consumers; and teach more critical thinking and civics. Also raised were the lack of civility in public discourse and the need for common ground in these fractious times.

To that end, the moderator called for restoring non-negotiable principles, and quoted the last paragraph of Lincoln’s first inaugural address where he reminded both Northerners and Southerners of the common values they shared and would reclaim once they were “touched…by the better angels of our nature.”

Not mentioned was that those values included “patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land,” as well as Lincoln’s fundamental belief in the founding principles of the nation, the Constitution, and “universal law.”

I’m not impugning the moderator’s sincerity in quoting Lincoln. Rather, I find it an interesting choice, given that the things in which Lincoln found common ground—patriotism, the justness of America’s system of government, its “favored” status, Christianity, even religion itself—are anathema to many in academe.

Lincoln knew that American democracy wasn’t perfect. But he did not work from the premise that it was fundamentally flawed or that the founders created a system of government that was inherently racist or designed primarily to protect the interests and values of the wealthy and the politically and socially elite.

His faith in the core principles and values of American democracy was his starting a point—his non-negotiable premise for common understanding and the basis for discourse through which people, though impassioned, could speak to each other and engage in genuine dialogue. He believed in words and the power of language, not as a tool of manipulation, but as a means through which people could reach a common understanding, cultivate civility, and shape a shared identity.

Academe has largely given up on such things. For decades it has been turning out students who are ignorant of tradition and the knowledge that has been learned and accumulated over time. Too many leave colleges and universities not only ignorant (if not outright disdainful) of U.S. history and the Western tradition, but also ignorant of the reasons for the values they proclaim, such as toleration, diversity, human rights, and freedom of speech.

They believe those values are important, but they do not know why they are important, why they developed, why they might be different or the same, and in what respects. They possess not knowledge but assumptions, dogmas, or opinions at best. They lack the wherewithal to reach common ground.

This great failure, not only of higher education, but of education at all levels in American society, best explains the election of Trump.

For too long academe has been smug about its own assumptions, dogmas, and opinions. It has been unwilling to seek common ground with those with whom it has disagreed.

Now, when everything it claims to stand for is being repudiated, threatened, even undermined, it can only struggle to figure out where it belongs.

Unfortunately, when you start soul-searching in the midst of uncertainty, where you belong is likely to be determined for you.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    Why are we confusing the cognitive dissonance following the election, post facto, with reasons for the outcome? Cognitive dissonance attended the election results, and was more evident in centers of higher education. There are many reasons for this, but none of these can be cited as having “helped” to elect the winner.

  • Jane Shaw

    This is an insightful essay. The author states that academe has rejected most traditional values and yet it is horrified when someone else seems to disdain those values, too, but in a different way.

    One is tempted to say to academics “told you so,” but the real question is how to bring back respect for others’ values. That is, scholars don’t have to be Christians but they should recognize how Christianity furthered the ideas they supposedly respect, one of which is freedom. They should see that schools like Thomas Aquinas, not Georgetown, are teaching their students about the struggles for intellectual, political, and religious freedom that characterized Western civilization more than other civilizations.

    I believe that there is a large group of non-political professors who retain respect for these values. Unfortunately, they are too quiet and they allow the outspoken, polarizing professors to hold sway and to influence students. When it comes to devising a core curriculum, for example, they leave it up to the faculty who are fighting to promote their own fields and interests. When they retire, they are replaced by more strident faculty who lack their predecessors’ education. I do not know how this is going to change.

    Jane S. Shaw

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      The real casualty in this past election is just that, traditional values.

      Academia may have “rejected most traditional values,” but this was also the outcome of the election just past, which has pushed us further from our values.

      As Sommerville reminds us in Chap 5, “Politics as Perpetual Campaign”, “Almost everyone is dismayed by the quality of American political campaigns and their lack of substance.” (1999:73)

      The controversy-engine, what Sommerville calls “news-driven politics,” has sifted the focus of elections even further away from values, rather than “retain respect for these values.”

      “The news doesn’t touch heavily on candidates’ views on issues or their general philosophies. … Basically the media think we are interested in ‘momentum’. … We get daily reports on who has this momentum. Woe betide the candidate who has ‘sparked little excitement’ recently. It won’t matter where he or she stands on the issues if the country is not ‘responding’. Such a candidate would never be able to offer the necessary leadership.

      “Thus political life begins to imitate soap opera: What gaff did candidate X make today? Did candidate Y offend candidate Z with the negative ad she ran? Did she apologize? Did he accept the apology? Did he do so with grace? Will he retaliate? Have we heard the last of this episode? This drama is more diverting than politics, which is concerned with the use of power, the allocation of resources, strategic planning” and values.

      “Traditional values” are the real casualty of this past election, and hopefully, the door is not now closed to us to return to a more halcyon age.

      • DrOfnothing

        Guy DeBord’s “Society of the Spectacle” is highly relevant here (though ironic to be recommending it in the comments of an article that clumsily slams postmodernism!).

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          In 1968, Guy Debord pointed out that political communication was adapting itself to the ‘spectacle’ frames and codes, meaning by ‘spectacle’ a “social relation mediated by images”, where “images become real beings”. According to Debord, in the society of the spectacle what is not spectacular does not succeed in gaining attention and audience: in such a society, citizens become nothing but spectators. (From “Consensus and democratic legitimacy: Political Marketing versus Political Philosophy,” Mori Luca, online, 2010)

          Citizens becoming nothing but Spectators that are less and less interested in actually voting in elections — much to the distress of those espousing the belief that they (voters and elections) manifest “values.”

          Even if this were true, what does it signify if half of the electorate don’t vote, and the losing candidate garners more votes than the winner? Doesn’t this mean the “values” significance of elections is overly naive?

          • DrOfnothing

            The implications are considerable. I would argue that we need to re-examine three primary elements:

            1.) The divorcing of the political establishment from the interests of the voters. Money-driven politics (and Art Pope is a huge part of this, which is why the JMC’s critique of an “establishment elite” is so hypocritical) are a big part of this. The 365-day election cycle and 24-hour media culture are both corrosive to democracy.

            2.) The disconnect between political language and political principles. The way terms like “Fascist,” “Statist,” “Progressive,” “Authoritarian,” “Liberal,” etc. are thrown around by authors and commentators here (and those in authority are the worst offenders) is simply absurd. 90% of the time they are used incorrectly as a form of insult, and it abrogates all hope of rational discussion.

            3.) The domination of politics by, on the one hand, a segregated media culture that feeds voters only their own prejudices, and on the other, a democratic system that is no longer democratic, giving disproportionate influence to primary voters, large donors, and the rural electorate. Part of this is gerrymandering, part of this is the Electoral College, and part of this is Citizen’s United.


            Honestly, reading JMC articles is the most depressing thing I do all day. The degree to which even the most sensible reforms are rejected because they are mildly progressive, while the most extreme and injudicious measures are praised because they hew to rigid ideological tests is a sure sign of just how dysfunctional American politics has become.

          • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

            There is a lot to think about and respond to here.

            I agree with 1.) “The 365-day election cycle and 24-hour media culture are both corrosive to democracy.” This was Sommerville’s prophetic warning almost 20 years ago, and his worst fears have come to pass. (See Mori Luca below.)

            But in regard to the presidential election, an important point needs to be made — the winner side-stepped the media (explains some of the animus between them), and he also side-stepped conservative money-masters! According to the analysis below by Kevin Baker (if you can get past the title, which is ironic), this is why Trump’s victory is unique.


            There are two things in here, a hilarious video of Trump literally dismantling a teleprompter (see Youtube link) and this quote, which really and truly needs to be read in context of the entire article:

            “The trouble with Trump is that he remains authentically inauthentic. He represents no specific place or culture; has no real belief system, no vision of America beyond the subjugation of those he despises. He speaks to no tradition, can claim no true accomplishment beyond not squandering *all* of the money that his father left him. He doesn’t read, doesn’t question, doesn’t think beyond his own, reflexive outrage. He is a sad product of rape culture, a mass of inchoate desires who barely exists in the tactile world.”

            “All too many of his followers reflect his intellectual passivity and his knee-jerk alienation. They lent a dangerous, violent, often grotesque edge to his rallies, and they’re obviously not going away anytime soon. But the greater problem is that they’re right about so much. Like Trump himself, they can’t or won’t focus their anger on the right targets, and their racist and sexist tangents are obscene. But the system **is** rigged. It’s bought and sold through a political merchandising class whose amoral, purely mercenary priorities overran Washington—and whatever principles the Clintons may have once possessed—long ago.”

            So, coming back to the question about “values,” these paragraphs that I picked out state baldly that there are no values here, and the reason why.

            2.) The disconnect between political language and political principles. ….

            This is also the issue analyzed by Mori Luca, “Consensus and democratic legitimacy: Political Marketing versus Political Philosophy,” available online, 2010.

            3.) The domination of politics by, on the one hand, a segregated media culture that feeds voters only their own prejudices, and on the other, a democratic system that is no longer democratic …

            I agree. Yes, sadly, politics has become news, which has absorbed it almost completely. Numerous reasons exist why our “democratic system … is no longer democratic.” Luca’s article is rich with ideas and references.

      • ronwf

        The news media doesn’t cover the campaigns in order to inform us about the issues and policies and how the candidates would resolve them. The news media covers the campaigns in order to make money, and the state of our society’s understanding (or lack thereof …) of civics is such that sensationalism gets far more eyeballs (= $) than rational discourse of what the massive fraction of your income that will be taken (by force, if necessary) from you.

  • DrOfnothing

    No, postmodernism did not help elect Trump, that is utter nonsense.

    And no, the values of modern academic culture are not the same impetus that motivates either him or those who voted for them. They are polar opposites.

    Trump had overwhelming support among those without college degrees, and very little support from those with them. It is logical to conclude that college is being largely successful in instilling a resistance to his lies and appeals to fear.

    Postmodernism addresses the fundamental structures that underlie “accepted truth.” It seeks to understand how authority and knowledge are connected. Without the concepts it has helped introduce, 99% of the analysis done by cultural and political commentators (like the author) would be impossible, since postmodernist thinkers have supplied both the language and theory by which we currently understand the operation of ideology (the author’s topic, though he never names it).

    Postmodernism is not one of those ideologies, its not even a term that those who are classified as “postmodernist” use in the first place.

    A college education instils a respect rational argument supported by evidence. Trump simply makes things up (e.g. the wire-tapping, US murder rate, immigrant crime tendencies, etc.).

    A college education invites serious reflection and critical engagement. Trump responds angrily to any disagreement.

    University faculty are motivated by curiosity to uncover new knowledge, that’s why they spend 11 years in training before they step into a classroom. Trump is motivated by narcissism to seek adoration, and he has no expertise or qualifications whatsoever.

    The author’s preferred structure of beliefs is actually far closer, in form though not in specifics, to Trumpism than modern academia is. Despite his impulsiveness, ignorance, and lack of ethics, Trump appealed to “values” voters who sought a return to the “traditional” society that the author advocates (again, not exactly the same tradition, but the same general vein), and was most successful among evangelical Christians and those who had not had the opportunity to attend college. If Trump voters had gone to college, as voting patterns clearly reveal, they would have gained the critical thinking skills and respect for rational, informed decision-making that he so vehemently rejects.

    • ronwf

      “A college education aims to instil a respect for rigorous argument supported by evidence.”

      No, it does not. It seeks to instill a specific world view very often supported by no more than feelings and self-righteousness and ostracizes anyone who dares to attempt to bring up evidence that there are other valid philosophies or facts. People who try to do so are isolated academically and socially. Professors encourage students to not only resist hearing people who have other points of view, they tell them that expressing such points of view is equivalent to violence, which has resulted in students and others justifying preventing such people from being heard by ANYONE on campus by any means possible, including violent rioting.

      “A college education invites serious reflection and critical engagement.”

      No, it does not. It not only invites but requires students to simply parrot back what the completely unbalanced (in a social and political fashion) faculty tells them – or else. THEY “respond angrily to any disagreement” and “resort to ad hominem attacks on those [they] disagree with”. There is no diversity on campus at all. Understand that I’m not talking about the superficial “diversity” that the campuses stress – things like race, ethnicity, etc. I’m talking about actual diversity in thought, especially among the faculty. That kind of diversity is in VERY short supply on campus.

      • DrOfnothing

        This is just opinion, and not grounded in either personal experience or any evidence you have provided.

        • ronwf

          True. Let me ask you, then; how many incidents of speakers being no-platformed, disinvited due to protests, shouted down or otherwise disrupted when they spoke or had people take the stage and stop a speaker entirely on American campuses will you find online? How many of them were liberal as opposed to conservative speakers? How many such activities were praised by faculty members? How often has a student group been required to spend $1000’s on security when a liberal speaker comes to campus?

          Diversity? Look at the list of activities shown coming up at this school on this web site. How many of them present a conservative viewpoint?

          • DrOfnothing

            Ok, I give up. how many times? Do you have some statistics on this. Anecdotal evidence isn’t definitive.

            Which school on which website? UNC on this one? This is a lobbying group/think-tank that self-identifies as being NeoCon/Conservative, so it would be rather naive to look here for an unbiased view.

          • ronwf

            For question #1, A quick Google search will show you dozens of such. For question #2, mea culpa – I was on my phone at that point and I thought I was on the Millbury College web site answering a comment there. My apologies!

          • ‘Merican in CA✓ᵀʳᵘᵐᵖ

            This is a self identified Conservative think tank? Which do you consider yourself; representative of it, or dissenting? Your point of view seems indistinguishable from that of the deluded academians this article describes. I say this because you describe an ideal as if it were reality, but it is not. That takes personal wisdom to accept, or not. I would say @ronwf speaks from survival wisdom, aka experience and common sense. No amount of academic debating will beat personally gained knowledge. My take on this debate, @ronwf is facing reality, but you are arguing against it, for a personal fantasy.

            If your POV represents this think tanks POV, then God help Conservatism. Or rather, Trump help it.

  • JRDF

    The synopsis of the 2016 presidential election is : “I am not a bigot.”

    What did the folks of the “Blue Wall” (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania) learn from the 2008 & 2012 Presidential elections?
    Answer: No matter how many times they voted for Barack Obama, they would still be called bigots.

    Or Trump is Obama’s legacy (born from Obama’s identity politics.)

    This is what close-minded, self-righteous, sanctimonious academics do not understand about the election. They will say that bigots are who elected Trump, and disregard the fact that those “bigots” voted for Barack Obama twice.


    This is the same for academia and it’s diversity cult (academia’s version of identity politics). It doesn’t matter how many times students acquiesce to academia’s authoritarian diversity indoctrination. Academia will still assume and condemn the students (the most tolerant generation ever) [and their parents, communities, spiritual mentors, etc.] as being bigots { — because academia (and its world-view) has learned that the diversity scam is a wind-fall financially, as well as electorally.}

    [For the simple minded (aka academics) — one does not oppose diversity, but one opposes the government bureaucrats (= academia) enforcing and micromanaging (its version of) diversity on students. Here is a clue: AUTHENTIC human relationships are … Voluntary.]

    The real world outside of academia sees the campus crazies for what they really are — a cocoon of self-serving, group-think. Academia’s world view and egos are challenged when they step outside the ivory towers; and that just won’t do.

    The author is correct in that academia helped elect Trump. Ironically, many in society see academia in the same light that academia sees itself: Politicians, media, Hollywood, and academia are the elitist aristocracy that should (micro-)manage the lives of the peasants.

    There is more knowledge at Harvard, but there is more wisdom at Walmart. Folks who are financially required to shop at Walmart have more wisdom about surviving the real world, than the sheltered, entitled academics who deign to lord themselves over the rest of society.

    Real people are coming to recognize that this is the same OLD threat to freedom that keeps raising it’s ugly head:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of
    its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under
    robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber
    baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be
    satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us
    without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” CS LEWIS

    “There is a certain class of race problem-solvers who don’t want
    the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they
    have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium
    through which to make themselves prominent before the public.” BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

  • JRDF

    Traditional values v/s the values of progressives in the university
    see here: