Across the country, college campuses were places of mourning and confusion after Trump’s presidential victory. Students were alternately stupefied and terrified. At Harvard, professors postponed exams and assignments the day after the election, to accommodate students who felt blindsided. Many professors gave up on planned lectures, devoting class periods to discussion instead, where students could process their horror.
At Hampshire College in Amherst, students lowered the flag on campus as a “reaction to the toxic tone of the monthslong election,” as the college said in a statement. And the University of Pennsylvania organized a “breathing space” for traumatized students, which, by one account, included “cuddling with cats and a puppy, coloring and crafting, and snacks such as tea and chocolate.” My own institution, the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, was among those that offered counseling services to students troubled by election results.
Liberal college students may mourn, but they must also gird themselves for battle, because the next four years under Donald Trump will be all-out war. The president-elect is horribly sensitive, vengeful, an impulsive liar, prone to issuing outrageous and caustic unsubstantiated remarks. He has made radical and devastating promises on issues that the left, and frankly, a lot of moderates, care deeply about: health care reform, the environment, gun control. If he looks to act on any of those radical promises, opponents must put up a serious fight. It will not be pretty or polite.
In short: it will be a crash course in politics as such. And not a moment too soon.
Because many on the left, and especially their young devotees, are in need of this painful lesson.
At Emory University in Atlanta last spring, many students were irate to find the words “Trump 2016” scrawled on sidewalks across campus. The university president granted them a hearing, and released a statement afterwards saying the students were reacting to perceived intimidation in the slogan chalked across campus. Yes, intimidation is Trump’s nature. But it’s preposterous to protest the leading Republican candidate’s name emblazoned on campus in the middle of an election.
It raises the question: do students expect to be protected from reality outside their campus bubble, when that reality is harsh and unbecoming?
As we enter the era of Trump, liberal college students should accept the rude nature of politics. For some time, many on the left seem to have assumed that politics should be polite, safe, and rational, and should generally end in compromise. Politicians are not to be tolerated, this logic goes, if they so much as hint at bigotry, or rudeness.
But tumult is natural for democracy. The Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe claims that politics is intrinsically rife with contest and competition, and that modern democracies have forgotten this at their own peril. Political negotiation, deliberation, and dispute are supposed to be passionate. Amid the passion, prejudices are aired. It is far more dangerous, she argues, when such feelings are repressed, resentment simmers, and then explodes in bouts of apolitical violence, which risks upending the state.
A chief complaint leveled against Trump from the left is that he is a bigot, and has dragged the country back in time by making bigotry acceptable again. Following Mouffe’s lead, I would say it is far better to have existing prejudices outed and exposed, even when many are offended. It’s not as if those noxious views didn’t exist before Trump. No, they were swept under the rug, or ignored, or silenced by political correctness. It is far better to address and resolve prejudices if those who utter them are forced to own up to them. Then Americans can see how tired and empty and instinctually hate-filled such opinions are.
But this much is clear: Trump will not make America white again. He will not roll back gay marriage, or outlaw abortion. He will not return women to the 1950s.
He will, however, work to undo Obama’s expansion of health insurance to millions of lower- and middle-class Americans. Trump will push tax cuts that favor the wealthy and corporations, and deregulate the investment banks whose risky behavior precipitated the last recession. Trump will undermine public education in the name of “school choice.” In the process, he will exacerbate our growing inequality — inequality, we are told, that spawned the anger behind his movement in the first place, anger that he happily stokes, and nurtures, and which threatens to pull society apart at the seams.
The left should neither normalize Trump’s bigotry nor be paralyzed by it. College students shouldn’t let themselves be left traumatized and aghast with each insult and obscene remark that falls from Trump’s lips — because they will be legion. His bigotry is a smokescreen, concealing the real danger of his presidency.
Liberals and their young apprentices must lose their sensitivity — and fast.Firmin DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, is the author of the book “Do Guns Make us Free?” Follow him on Twitter @firdebrabander.