Trump Changed U.S. Politics. Now He's Changing Political Science

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Donald Trump isn’t just disrupting politics. He’s disrupting political science.

Since the 2016 election, the president’s unorthodox behavior has breached the ivory tower, forcing professors to rip up their syllabuses, rewrite textbooks, start new lines of research, and craft entirely new course offerings.

Professors say Trump has shattered long-held assumptions about how presidential elections are won, as well as the unwritten rules that govern U.S. institutions and America’s relations with other countries.

Maurice Cunningham, a politics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said Trump’s presidency forced him to substantially revise the syllabus for an “Introduction to American Politics” course for the first time since he began teaching it during the Clinton administration.

“I don’t want him to drown out 230 years of the American experiment, you know?” he said. “But you have to account for him.”

Nationalism 101

The Trump administration has also helped revive interest in topics like nationalism and the decline of democracy that they often skipped over or touched on lightly, academics say.

“When I was in graduate school, democratic erosion was not a topic we considered when we studied the U.S.,” said Brendan Nyhan, a politics professor at Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire. “Now, it’s an active concern.”

After Trump’s win in 2016, Nyhan was among a group of professors who launched Bright Line Watch, a research effort aimed at monitoring the general health of American democracy.

For students who are in some cases still teenagers, Trump’s election is the “biggest political event of their lives,” and they have serious questions about how American politics works, Nyhan said.

By some measures, Trump appears to be driving more students to study domestic politics -- the kind of surge last seen on the subject of foreign policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

Changing Syllabuses

A survey of department chairs by the American Political Science Association, a professional association for academics, found that 49% more department chairs reported higher enrollment in undergraduate political science courses in the 2016-2017 academic year than the year before.

The Open Syllabus Project, which has collected about 7 million syllabuses for college courses from 80 countries, shows how the readings are changing.

The 171 readings that specifically mention President George W. Bush in the title that were assigned in multiple college courses mostly focus on national security, foreign policy and leadership, while the 144 that mention President Barack Obama were mostly about race, health care and communications.

For Trump, the 20 readings added so far are about populism, nationalism, authoritarianism and polarization.

At Princeton University, politics professor Keith Whittington drafted an entire course on constitutional topics involving Trump last spring, ranging from emoluments -- the act of profiting from public office -- to the 25th Amendment, which spells out the process for removing a president. When more than the maximum of 140 students signed up, he promised to teach it again this fall.

Controversy Du Jour

“It just didn’t make sense to teach basically the same kind of class that I’ve taught in the past,” he said.

But Trump-focused classes can be difficult to teach. Whittington said he always feared that the president would tweet out some contentious idea just before class and he’d have to include it in the day’s discussion without much preparation.

Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, said he’s taken the opposite approach: avoiding the controversy of the day in favor of focusing on the fundamentals.

“The risk of that sort of approach is that the syllabus is outdated as soon as you write it,” he said. “If you try to keep up with the insanity of the times, you’d have to keep revisiting it.”

Notable Cases

So far, Blackman said the only Supreme Court case he’s added to his class was about Trump’s 2017 ban on visas for travel to the U.S. from a slate of majority-Muslim countries, and he already removed it from this year’s syllabus. He said he’s unsure if it will prove to be significant enough in the long run to merit inclusion in the next edition of a textbook he coauthored.

Dana Allin, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy and transatlantic affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said he wrestles with how to respond to the constantly changing news cycle under Trump.

As editor of a bimonthly journal, Allin said it’s hard to tell which things are worth spending time on. Recently, he wrote a short blog post on Trump’s desire to buy Greenland from Denmark, even though he knew it had no chance of success.

“If you try to ignore things as being too silly or ridiculous to write about, you’re ignoring what’s happening,” he said. “It’s possible as analysts to be overly preoccupied with the Twitter feed of Donald Trump, but on the other hand you can’t make the opposite mistake of pretending that it’s not significant. It’s all so exhausting.”

A Professor’s ‘Godsend’

Even as Trump has disrupted politics, professors caution that he’s not as unprecedented as he might seem in some areas.

Gary Jacobson, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, said Trump has exacerbated a long-running trend toward political polarization in congressional elections. He cited the 2018 midterms, in which Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, as a case study.

But he said that Trump’s more unusual attacks on institutions -- including the press, the judiciary and the Federal Reserve -- are instructive for students during discussion.

Jacobson said that Trump makes a “wonderful teaching device” in class because of his “totally off-the-wall presidency,” noting that researchers look at outliers to better understand the norms that are often left unspoken.

“From a teaching aspect, he’s a godsend,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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