For the past six months, my colleagues and I at the small university town of Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales have been watching Donald Trump's presidency with our students.
We stayed up all night on 8 November, live screening the results of the presidential election as voting closed across the United States, with several of us offering running commentary - especially my colleague Warren Dockter, a fellow American whose enthusiasm for the subject was undiminished even after explaining the intricacies of the Electoral College system. By dawn on 9 November, more than fifty students and staff had spent the night in a room decorated with red, white and blue balloons, eating pizza, discussing politics and being watched by a BBC Wales camera crew.
We held a roundtable discussion towards the end of November, looking back over the campaign, the election results and trying to make some predictions about what a Trump administration might look like and how the United States - described by one speaker as a revolutionary state, now - might develop.
We live screened the inauguration on 20 January, again providing some running commentary and a Q&A session that turned into an extended discussion with the audience, which included members of the local community as well as university staff and students.
Most recently, just earlier this week in fact, we put together another round table discussion to assess Trump's first 100 days in office, considering his impact on the United States and the wider world and touching on such topics as climate change, refugees and immigration, the controversies surrounding Trump's relationship with Moscow. While there was a consensus among the speakers that the administration's approach to policy and policymaking is chaotic and unpredictable, a member of the audience challenged us to consider the case for the opposite view: that Trump's policy agenda is actually coherent and predictable and involves empowering corporate America at the expense of the working people who voted for him.
As a Department of International Politics with a founding mission to "tell the world about the world", we regularly organise public events about contemporary political issues. Rarely, though, do we return to the same topic again and again within such a short space of time, as we have done in the case of Trump.
Our decision to hold a series of events focussed on Trump has not been uncontroversial within the Department. Some have argued that we are devoting too much attention, not only to Trump, but also to the United States. The worry here is that we are sending the message to our students that international politics can best be understood from a top-down, American-centric and Western-centric focus. (For the record, few, if any, of my colleagues would agree with that view.)
Whether we have been guilty of putting too much emphasis on Trump or not, we have certainly learned some important things through these events:
- Our students are fascinated by Trump. Through necessity we have had to hold some events at times that are not very student friendly - during the height of essay deadline season, during exams, on a Bank Holiday - but the numbers turning out have been consistently high and the level of engagement has been excellent. We have ranged widely over many issue areas, and Trump has proved to be a useful point from which to introduce new ways of thinking about the United States and its place in the world, and to reassess familiar ones.
- The way our students relate to Trump is clearly influenced by who they are. This was most visible to me during election night. Many of the female students were visibly disappointed that there would not be a woman president and apprehensive about the implications for women everywhere of the election of such an openly misogynist candidate. Most of the male students seemed more sanguine, comfortable that they were watching historic events from a safe distance. There was also a small group of (British, male) students wearing red "Make American Great Again" baseball caps, who cheered for Trump throughout the night.
- We can take nothing for granted about the way that political systems work or the durability of those systems, even in mature democracies. As scholars who study politics for a living, we need to re-examine our methodological and conceptual tools, and be open to learning lessons from colleagues who study very different types of states. Insights from the study of authoritarian regimes are becoming more and more valuable, including insights from those whose daily lives are shaped by such regimes.
- Our students ask good questions and are not afraid to challenge us. I have been particularly struck by the willingness of our first year undergraduates to question our analysis, and the excellent reasons they give for so doing. We are lucky to have such bright, articulate and engaged students.
I am sure that Trump will have given us more to think by the time the new academic year starts in the autumn, and I hope we will be up to the challenge of finding suitable ways to respond.