35 thinkers on “what Trump showed us about America”

Politico assembled a group that includes Northwestern historian Leslie Harris, First Things writer Mark Bauerlein, public intellectual Francis Fukuyama, American Conservative editor Helen Andrews, The Bulwark editor Charles Sykes, Hoover Institution fellow Larry Diamond, writer and professor Tom Nichols, and UW-Madison political scientist Katherine Cramer.

Here is the introduction to the piece:

The world has spent the past four years obsessing over President Donald Trump: his biography, his ideology, his speech, his tweets, his moods, his health, his hair. But what did the Trump era teach us about ourselves, and the country he was elected to lead?

Trump’s presidency has been a four-year war on many people’s assumptions about what was and wasn’t “American”—what a leader can call people in public, which institutions really matter, whether power lies with elites or masses. And it has forced serious arguments about what information, and what version of our history, we can even agree on.

With four years of Trump nearly behind us, Politico Magazine asked a group of smart political and cultural observers to tell us what big, new insight this era has given them about America—and what that insight means for the country’s future.

Many were alarmed to discover that our political institutions and norms are more fragile than they thought. Others pointed out the blind spots that members of the political and cultural elite have for the deep sense of dislocation and injustice that their fellow citizens feel. Some wrote optimistically about an America that is steadily becoming more diverse and inclusive, or one that has retained a powerful role in the world. Yet, even in the face of a common enemy—a once-in-a-century pandemic—“patriotism became a blunt instrument that Americans wielded against one another,” as one contributor put it.

Others questioned whether the disruptions of the past four years have really shaken us out of old patterns, and whether the political establishment has really been diminished. “The house always wins,” one wrote. And then there was this conclusion from another contributor: “At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Read the rest here.

Alan Jacobs to Evangelicals: If Character No Longer Counts, Then What Does Count?

Trump fans

In an essay in the Spring 2017 issue of National Affairs, Baylor humanities professor Alan Jacobs wonders why so many evangelicals no longer value character in their presidential candidates.  He writes:

One of the most surprising developments of the 2016 presidential campaign was the wholesale abandonment by many conservative Christians, including many Catholics and most evangelicals, of a position that they had once held almost unanimously: In politics, character counts. It is not difficult to understand how this happened, though people who share many fundamental religious convictions will be debating for a long time the wisdom of replacing the familiar standards for evaluating political candidates.

All this has received a good deal of attention in the press. But one very important element of this change of emphasis has been neglected: If character no longer counts, or at least is no longer definitive, then what does count? What criteria should determine a Christian’s attitude toward a political candidate? There is no uniform answer to this question, but the most common answer given by Christian leaders supporting Donald Trump is a troubling one. It replaces the public assessment of virtue with the private judgments of pastors. And it has consequences not only for Christianity in America, but also, thanks to the sheer number of Christians in America, for the whole social order and political culture of our country.

The piece critiques the pro-Trump arguments of William Bennett, R.R. Reno, Mark Bauerlein, Jerry Falwell Jr., David Barton, and others.

Read it here.

What Is Causing the Drop in Humanities Enrollments?


In 2007, when Drew Gilpin Faust became the 28th president of Harvard University, 25% of the undergraduates at the Ivy League school were majoring in the humanities.  Today that number has dropped to 14%.  Right now, only 6% of undergraduates are majoring in the humanities.  There is also a decline at Harvard in students taking classes in the humanities.

Faust relates the drop in the humanities to a surge in “vocationalism.”  Leon Wieseltier says the humanities decline is related to an “instrumentalist” or “utilitarian” culture. Humanities, he argues, is to cultivate citizens.  The humanities have “intrinsic” value.  He argues that the “enormity of the intellectual responsibility that a republic of opinion imposes on ordinary people” requires citizens who can think empathetically and thus contribute to our democracy.  I couldn’t agree more.

Faust and Wieseltier talks about the humanities in this video.  It is execellent–definitely worth your time.

Why are the humanities in crisis?  Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, offers an answer.  Unlike Faust and Wieseltier, he believes the real problem is identity politics.

Bauerlein writes at Minding the Campus blog:

…regarding the material state of the humanities today, what counts is whether such approaches that foreground social issues in works of art and literature are going to encourage more undergraduates to choose humanities majors and courses. Unlikely.

First of all, if a 20-year-old has a particular passion for racial, sexual, or other identity themes, chances are that he isn’t inclined to filter it through Shakespeare or Wagner or Woolf.  A few of them will, but not because of their identity interests.  History is a stronger possibility, we admit, but when our youth looks at the requirements for the History major, he will find much of it lies outside his interest.  If you’re fascinated with race in America, you don’t want to spend much time on the ancient and medieval worlds.  Much better to choose one of the “Studies” departments.

Second, if students do come into college loving Victorian novels or foreign films or Elizabethan drama or Beethoven, it probably isn’t due to the identity content of those materials.  They love Dickens because a high school English teacher dramatized Miss Betsey so well, or because the students identified with David Copperfield (which is a whole different kind of identity-formation than the one academics have in mind when they discuss identity).  It’s not that undergraduates already interested in the humanities discount identity issues.  They accept them as part of the work, certainly.  But those issues are not the source of inspiration.  The first draw isn’t race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., in American film.  It is Intolerance, City Lights, Ambersons, Vertigo . . .  Students want works of art first, social themes within them second.

Is this kind of identity politics keeping students away from the humanities?  Maybe. Perhaps this is the case at Emory or other universities.  I see some of it at Messiah College as well.

But I don’t think this is the primary problem.  I think Faust and Wieseltier understand the real problem.   So does Western Washington University professor Johann Neem, who recently shared this statement on social media:

I agree with Mark Bauerlein that the humanities need to do more than critique. We need to revive words like appreciate, learn, and inspire. BUT, I think his historical causation is wrong. People are not abandoning the humanities because of identity politics, but because of a) the creation of a mass neemuniversity in which many students arrive seeking economic, not intellectual, goods (even at Harvard); b) neoliberal framing of education that treats education as valuable only if it serves economic functions. The humanities, even if they went back to a bygone age, would still be bypassed. We need to take on neoliberalism to save the humanities.

As most of you know, I am a strong advocate of the idea that we need to get students to think about how their historical thinking skills are transferable in the marketplace. At the same time, I am a strong advocate for colleges that train people as citizens for a democracy.  So I agree wholeheartedly with Neem and his vision for the university.   I couldn’t have put it better.