Trumping populism: the worst has happened. What now?

As scholars in the UK and US mull the future after Trump’s triumph and Brexit, academics must focus on making society’s walls fall

November 17, 2016
Man riding bicycle past United States of America flag
Source: Getty

Donald Trump walks into a bar. “I’m the new president,” he says. “What is this, some kind of joke?” asks the barman.

It may be too soon to raise a laugh about the election of a man who, among other things, is due to face trial for fraud over his eponymous “university”. It’s not a terribly good joke anyway – apart from anything else, the barman would probably be a Trump voter.

What was clear on the morning of the US election result was that Hillary Clinton, the celebrities who brought ineffective glitter to her stump speeches, the majority of the media, and the polling professionals and academics who predicted a Democratic romp to victory had grossly misjudged the mood in Middle America.

In the barrooms of past-their-sell-by-date towns in the decaying industrial Rust Belt, the business tycoon described by his son as a “blue-collar guy with a bank balance” offered the only thing that many would vote for: the promise of something – anything – that wasn’t more of the same.

For those outside this demographic, however, it was a political shock of sufficient voltage to turn the hair of any left-leaning academic into a frazzled blond Trump-over.

With nerves still jangling around the world, this week we consider the implications of the result for higher education, both the likely policy changes, which we discuss in our news pages, and the position of universities and academics in such a divided society.

As has been pointed out by the president-elect himself, there are numerous parallels between the US election result and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (Trump said that a win for him would be “Brexit plus, plus, plus”).

In purely electoral terms, Brexit was delivered by an exceptionally high voter turnout, with a large group who don’t normally bother to vote swinging it for the Leave campaign.

In the US, the turnout wasn’t particularly high, but a significant chunk of those who did vote seem to have been people who usually stay at home, mobilising for Trump, while many former blue-collar Democrats who voted for Barack Obama either failed to do so for Clinton, or switched sides. There were also parallels in the differences in voting among the young (majority Remain/Clinton) and old (majority Leave/Trump) and college- or university-educated (Remain/Clinton, although with some variation by race and sex) versus those without a degree (Leave/Trump).

These demographic dividing lines present a huge problem for universities and academics: what and who they represent; how they are viewed and understood; and how scholars can preach their message of evidence, rational argument and liberal values to groups other than the converted.

Another barroom philosopher, Tim Martin, the millionaire boss of the UK pub chain Wetherspoon, summarised the view that many have of universities in a recent interview about his support for Brexit. “Modern people think [that] because they don’t go to church they’re more sophisticated and don’t have a religion. But I think what the EU became was a quasi-religion for that sector of society. And universities are the modern-day seminaries,” he said.

A week after Trump’s ascension to the job that was supposed to be beyond the reach of a rabble-rousing reality television star, many people who work in universities may indeed be turning to prayer. Or reaching for a stiff drink.

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